The Holidays Part Two: New Years and the Two Christmases

by Scott McAllister

Hanukkah came and went, and I’d be lying if I said that business with the beer towers didn’t get at me still. But enough of that. I’m here now to tell y’all about News Years and the two, yes two, Christmases we got to celebrate here in Ethiopia.

I may or may not have explained the Ethiopian calendar in previous posts. I don’t think I did, so here’s a quick backdrop.

Way back when, around 46 BC, Julius Caesar introduced this calendar – the Julian calendar –and Western peoples the world over lived and died by it until 1582, when Pope Gregory instituted this other calendar – the Gregorian calendar – which we use to this day. The Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia, however, always have and still do subscribe to the Julian calendar. Why? I’m not exactly sure. Something to do with their orthodoxy. Google it, I guess. But what I do know is that because of the mathematical discrepancies between the two calendar systems the year is 2005 here in Ethiopia. There are also thirteen, not twelve, months. Thirteen months of sunshine, as they like to say. But what I want you to take away from this little history lesson is that, because of their unique calendar, Ethiopia’s Christmas, as well as their New Year and all other holidays for that matter, fall on days different from our own.

Our Christmas came first, because we’re better.

Joking…

But it really did come first. Ethiopian Christmas falls on January, 7th.

There’s a historical town called Axum that’s a six hour bus ride northeast of Mek’ele. Two other PCVs from our group were placed there, and we promised them some time back that we’d do Christmas with them.

So we did.

Now Axum isn’t your run of the mill Ethiopian town. It was once the capital of the Axumite kingdom, which flourished between the 1st and 6th centuries AD. Two thousand year old obelisks still stand as a testament to the power this erstwhile empire once had. But here’s the kicker:  the Ark of the Covenant – you know, that religious artifact from that Indian Jones movie that shoots lightning and melts the faces off Nazis – that thing, along with the Ten Commandments Moses supposedly sealed within, is said to reside in this ancient church of Axum.

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Saying that Axum is a six hour bus ride northeast of Mek’ele doesn’t quite capture the quintessence of that harrowing journey.

Imagine the Grand Canyon, not quite as deep, but spread out over six driving-hours worth of gully-furrowed badlands. Now imagine a lone road – a road paved by Ethiopians under the guidance of Chinese ex-cons and other miscellaneous riffraff – winding its way through this craggy scrubland. It’s a two-lane road so tortuous it redefines serpentine. Hairpin turns; ten percent grade inclines and declivities; no guardrails to keep you from flying off the sheer cliff walls; no lane lines to mark whose side of the road is whose: only you and the decades old, communist-era, rust heap of a bus you’re interred in barreling headlong down the road.

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Jessi, of course, was a nervous wreck for the majority of the ride. I, on the other hand, chose not to be so fixated on the macabre. I sunk into what little bit of a seat I had, looked out the window, and surrendered to the hypnotizing beauty and grandeur of the fast fleeting countryside.

I saw mountains drink from the clear waters of a cloudless cerulean sky, their faraway summits wavy and mirage-like in the ripples of a midday heat. I saw ancient arroyos, their faces time-scarred by streaks of sepia, sienna, puce and umber, crisscross and grow in size until they emptied into the maws of the larger canyons. Heaps of windrow raked up by farmers sat atop these little raised plateaus that spotted the rolling sea of spall and boulder like islands. The farmers’ huts, being the same tawny color as their desert surroundings, were a challenge to spot, so I felt rewarded when I did. Through it all I couldn’t help wishing I was a gifted painter, that way I could capture the brindled chiaroscuro that is northern Ethiopia, and maybe make a buck in the process.

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And then I started to smell something awful. I turn away from the window to see the two Ethiopians sitting next to me puking into plastic bags. I look around and realize they’re not alone. One in five are retching up their injera breakfast, and now I’m clamoring to crack open that window I was just dreamily gazing out.

The puking marathon lasted for the remainder of the ride. Sitting in the back of a long, wobbly-wheeled bus like we were, the g-force of those hairpin turns was amped up, just like when you sit in the last row of a roller coaster. Luckily, I did manage to get that window open, otherwise I might have joined them.

Finally,after the most vertiginous ride of our lives, we arrived in Axum. Well, sort of. It was only after missing the bust stop and having to walk clear across town that we met up with our friends. There we learned that our very own Peace Corps Ethiopia country director would be in Axum that night with his wife and kid for their Christmas break. We’d be staying at the same hotel actually;and we were told that they had already called ahead to see if we’d be interested in a dinner date. Were we interested? Hells yes! This was huge because this country director of ours is a government official way up high in the bureaucratic pecking order. He’s been around the world on diplomatic missions, was once the ambassador to Togo, lived and worked in Iraq during the beginning of the war, has dined with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, and he probably has the president, or at least Hillary Clinton, on speed dial. This is the guy we’ll be counting on for a letter of recommendation once we successfully complete our service. Being able to spend some face time with him was a godsend.

We also learned that our friend was playing host to a couch surfing American that was taking a vacation from his job as a PE teacher in Alexandria, Egypt. Would it be cool if he tagged alone? Once again, hells yes.

Together we went and saw the sites.

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The obelisks I’ve already mentioned. The picture above, however, is of Sheba’s palace, or at least what remains of it. Legend has it that this Sheba lady was Queen of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) way back when during the reign of the Old Testament’s King Solomon. The Bible makes mention of her visiting King Solomon in Jerusalem, and, as such, the spread of Judeo-Christian culture throughout the horn of Africa is attributed to her.

But you can Wikipedia all this in your free time if you want any more of a history lesson.

Having left the palace, and feeling thoroughly tuckered out from all the trudging around in the sun, we proceeded toget busy with the yuletide festivities. As per usual, we went to a bar to get some beer and delicious (cheap) Ethiopian food.

Several hours later we met up for that dinner. We had some good conversations, got to voice some of our frustrations from working in the education sector, and learned a great deal about eachother.

The next day, Christmas, saw us opening presents at our friend’s place. We did it white elephant style. I ended up with this weird birthday candle thing shaped like a flower, and Jessi ended up with a bunch of chocolate. Mmmmmm.

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Once the gifts were opened we devoured some holiday candy that one of the other volunteers had sent to them in a care package. Then there was the usual midday visit to the bar, followed by some lunch, and, finally, a late-night viewing of the much acclaimed A Muppets’ Christmas Carol.

New Year fell between our Christmas and the Ethiopian one. Most of the Tigray volunteers traveled into Mek’ele for it, and I did my best to recruit as many of the Ethiopians I had befriended in Mek’ele. Our party was upwards of thirty strong, and we had folks representing countries like England, Germany, Israel, Ethiopia and, of course, America.

The venue was a bar with an owner that we Mek’ele volunteers have come to befriend. He’s been a genuinely nice guy, so long as you can forgive the sometimes creepy passes he makes at the single women in our group. One of his more recent text messages sent to a female volunteer: ‘Your beauty is like a rose, buy I hope you don’t prick me.’ Damn weird, right? Anywho, he had agreed to keep the bar open late for us and to tune all the TVs to the BBC or CNN so we could see the New Year coverage. What unfolded was a party to remember.

There was plenty of drinking, so much Western-style dancing that it was making Ethiopian heads spin, fireworks bought from a sketchball that was trying to sell something else first, and even a fire dance, compliments of this girl Hannah from the new group of health sector PCVs.

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The holiday season came to a close with Ethiopian Christmas. Like us, they put up Christmas trees and, if they’re wealthy/westernized enough, they’ll even exchange gifts (although this practice may be isolated to Mek’ele and other large cities).

Kinfe was so stoked to have us over that day that he contracted a car and driver to pick us up from our house that Christmas morning; that way, he said, we could avoid the headache that is public transportation on a holiday. For us – and only us, since his family already ate – he (or rather his wife) prepared a sumptuous lunch consisting of six meat courses, loads of injera, a bunch of bananas, cookies, cream-filled crackers, soft drinks and, of course, copious amounts of traditional black coffee. And then there was the su’a, which is a homebrew that tastes more like fizzy prune juice than the beer they claim it to be.

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From there we went on to round two:  dinner at Jessi’s counterpart’s house. Once again, we were fed more food than we could ever possibly hope to eat. The su’a was exchanged for red wine, and, at the behest of Jessi’s counterpart, we were sure to mix coca cola in with it.

The culture of hospitality in Ethiopia, or at least in Tigray, is a funny thing. It revolves around the host’s unbridled generosity and the guest’s feigned obliviousness of being a guest entitled to such hospitality. The host will not rest until they are sure of your satisfaction. They hover around, eying your progress throughout the meal, and attempt to preempt your every need by swooping in with what they think you’re in need of before you have to ask. If you’re the guest, you’re supposed to play coy:  you say no thanks, I’ve had enough; you say you’re full, satisfied, that you couldn’t possibly eat any more; you say that you really must be shoving off, that you don’t want to intrude any longer in their household.

All of this is a playacting, of course, but it functions like a game, an inside joke between the host and guest. It’s the culture, but it’s their culture, and they sometimes forget that when I say I’m full I really am full. As a result, Jessi and I have developed a habit of saying we’re full way before we actually are. Sometimes it works. Sometimes…

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