WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12: Queen Sheba and the Virgin Mary both play an integral role in today’s New Year celebration, as Ethiopians —as well as Rastafarians with ties to the African nation—mark Enkutatash.
Never heard of this holiday? That seems to be changing. The Ethiopian African 2000 Millenium Group is working hard to make Enkutatash as well known in America as the Irish St. Patrick’s Day and the Chinese New Year. There are online greeting-card websites that offer free Enkutatash cards, even using the graceful Ethiopian script (shown above) to express best wishes.
Last weekend, the Washington Monument—with the help of big-time sponsors, such as Starbucks—housed traditional African food, reggae music and dancing. The area’s more than 200,000 Ethiopian Americans and others wrapped up the day with the lighting of torches to symbolize the “ushering in” of a New Year. The Washington Post reported.
ABRAHAMIC ROOTS IN ETHIOPIA
What do the Abrahamic faiths have to do with the Ethiopian New Year? A lot more than you might think! Traditionally, the festival marks the end of the Ethiopian rainy season. Given that Ethiopia is one of the longest-inhabited regions on planet Earth, those traditions related to the natural world go back a long, long way. But so do the nation’s deep Abrahamic roots and religious history, all woven through the holiday season. Here is some background …
JEWISH ROOTS: The Jewish minority in Ethiopia became world famous during the Israeli air lifts of Operation Moses and the later Operation Solomon that brought many Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
CHRISTIAN ROOTS: To this day, about two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christian. They proudly claim to have been among the first countries in the world to collectively adopt Christianity—as early as the 4th century. Many Ethiopians begin their New Year celebrations with a visit to church in traditional clothing. After the day’s liturgy, the faithful share a meal—usually of injera (flat bread) and wak (stew). (Get Ethiopian recipes at Food.com.)
Following the feast, girls gather flowers and travel door-to-door, singing New Year songs; boys sell paintings they have made that usually depict saints. Households place burning torches in front of their homes, ushering in the New Year, until it’s time to visit friends; adults drink traditional Ethiopian beers, while children spend the money they have earned.
MUSLIM ROOTS: Ethiopia has the distinction of protecting early Muslims in the 7th century—very early in Islamic history. The story of the noble King Negus Ashama ibn Abjar, who ruled in the region that is today Ethiopia, is included in the first volume of our Interfaith Heroes books by Daniel Buttry. While Islam was facing one of its first waves of persecution in Arabia, nearly 100 Muslim exiles sought protection under this famously compassionate king. Traditional stories tell of a long discussion that the king supervised to weigh the differences between Islam and Christianity—and the king finally ruled that the two faiths were similar and should co-exist peacefully. He extended protection to the exiles and this helped Islam to survive and thrive, even in what was then a predominantly Christian land.
QUEEN OF SHEBA & MARY, TOO
The word Enkutatash translates into “gift of jewels” in Amharic, which derives from the legend of Queen of Sheba’s return from a visit with King Solomon of Jerusalem. According to traditionally told stories, when the queen arrived home, she met with Ethiopian chiefs who showered her with jewels. As a result, singing, dancing and spring joy has enveloped the country on this day ever since. (Wikipedia has details.)
And Mary’s role in this? The basic calculation of the Ethiopian calendar, which falls between seven and eight years behind the Western Gregorian calendar, results from a different interpretation of the date of the Annunciation.
A LEAP YEAR
As 2012 is a Leap Year, Enkutatash falls on Sept. 12—instead of Sept. 11, its usual date.