In Ethiopia the new year starts on September 11th and not on January 1st. This is because Ethiopia uses the calendar of the Coptic Orthodox Church, also called Ge’ez calendar, similar to the Julian calendar (predecessor of the Gregorian calendar, adopted by most countries in the world after the Reformation of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582) which has 12 months of 30 days and 1 more month of 5 days (6 days in leap year). Therefore the Ethiopian calendar consists of 13 months, and it has 7 years and 8 months less than the Gregorian calendar. This explains some of the country’s tourist slogans: “Ethiopia, 13 months of sunshine” or “in Ethiopia you are eight years younger”.
The New Year holiday — in Amharic (official language of Ethiopia) it’s called “Enkutatash” or “Ri’se Awde Amet” in Ge’ez (ancient language still used in the Ethiopian Coptic Church, in which all the sacred books are written) — is celebrated on the first day of the month of Meskerem, which coincides with September 11th of the Gregorian calendar. The holiday moves to September 12th in leap years.
Meskerem is considered a month of transition from the old to the new year, when hopes, dreams, wishes and desires for the future are expressed. Coinciding with the end of the rainy season, the field is covered with yellow daisies and the beginning of the harvest incites celebration. Traditionally it is believed that these dates coincide with the end of the universal flood.
The New Year is celebrated with prayers, bonfires, flowers, songs, dances, gifts and traditional food. Men light bonfires to ward off bad luck and attract fortune in the coming year. The girls dress in traditional costume and give yellow daisies. Early in the morning, families go to church and then gather around a traditional meal of injera (flat bread, made with fermented teff flour) and wat (stew). In the cities the celebration is more modern; people exchange gifts and greeting cards in addition to partying.
Coffee ceremony is an integral part of the celebration. The ritual of coffee serving and drinking, which can last for hours, is an important social occasion offering reunion for relatives and friends and a chance to discuss community matters while enjoying excellent coffee. To be invited to a coffee ceremony in an Ethiopian family is a sign of great respect.
Enkutatatash means “gift of jewelry”. According to tradition, the celebration dates back to the time of the Queen of Sheba. When she returned to Ethiopia from her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem, she was received with great joy and given an abundance of jewels that filled the royal coffers.
In Ethiopia, the most important religious celebration takes place at the Kostete Yohannes Church in the Gondar region. For three days in a row you can enjoy the sounds of psalms, prayers and chants as well as watch colorful parades welcoming the New Year. There is also a big celebration at the Bagual Church on Mount Entoto near Addis Ababa.