Category Archives: Birra

Crosses, Thanksgiving and Fasts

Cross shaped Amba at Gishen Mariam

In Ethiopia, October kicks off with big celebrations. This Sunday (1st October) is Meskerem 21, is one of the biggest Mariam days in the year, commonly called Gishen Mariam after a church in Wollo, not far from Dessie on a cross shaped Amba properly called Gishen Debre Kerbe which holds its annual saint’s day on this date.

There are reportedly documents at Gishen that state that Emperor Zara Yaqob (who reigned in the mid 15th century), bought a piece of the “True Cross’ on which Jesus was crucified and buried it at Gishen Debre Kerbe under the church of Egyziabher Ab (Literally God the Father). There are in fact four churches on Gishen Debre Kerbe: Egyziabher Ab, Gishen Mariam, Kidus Gabriel and Kidus Mikael (Kidus is Saint). Gishen Mariam is one of the biggest pilgrimages in Ethiopia with thousands of pilgrims making their way up the narrow mountain paths to celebrate this day at the end of the rainy season.

Celebrations in 1903 at Lake Hora

Sunday 1st of October is also the culmination of the Oromo festival of Ireeycha Birra, a thanksgiving ceremony most famously celebrated beside Lake Arsadi outside of Bishoftu some 50 km south east from Addis Ababa. This day is actually the climax and most important day of several weeks of celebration. Thousands of Oromo people descend on the town and lake from across the region.

The celebration marks the end of the rainy season and the Oromo people give thanks to God for his bounty and pray for peace and reconciliation among humans and with God. The festival is led by the elders or wise men known as haayyuu who lead the blessings by the lake and make speeches. Tragically last year there was a large loss of life at this festival.

Coptic Icon depicting Holy Family fleeing to Egypt

For those new to Ethiopia you may not be aware that the year is punctuated by fasts of varying length and importance. Each Wednesday and Friday is a fasting day, except for a month or so following Easter when people will have been fasting for 55 days in the run up to Easter. A fast implies that people eat one meal a day in the afternoon or early evening and follow a strictly vegan diet (although many do still each fish which used to be accepted but not so much these days).

On 6th October the Tsige Tsom (fast) starts and runs for 40 days through to 15th November Kusquam Mariam day and it marks the exile of the Holy Family when they fled their land and took refuge in Egypt to be away from King Herod and his slaughter of infants. It ends on the day that commemorates Kusquam, a village in upper Egypt where the holy family were said to have lived during their exile in Egypt. This fast is however considered optional and only clergy are required to fast, but never the less most establishments will serve vegan options throughout this fast.

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