I think it’s probably universal across time, place and culture that food is a central component of any special holiday. Probably you recognized that when you stepped on the scale recently after the past couple of weeks of holiday indulging. It’s no different in Ethiopia. I knew it was holiday time when Yaicob and Ermias walked down the hill from the market to CCC with an ox on Wednesday afternoon.
This past Thursday (Jan. 7) was the Christmas holiday here in Ethiopia. Ethiopians call it Genna. Because Ethiopia follows a sort of modified Julian calendar, like other Christian Orthodox countries around the world, Christmas lands on Jan. 7 of the more internationally recognized Gregorian calendar. I was able to spend several days in Soddo at the CCC Children’s Home this week. In Ethiopia, the special holiday food is always meat. Some celebrate the Christmas meal with a special chicken dish, called doro waht. Others, including the kids and staff at CCC, celebrated with a slab of raw beef, called kort or just teray siga (“raw meat”). In the southern regions such as Wolaita, this kort is eaten with a special spicy sauce called dahta.
But Christmas day at CCC is marked by more than just consumption of raw meat. The staff and kids organize some special activities and programs; this year, the kids took the leadership on organizing the celebration program.
It started on Wednesday. The kids had the day off from school, but they were still awoke early. Even before breakfast, they were sweeping and scrubbing their rooms to make sure everything was spotless for the holiday. After all the cleaning was complete, it was time for haircuts and styling. The older kids each received 10-20 birr (50 cents – a dollar) and they headed to town, the boys for a trim at the barber, the girls for styling or braiding at the salon. By afternoon, everyone had some fresh looking hair. Next came the decorating and organizing. During the week prior, the kids had collected a little money from each of the staff to purchase some decorations and candy for the holiday, so after lunch, some kids headed back to town to make some purchases, while others stayed back to practice their drama skits and their song performances, or to begin decorating their bedrooms. Several of the rooms organized a decorating contest to see which room would look the best for the holiday. This decorating involved paper streamers, cutout hearts and shapes, and hand-colored pictures on the walls, hanging from the ceiling, and posted on the windows.
By late afternoon Wednesday the kids were going around with a hat and having all the kids and staff draw names for a gift exchange. This was a new addition to the program this year and the kids were super excited about it. Everyone was whispering about who had whose name and what sort of gift each would arrange. Without any personal money they had to be creative with these gifts; this kept many occupied for the rest of the day.
Everyone was awake early again on Thursday morning for Christmas. Some were busy practicing for the afternoon program, some putting the finishing touches on gifts and decorations. A few had the idea to wrap their gifts, which spurred all the others to figure out how to arrange some wrapping. By mid-morning, most of the kids were dressed in some nice clean clothes and were off to church for the church Christmas program. The only kids who remained behind were those actively involved in the slaughter of the ox and the food preparations for lunch. The only hitch in the morning was when Ermias, in the process of the ox slaughter, sliced into his finger nearly to the bone and had to be run off to the clinic for stitches. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious and he was back to the ox within an hour.
By about 2 pm the meat was all prepared and each kid received a plate of either tibs (pieces of fried meat) or kort, laid out on a plate of injera, with a good helping of dahta on the side. Holiday meals are also special because, not unlike back in North America, the holidays are a great homecoming time. All the older kids who now live up in town in our transitional program come home to CCC for the holiday. There are lots of greetings and stories and the younger ones enjoy all the attention of these older ones. Even a few of the university students (Nebiyu, Asfaw and Girma) and former graduates (Tesfaun and Assegid) made an appearance. Nearly all the staff came in the afternoon for the program, many with their own kids, which further added to the big sense of extended family that is CCC. After everyone had enjoyed to their fill and the dishes were cleared, the cafeteria was quickly transformed for the afternoon program, MCed by Omodar and Frehiwot.
Some candy, biscuits and popcorn were passed around for the children, freshly roasted coffee for the adults. Balloons and streamers were on the wall, and music played on the radio. Omodar and Frehiwot opened the program with a short drama skit, followed by a holiday welcome speech by Adisu (in both Amharic and English… for my benefit, I suppose). Some of the girls (Konjit, Nani, Mitten, Eyayu, Meskerem and Aster) performed a song and dance routine, followed by another drama skit. Then Omodar and Frehiwot led a Christmas quiz. Several of the kids were brought up and asked questions about the Christmas story and awarded with candies for correct answers. Next were the games. First, one that involved a long string with a lollipop in the middle and one girl on either end with the string in her mouth. The first to draw the string all the way to the lollipop using only her mouth won the lollipop. Mekdas was victorious. Then a balloon popping game: two kids, each with a balloon tied to his ankle, struggled to pop the other’s balloon. Little Wendu and Abi were highly entertaining as they competed in this one. Lastly a blindfold game, where with a little cheating, Mamo was able to beat Titay to the hidden candy bar.
And then finally the gift exchange: one by one, each child or staff came up, received a gift and then gave a gift. Little bottles of perfume, hand-made cards, paper airplanes, bottle-top toys, pens, pencils, pictures, etc. were exchanged; of course, they were all meticulously wrapped (in paper, plastic, pillow cases, banana leaves, etc.). After opening gifts, enjoying some more popcorn (and candy and biscuits), the kids ran off to play (or lie down with indigestion after too much kort). It was a wonderful day and a great celebration; it was made that much more special because of the great initiative of the kids themselves to organize the program.
The kids will all return to school again on Tuesday. Titay and I returned back to Addis yesterday (Friday) and we too must begin back to school and work on Monday and Tuesday. As always, it was great to get down to Soddo and spend a few days with the kids at CCC. Especially at holiday time, it’s always one of my highlights. Titay clearly felt the same way. While driving back yesterday, after waking up from a nap in the backseat, she said, “Dad, when can we go to CCC and just stay for like a month?”
As they say at Christmas time here in Ethiopia, “Melkam Genna” and “Enkwan abero aderesen.”