- They did not change the date. We did.
Today across Orthodox traditions worldwide, Christians are celebrating Christmas –including Ethiopians. These churches continue to follow the Julian calendar, while the rest of us out west switched to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century.1
- It is not a celebration of the Epiphany.
While the 12 days of Christmas, for those of us on the Gregorian schedule, culminated yesterday with the arrival of the wise men, the timing is coincidental. Ethiopians will celebrate the Epiphany, called Timket, in another 12 days. (And due to an oddity with leap year, it will be on January 20 in 2016).2
- Frankincense is in the air.
Skip the chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and inhale the sweet perfumes of frankincense instead. It is burning quietly in many homes today, while families roast coffee beans and snack on popcorn.
Not only is frankincense plentiful in Ethiopia, but the horn of Africa is one of the only places in the world where it can be found.3 Legends vary on whether there were three wise men or merely three gifts, but many attribute at least one of the pilgrims—the one later coined Balthasar—as traveling from Ethiopia.4
- Jesus is the reason for the season.
Gift-giving is a modest exchange, without the confusion of Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, or Father Christmas. Want to treat your Ethiopian host to a fine gift? Present them with a freshly slaughtered chicken or lamb.
- There is no ham on the Christmas dinner table.
Like those who keep kosher, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians respect the Old Testament rules against consuming unclean animals, including pork.5 My personal interpretation for this splinter from other Christian traditions is because Ethiopians were Jewish before they were Christian (see my earlier article on the Queen of Sheba) that they interpret Paul’s letters to gentiles in a different manner.
* My thin thesis ends here, however, although I welcome my friends and theological scholars who are reading this to elaborate in the comments.
- Cutting a chicken into 12 pieces symbolizes the 12 apostles.
A hearty chicken stew called Doro Wot is the traditional Christmas feast. It is created from a mound of diced onions, a gob of clarified butter, and a heap of berbere spice, which simmers together on the stove for hours together with a carefully carved chicken to symbolize the 12 apostles. The stew is accompanied by 12 hard-boiled eggs—which somehow represents eternity.6
- Ethiopians imbibe homemade honey-wine, called tej.
Grape-growing is a bit finicky in the horn of Africa, so it is much more common to brew up a batch of wine from honey. Prohibition never existed here.
- All of this feasting had been preceded by a 40-day fast.
Just as Roman Catholics make sacrifices during Lent, including abstaining from meat on certain days, those strictly following the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition abstain from both meat and dairy in the 40 days before the holiday.
* It is hard to accomplish this in the States, with Thanksgiving and “the other” Christmas falling during the fasting period. I believe in best efforts!
- We all share the tradition of celebrating with family, and with mass.
No matter the date, and no matter the details, Christmas is a day to share with friends and family in celebration of the birth of Jesus.
- Melkam Gena!
That is how we say, “Merry Christmas,” in Amharic!
 Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Root, “The First Black Man to see baby Jesus: 100 Amazing Facts about the Negro: What do we really know about Balthasar’s origins” 22 Dec 2014.