The Ethiopian New Year (Enkutatash)
Posted by addisethiopia on September 7, 2014
By Bantalem Tadesse
Six events are observed every Ethiopian New Year, seven in each hundred year and eight in each thousand year. The Ethiopian calendar celebrates New Year on Meskerem first to commemorate the receding of the great storm during the time of Noah and beheading of Kidus Yohannes, (St. John the Baptist). Hence, the Ethiopian New Year is also known as Kidus Yohannes in memory of the saint and his sacrifice. All these symbolize the transition from the Old Testament to New Testament. The church also commemorate other monthly and annual holidays (Time Out, Volume 2, Issue13, September 6-12, 2002:9).
One of the monthly holidays observed on the same day is Lideta (Birth day of St. Mary). The other one is Mebacha (beginning of each Ethiopian month). The word ‘mebacha’ is driven from the Ge’ez word ‘ba’ate’, meaning, beginning (or beginning of each Ethiopian month). Therefore, the first day of each Ethiopian month is known by the name of Mebacha. Job is said to have been cured from his wounds on Meskerem first. The annual holiday of the Archangel Raguel and St Bartholomews are also observed on Meskerem first (Synaxarium, V.1, 1994E.C:2). Meskerem first is also the beginning of each Ethiopian year, Ethiopian Century once every hundred years, and Ethiopian Millennium once every thousand years.
The Ethiopian New Year also honors the seasonal transition from the heavy rainy season to the bright and sunny seasons. A typical New Year greeting that is often heard is “May He brings you safely from the year of Luke to the year of John…” Every believer passes through this time wishing for a safe transition to the next season. Hence, when Meskerem comes, it is the time of blissful happiness and relief. The safe transition from the rainy season to the breathtaking bright Meskerem is symbolic of the passage from an awe inspiring night into a beautiful morning. Thus, believers celebrate it with first Enkutatash and then Maskal holidays. This prior season lacks brightness, and is awe-inspiring and often frightening, with lightening and thunder accompanied by powerful rains for the length of the period. As a result, it was traditionally believed that death was on hand at that time, and so insecurities and fear ran rampant. The clergymen sing about the dawning of Meskerem because they consider the preceding rainy season to be darkness.
Within the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, many religious services accompany Enkutatash. The ecclesiastical procession comprised of liturgy, the showing of the New Years Calendar, and a veneration of St. John. Amongst other wishes, the prayers asked for the protection of the people and domestic animals of the country. It also asks that the harvest to be protected from insects and bad weather conditions.
Mass is conducted early in the morning if the festival falls on non fasting days and in the afternoon if it falls on fasting days (Wednesdays and Fridays). Other liturgical services such as the chanting, preaching, and the explanation of the New Year calendar are performed after the mass when the mass is conducted early in the morning and before the mass when the mass is conducted in the afternoon. After the chanting and preaching, the proto priest or the Aleka (head) of each church reads the calendar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which is called Bahere- Hassab. This points out the days of festivals and the beginning and end of the fasting days during that year.
Then, the same priest declares the replacement of the old year by the new one. As it is already mentioned, the most commonly used cycle to which the clergy and Ethiopian Christians follow is the four-year cycle. The declaration of the clergy includes, therefore, the transfer from the year of the evangelist of the old year to the year of the evangelist of the New Year. For instance, if the transfer is from the year of Mark to the year of Luke, the declaration says ‘ Marekos teshare Lukas negese’ meaning Mark is replaced by Luke … This declaration is repeated three times in the church by the leading priest and other members of the clergy repeat it after each step of the leading priest.
Both Enkutatash and Maskal fall at the end of the rainy season so that traditional songs that reflect the season are common at the celebrations of both Enkutatash and Maskal. The following is a small excerpt from the traditional New Year and Maskal songs: “Eyoha mebratie/Hoye/Leneqati/Eyoha abebaye/Hoye Emotaalhu biye sibaba/ Essey Maskal teba…” Literally, it means, “Let me rejoice with the bright light/ [The dark night] replaced by dawn/ Let me rejoice with flowers, /for Meskerem has dawned with the Maskal Festival, /and I have been shocked by fear of death/ but now rejoice for Meskerem has dawned.”
Both Enkutatash and Maskal also fall with the mass blooming of golden yellow Maskal daisies known as ‘adey ababa’. At the celebrations of Enkutatash and Maskal, children can be heard singing interesting traditional seasonal songs. “Eyoha abebaye / Meskerem tebaye/ Meskerem siteba adey sifeneda/ Enkuan sew zemedum yieteykal bada….” roughly translated as “The bright season of September with the fields decorated with blooming flowers encourage people to visit not only kinsmen but also non kinsmen friends…” These words announce the coming of the bright Ethiopian month with its colorful flowers. The song also encourages everybody to pay a visit to his or her relatives, because the now-receding rivers make it easier for people to travel from place to place.
The Ethiopian new year is also known as Enkutatash. Etymologists relate Enkutatash to the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon of Israel. According to this interpretation, the Queen offered gold and other sumptuous gifts to the King upon her visit to Jerusalem. In return, the king rewarded her with plenty of enku (jewels). When she returned to her country, the people were believed to have celebrated her homecoming- especially the children who were carrying bunches of flowers and singing the phrase “Enquletatash” meaning King Solomon gave you the gems to help you to cover the costs of your trip.
Therefore, the festival’s name is believed to have been driven from the Amharic words “enku”, meaning “jewel”, and “latatash”, which suggests the covering of one’s expenses. In another interpretation, the children said to have a song “Enqu letatesh”, which means King Solomon gave you enqu (jewels), and letatesh (meaning for your fingers). The festival’s name is believed to have been driven from the Amharic phrase of Enqu Letatish. Over time, the Amharic letter ‘ለ‘ (the prefix le-) was dropped and the name was corrupted in to “Enqutatash”. The Enkutatash tradition wherein children give gifts of flowers is a proactive stemming from the Queen Sheba’s homecoming when the children gave her with bouquets (Time Out, Volume 2, Issue13, September 6-12, 2002:9).
While going in the villages, singing the traditional Enqutatash song, children, particularly in the country side, carry gifts of bunches of flower. According to the above interpretation, this tradition is thought to be proactive stemming from the Queen Sheba’s homecoming from Israel after her visit to King Solomon of Israel. It represents the gifts children presented her. In the towns, due to lack of flowers, children go with the pictures of flowers, angels, saints and Ethiopian heroes. In return, children are given or at least promised new clothes or a domestic animal (in the country side) and given coins and slices of home made bread (in the towns).
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church does not accept this interpretation. The Amharic language did not develop at that time and hence ‘Enkutatash’ could not possibly be derived from the Amharic terms “Enqu legetish”, or “Enqu letatish”. Instead, the Church suggests that the flower gifts given at ‘Enkutatash’ represent the olive branch or kietema(wet green grass) that Noah’s dove brought to him to show the receding of the flood waters (as described in Genesis 8: 11-13).
Even though every Orthodox Church celebrates the holiday of ‘Enqutatash’ (Ethiopian New Year), liturgically this festival is observed with special occasions in the churches dedicated to Kidus Yohannes (St. John the Baptist) in commemoration of his beheading. This festival is also celebrated with special emphasis at the Entoto Raguel Church at the top of Entoto Mountain, north of Addis Ababa. It is believed that God authorized the Angel on this day to observe every activity undertaken by God.
GLORY TO GOD AMEN