Festivals in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is home to some of the most spectacular Christian festivals in the world.

Why experience a festival in Ethiopia

As one of the first countries in the world to convert to Christianity and a place containing important religious artefacts, such as the monolithic churches of Lalibela, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ethiopia’s major festivals revolve around significant Orthodox Christian dates. However, Ethiopia still adheres to the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian one, which means that they usually celebrate these events on different dates to the western world. They are celebrations that exude spirituality, colour and excitement, and deliciously large feasts often play a central role. Attending a festival here truly is the best way to appreciate the intriguing culture and variety that Ethiopia offers amid its stunning scenery.

Timkat Festival (Epiphany)

When: 19th/20th January
Green, yellow, and red - the colours of the Ethiopian flag - paint the streets of this Christian country during their largest festival of the year: Timkat. As the Ethiopian celebration of Epiphany, it is an incredibly important and spiritual occasion for the people who live here. Participants and onlookers typically wear traditional white clothes, but the lavish and ornate umbrellas that the priests carry to protect them from the sun add another burst of colour amongst a sea of white. At the centre of all the events are the tabots, which are replicas of the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it is believed that a part of the original Ark of the Covenant can be found in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Axum. Although being close to the tabots is considered to be a religious blessing, as it is synonymous with being closer to God, it is kept covered throughout as it is thought to be too sacred to actually look upon. During the initial procession, the senior priests wear these icons on top of their head and carry them down to the river. A mass baptism begins here as young and old are sprinkled with blessed water, and many even jump into the river for a fully submersive experience. Feel free to jump in, or if you want to get involved in the festivities but stay dry, then trying some of the local beer, tela, afterwards can be a good solution. The remainder of the festival continues in a similarly lively manner, with traditional dances, singing and feasting. Our tour will allow you to experience this bright and joyous event in the ancient town of Axum, once the centre of the Aksumite Empire, for a taste of history alongside the contemporary cultural experience. 

Fasika Festival (Easter)

When: April/May
You won’t find any magical egg-hiding bunnies at this Easter celebration, but you will be able to experience a fantastic cultural display of Ethiopia’s strong Christian beliefs. Although Timkat is the biggest festival, Fasika is the most important celebration for Ethiopians because it is the last major religious festival of the year. It signifies the end of a long 55 days of fasting for Lent, in which time no meat or animal products are eaten. On the eve of Easter, many people attend the church service which continues through the night until the early hours of the morning. A colourful and cheerful ceremony fills the busy candle-lit church, with locals completing their final rituals as the night is filled with the steady beat from the traditional leather drums. The week before, known as “Mamat”, is a very serious and mournful occasion where Ethiopians remember the suffering of Jesus, making the upbeat Easter ceremony and remembrance of life a joyous contrast. Easter itself brings families and friends together to celebrate the occasion with a feast and the giving of gifts, such as lambs, goats, loaves of bread (“Difo”), and homemade liquor (“Areke”).

Meskel Festival
(Finding the True Cross)

When: September
According to legend, in the 4th century, St Helena (the mother of Roman emperor, Constantine) discovered the cross that Jesus had been crucified on; a part of which is claimed to currently reside within the Ethiopian Church. It is this event that is celebrated during the Meskel festival, and has been for over 1600 years. The traditional, colourful umbrellas appear again, along with a parade of drums and gilded crosses to make this a truly extravagant celebration. The main event is the lighting of a large central bonfire (demera) at dusk, the top of which is decorated by the sunny yellow Meskel flowers that give this festival its name due to their mass blooming at this time. The bonfire is to symbolise how Helena managed to discover the cross; having been told to light a fire to assist her search, the smoke then pointed to where she could find the buried cross. As participants circle the demera, they sing Meskel songs and throw burning torches onto the pyre to light it; stand and watch as the flames and smoke reach towards the heavens. Once the fire has died down, the locals return to the demera to use its ashes to draw the sign of the cross on their foreheads. After the exciting activities have concluded, there is still plenty of feasting and drinking to be done.

Genna Festival (Christmas)

When: 7th January
If you ever wish Christmas would last just a bit longer, then join Travel The Unknown as we head to Addis Ababa for their celebration of Christmas at the Genna festival in January. Forget thoughts of a white Christmas though, as January is during Ethiopia’s summer season, so you’ll be celebrating the event in a lovely, warm climate. The origin of the name stems from two sources; the first is the word “Gennana” which translates to “imminent”, referencing the coming of the Lord; the second is from a hockey-like game called “Yegena Chewata” and is played by the men and boys in rural areas during the festivities. And if that isn’t exciting enough, there is typically folk dancing and horse racing, providing you with a variety of entertainment while you sip on a glass of traditional honey wine, or “tej”. Of course, religion plays a large role in these festivities, most notably so at the early morning mass service which culminates with the tabot circling the congregation in an internal procession. From here, families return home to enjoy a large feast; however, instead of the traditional turkey we gravitate towards in the UK, Ethiopians prefer to eat Doro Wat, which is a spicy chicken stew, accompanied with a special sourdough flatbread called injera. 

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Festivals of Ethiopia

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Experience Ethiopia's Genna and Timkat Festivals

£3,795 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
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£3,395 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
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£5,395 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
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