Ethiopia is known for its rich history and culture, which is reflected in its many festivals.
There are a number of different festivals that take place throughout the year, and they offer visitors a chance to see Ethiopia’s vibrant culture firsthand.
Ethiopian New Year, or Enkutatash, is one of the most popular festivals in Ethiopia. New Year is celebrated on 11 September and marks the start of the Ethiopian calendar. Enkutatash is a time of feast and celebration and is the ideal time to visit Ethiopia. The thirteenth month of sunshine in Ethiopia, five or six extra days at the end of the year is a week of preparations for Ethiopians to celebrate the Enkutatash. Ethiopians celebrate New Year according to the Julian calendar which falls on the 11 September or on the 12th during a leap year.
The Ethiopian New Year heralds the end of the long rainy season and the skies are bright and the days are sunny. The countryside turns into a bright yellow that is assisted by the yellow daisies (Adey Abeba) that covers the rural areas of Ethiopia during this time of the year.
The festival is celebrated with special songs dedicated by girls dressed in their traditional dress who hand out flowers collected from the fields to every household. In return, the girls often receive small gifts usually in the form of money. On the eve of the New Year, Ethiopian boys gather to sing songs called Hoya Hoye, and they move from house to house also receiving gifts.
The celebration of the Ethiopian New Year is believed to have originated in the time of the Queen of Sheba after her return from her visit to King Solomon. When she returned to Ethiopia, the queen was welcomed by her chiefs with precious jewels. Enkutatash has been celebrated since those far-off times. The lighting of bonfires on the eve of the New Year forms part of the celebrations. Ethiopian males light a bonfire from tree branches and leave to bid farewell to the previous year and welcome the New Year.
Not very well-known outside Ethiopia, Timket remains one of the most spectacular religious festivals in the world. Unique to Ethiopia, the orthodox Christian festival of Epiphany is celebrated on 19 January or on 20 January during leap years. Timket means baptism and celebrates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Ethiopians hold mass baptisms at different locations around the country including Lalibela, Gondar, and Addis Ababa.
Ethiopians usually wear traditional white clothes during the festival and gather at a waterfront at dawn to watch the water be blessed and sprinkled with water by the priest. In some cases, the worshippers may submerge themselves in it. Timket is an aesthetically beautiful and spiritual event that is a must to see and experience.
Timket is a public and private affair with a community gathering and the expression of spiritual commitment. The festival is also a rite of passage for young Ethiopian men on the road to the priesthood and is a very private spiritual path after a trainee priest has learned the scriptures by heart. They have had to beg for food and have learned to accept charity in their spiritual development. This is the climax of their journey when they are baptized into the Ethiopian Orthodox church.
The Meskel festival is an annual Christian national holiday celebrated by the orthodox churches in Ethiopia that commemorates the discovery of the True Cross that Jesus was crucified. The word “Meskel” is from the Ge’ez language that translates to “cross” and the festival is basically a celebration of the cross. The festival is held at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa and attracts numerous religious, and civil leaders, public figures, and Christians. The discovery of the revered relic goes back to the fourth (4th) century when the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Queen Helena received divine guidance about the Cross’s location.
According to legend, Queen Helena dreamt that she was told to make a bonfire from which the smoke would show her the location where the True Cross of Jesus was buried. After doing as instructed, the returning bonfire smoke indicated the exact position where the Cross had been buried heralding the annual celebration of the discovery.
The festival celebration begins with the burning of a large bonfire called Demera by a large procession of Christians at Meskel square which is named in honor of the festival. This Demera-procession usually starts on the eve of the event or sometimes on the morning of the celebration. In Addis Ababa, the firewood is decorated with the Meskel flower and then set
alight in accordance with the history surrounding the festival.
Meskel flowers are yellow daisies that coincidentally bloom at the time of the celebration. These daisies are usually tied to the top of branches and bundled together into the Demera, which is set alight by the procession of people on the eve of the festival. The participants encircle the bonfire and sing special Meskel songs while the fire burns to ashes. Meskel festival usually starts in the afternoon and ends after sunset accompanied by applicable merriment and prayers.
The Irecha festival is a holiday celebrated by the Oromo Community on the second Sunday of September that marks the end of the rainy season. The holiday is celebrated with feasting and singing, and people usually wear traditional Ethiopian clothing. Irecha is mainly a thanksgiving festival that celebrates the end of the winter and monsoon months in the Oromia region in the south-central area of Ethiopia. During the preceding months, there is cold weather with heavy rains that result in increased diseases like Malaria making it difficult to visit family and friends.
When the harvest begins, it is marked by this festival of thanks by the locals. The celebration itself commemorates the arrival of Birra, the name for spring in the region, and for the blessings received over the past year.
Locals dress in traditional costumes and observe Irecha with dancing, singing, and family gatherings. The main part of the celebration takes place at the lakes around the Oromia region where cut grass and flowers are placed in the water to give thanks to Waaqa the local name for God for the good fortune and prosperity for the coming year.
Irecha is celebrated all over Oromia but the biggest single celebration takes place in Bishoftu approximately 44 kilometers outside Addis Ababa which has also recently played host to the major celebration after 150 years. The festival takes place in October during one of the best times to visit Ethiopia due to the conducive weather conditions as the weather is dryer than the monsoon months preceding. The average temperature is 75ºF during the day and at night not
less than 50ºF.