'melkam Gena!': Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

'Melkam Gena!': Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:22:18
I'm Rebecca Sheir.

MR. ROB SACHS

13:22:19
And I'm Rob Sachs. And welcome back to "Metro Connection," where this week we're celebrating the DMV as a global region. And with that, we'd like to wish those in the Ethiopian Orthodox community a Merry Christmas.

SHEIR

13:22:31
Or Melkam Gena, perhaps we should say. And while many people in the world celebrate Christmas on December 25th, Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th.

MS. AMARETCH TADEME

13:22:42
I used to think we had January 7th because we did not hear about Jesus being born because of the location and what have you. I really thought it's because we heard it late.

SHEIR

13:22:53
This is Amaretch Tademe.

TADEME

13:22:55
People call me Amy Amarue (sp?).

SHEIR

13:22:56
For the story, we'll call her Amy.

TADEME

13:22:58
Anything goes.

SHEIR

13:22:59
And Amy is one of an estimated 200,000 Ethiopian immigrants in the D.C. area.

TADEME

13:23:04
I was 17 when I came here and I've been here for about 40 years.

SHEIR

13:23:09
Amy says when she was a child, her family observed Christmas in both December and January.

TADEME

13:23:14
My mom was raised with Europeans so she had the Christmas tree and so we celebrated European Christmas and then Ethiopian Christmas.

SHEIR

13:23:23
But as a teenager, Amy finally learned the reason behind the two different dates. See, the Ethiopian Orthodox church, like, say, the Eastern Orthodox church, uses the ancient Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, that's the one Pope Gregory the XIII introduced in the 1580s.

TADEME

13:23:41
So it all changed by the Roman church. So that was interesting. At least it wasn't because we were late to hear it, that Jesus was born. (laugh)

SHEIR

13:23:51
As Amy explains, just like the December Christmas, Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas also commemorates Jesus' birth by way of the Garden of Eden.

TADEME

13:23:59
Adam and Eve ate the fruit and they knew right away that they did something very terrible, wrong, because they start seeing each other as they are and, you know, they had to cover themselves and stuff.

SHEIR

13:24:08
So they were thrown out of paradise and the story goes, they started fasting and praying for help.

TADEME

13:24:14
And then God came and said, okay, after five and a half days, I'll be born from one of your children and I'll save you.

SHEIR

13:24:23
I, meaning, Jesus Christ. But here's the thing.

TADEME

13:24:25
In God's year, one day is a thousand years. So five and a half days became 5,500. So from that moment on, we pray he will be born and save us.

SHEIR

13:24:37
And in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, that praying is accompanied by a kind of fasting, restricting your diet for the 40 days leading up to Christmas.

TADEME

13:24:45
During the fasting time, it's vegan. No dairy, no nothing.

SHEIR

13:24:49
Then on Christmas Eve, you refrain from consuming all food and drink. And...

SHEIR

13:24:54
...you go to church.

SHEIR

13:24:59
Amy is one of 550 members of the Debre Genet Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church in Temple Hills, Md.

MR. YOHANNES TAKLU

13:25:06
There's a special prayer for a couple of hours and then people go take a little rest and then come back around midnight.

SHEIR

13:25:13
And when they come back, says Yohannes Taklu, who immigrated from Ethiopia in 1960, they stay at church until 3:00 a.m.

TAKLU

13:25:21
And so the whole night we are here.

SHEIR

13:25:23
Reading and praying and chanting.

TAKLU

13:25:26
That's called a Mahlet. And there are special literature and special church music that's celebrated during that evening.

SHEIR

13:25:34
Like the long hymn or wherap (sp?) announcing Christ's long awaited birth. Truly, the lyrics say, truly his birth is amazing.

TAKLU

13:25:44
It starts very slowly and then after the birth, you know, the tempo picks up and we sing with joy and rapture.

SHEIR

13:26:02
Then when the clock strikes 3:00, everyone heads home and rests up for the Christmas Day festivities, like dancing, feasting and playing. Memhir Zebene Lemma, he is the head priest you heard preaching earlier, and he says the day is supposed to be about family and spiritualism.

MR. MEMHIR ZEBENE LEMMA

13:26:17
The main thing is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, you know. Not gifts, you know.

SHEIR

13:26:24
But he says that's starting to change for Ethiopians here in the U.S.

LEMMA

13:26:27
Here, you know, sometimes it's commercial, you know. But now in big cities also in Ethiopia, this custom is transferred. People do exchange gifts.

SHEIR

13:26:38
Nevertheless, church member Yohannes Taklu says, after half a century away from his home country, he's teaching his children and grandchildren the old ways.

TAKLU

13:26:47
I grew up here, so I had the American tradition, but coming back to my culture and I am seeing it's very, very religious. It's also a time of joy because we think our savior was born on this day.

SHEIR

13:27:02
As for Amy Tademe, she admits she still celebrates the December Christmas with her husband and children.

TADEME

13:27:07
We open the gifts and stuff Christmas Eve, Christmas Day.

SHEIR

13:27:11
But as Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas approaches...

TADEME

13:27:13
It's funny because we transfer to become Ethiopians all of a sudden. (laugh)

SHEIR

13:27:18
And she says her kids seem to embrace the old traditions.

TADEME

13:27:21
I truly think they have it in their heart, that it's part of their culture.

SHEIR

13:27:26
And she hopes it'll stay in their heart for many Januarys to come. To see photos of prayer services at the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Temple Hills, Md. and to try your hand at some traditional dishes served on Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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