September is a wonderful time in Ethiopia and particularly the Ethiopian month of Meskerem that runs from 11th or 12th September to 10th October marking the beginning of the Ethiopian year. The countryside is lit up with the masses of bright yellow Meskel daisies and more sunshine flickering through the rain clouds, and it brings with it all the promise of the New Year.
Enkutatash is the name for the Ethiopian New Year, and means “gift of jewels” in the Amharic language. The story goes back almost 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba of ancient Ethiopia and Yemen who was returning from a trip to visit King Solomon of Israel in Jerusalem, as mentioned in the Bible in I Kings 10 and II Chronicles 9. She had gifted Solomon with 120 talents of gold (4.5 tons) as well as a large amount of unique spices and jewels. When the Queen returned to Ethiopia her chiefs welcomed her with enku or jewels to replenish her treasury.
Enkutatash is the first day of the New Year in Ethiopia. It occurs on Meskerem 1 on the Ethiopian calendar, which is 11 September (or, during a leap year, 12 September) according to the Gregorian calendar. Enkutatash is an important festival for the Ethiopians as it also symbolizes the advent of good harvest weather. After months of torrential pour, the month of September sees clear skies and fresh, clear, beautiful atmosphere. The highlands all teeming with flowers and the land looks like it is made of clear gold as the Meskel daisies bear flowers on the season.
The country still follows the Orthodox Julian calendar which consists of an equal division of the twelve months in to 30 days each and the creation of a 13th month known as Pagume. For instance, the current year 2009 ends with that Ethiopian peculiarity, the 13th month or Pagume. It is generally 5 days long, but on leap years it is 6 days. It works as a fill in with all other months being 30 days and 12 x 30 being 360, so it adds up the year to 365 days. By a calculation the Ethiopian calendar is currently seven years and eight months behind the Gregorian calendar which is widely followed throughout the world.
So what are the celebrations for New Year? It is of course not only a national holiday but a feast day and families will celebrate the New Year together on the 11th or 12th. On the New Year’s Eve, torches are made out of dry leaves and wood, and lit alight in front of the houses. This lighting of the torches is then accompanied by the singing of songs by the young and old.
The celebration of the New Year is mainly secular with the day beginning with family meal of injera and wat. Families visit friends and adults drink Ethiopian beer called ‘Tella’ or another Ethiopian drink called ‘Tej’. Later in the day, young girls donning new clothes, gather daisies and present friends with a bouquet, signing New Year’s song. Young children will receive small gifts of money or bread after the girls gather flowers and sing and boys paint pictures of saints.
The girls in Ethiopia on this occasion go singing New Year’s songs from door to door and receive money for it. Much like the tradition of Christmas choirs and carol singing children, the boys of Ethiopia on the other hand sell pictures that have been drawn by them. Also as the elder sit together and discuss about things that concern them like, the hopes for New Year, the children roam around freely and try to spend the money that they managed to earn on the occasion.
Embracing the modern spirit, the city dwellers notably in the capital city Addis Ababa have adopted the more Western way of sending out greeting cards etc. instead of the traditional bunches of flowers that have been a part of the Ethiopian customs for ages.
The New Year is one of the main warmly celebrated holidays in the country. All people from different religious and cultural backgrounds celebrate the holiday together. The atmosphere in the cities, towns and country side embrace the positive spirit created by the holiday.
Happy New Year, 2010. Ethiopia!
Written by Nebeyou Ambachew.