Ethiopian New Year: Kidus Yohannes

September 14, 2016
                                                                                                               Kassa Nigus & Tsegeye  Girma
Ethiopia ushers in its new year on September 11, i.e., on the first day of the Ethiopian month of Meskerem. Although most calendars and public facilities in Ethiopia carry both Ethiopian and Gregorian dates, it’s worth acquainting oneself with Ethiopian dates, as they are still in common use.

Each year in the Ethiopian calendar is named after one of the four Evangelists: St. Matthew, St. Mark, St. Luke and St. John. This is done to remember and honor the role of the Evangelists in preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ through their writings and sermons. The naming of the years repeats itself in a four-year cycle as the Evangelists are four.

There are certain moments commemorated on New Year. One of these is the receding of the great storm during the time of Noah; but the main occasion that this day highlights is the beheading of St. John the Baptist whom Ethiopians call Kidus Yohannes. The name of the saint is thus used to refer to this special day. John was the last of the prophets and is a bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. He transferred the Gospel from the Old Testament to the New Testament which ushered in salvation and new life in Our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the very reason why St. John is regarded as a symbol of transition from one year to another in the teachings of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  

The Ethiopian New Year also marks the transition from the heavy rain season to the bright one. It is symbolic of the passage from an awe inspiring night into a beautiful morning. New Year is also an occasion of exchanging gifts and good wishes among Ethiopians. A typical New Year greeting goes: "May He takes you safely from the year of John to the year of Mathew!" (Depending on the Evangelists after whom the outgoing and incoming years are named). The entire month of Meskerem is a time of blissful happiness. (Bantalem Tadesse 2010:41-44)

On New Year, special service is held in every Ethiopian Orthodox church. When the day`s holy mass comes to an end, the chief priest in each church reads the calendar of the year and the calculations used. The mathematical system used for calculating the times of festivals and the beginning and end of the fasting days during the year is called Bahire Hasab.

After the reading is finished, the same priest proclaims the replacement of the old year by the new one. He declares that the previous year had passed and the new had taken its place. For instance, if the old year was named after St. Mark, the priest proclaims “Yohannes teshare Mathewos negese” which is to mean “The reign of John has come to an end, and Mathew has taken charge." As the priest repeats the declaration three times, those attending the service repeat after him enthusiastically. (Bantalem Tadesse 2010:41-44)
This festival celebrates both the New Year and the Feast of John the Baptist at the end of the long rainy season, when the earth is covered with wild flowers. 

The day of the Ethiopian New Year also called ‘Enkutatash’ meaning “gift of jewels” in the Amharic language. The story goes back almost 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba of ancient Ethiopia who was returning from a trip to visit King Solomon of Israel in Jerusalem, as mentioned in the Bible in I Kings 10 and II Chronicles 9. She had gifted Solomon with 120 talents of gold (4.5 tons) as well as a large amount of unique spices and jewels. When the Queen returned to Ethiopia her chiefs welcomed her with ‘Enku’ or jewels to replenish her treasury.
The festival has been celebrated since these early times and as the rains come to their abrupt end, dancing and singing can be heard at every village in the green countryside. In the evening every house lights a bonfire and there is much singing and dancing. 

‘Enkutatash’ is not exclusively a religious holiday but is also a celebration of New Year and renewed life. Today, the term ‘Enkutatash’ used for exchanging of formal New Year greetings and wishes among Ethiopians. Ethiopian children, clad in brand-new clothes, dance through the villages giving bouquets of flowers and painted Enqutatash pictures to each household. 

Enqutatash!!!  Happy Ethiopian New Year!!

• Bantalem Tadesse, 2010. A Guide to the Intansgible Treasure of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church: Historic Perspective and Symbolic interpretation of the Festivals.
•  ያሬድ ፈንታ ወልደ ዮሐንስ 2004 ዓ.ም. ባሕረ ሐሳብ የቀመርና የሥነ ፈለክ ምስጢር፡፡