'Timkat' - The Feast of Epiphany
This is the greatest festival of the year, falling on 19 January, just two weeks after the Ethiopian Christmas. It is actually a three-day affair, beginning on the Eve of Timkat with dramatic and colourful processions. The following morning the great day itself, Christ's baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist is commemorated. The third day is devoted to the Feast of St. Michael, the archangel, one of Ethiopia's most popular saints.
Since October and the end of the rains, the country has been drying up steadily. The sun blazes down from a clear blue sky and the Festival of Timkat always takes place in glorious weather.
Enormous effort is put into the occasion. Tej and tella (Ethiopian mead and beer) are brewed, special bread is baked, and the fat-tailed African sheep are fattened for slaughter.Gifts are prepared for the children and new clothes purchased or old mended and laundered.
Everyone men, women, and children appears resplendent for the three-day celebration. Dressed in the dazzling white of the traditional dress, the locals provide a dramatic contrast to the jewel colours of the ceremonial velvets and satins of the priests' robes and sequinned velvet umbrellas.
On the eve of the 18 January, Ketera, the priests remove the tabots from each church and bless the water of the pool or river where the next days celebration will take place. It is the tabot (symbolising the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments) rather than the church building which is consecrated, and it is accorded extreme reverence. Not to be desecrated by the gaze of the layman, the engraved wooden or stone slab is carried under layers of rich cloth.
In Addis Ababa, many churches bring their tabots to Jan Meda (the horse racing course of imperial day) accompanied by priests bearing prayer sticks and sistra, the ringing of bells and blowing of trumpets, and swinging bronze censors from which wisps of incense smoke escape into the evening air. The tabots rest in their special tent in the meadow, each hoisting a proud banner depicting the church's saint in front.
The priests pray throughout the long cold night and mass is performed around 2:00 a.m. Huge crowds of people camp out, eating and drinking by the light of flickering fires and torches. Towards dawn the patriarch dips a golden cross and extinguishes a burning consecrated candle in the altar. Then he sprinkles water on the assembled congregation in commemoration of Christ's baptism. Many of the more fervent leap fully dressed into the water to renew their vows.
Following the baptism the tabots start back to their respective churches, while feasting, singing and dancing continue at Jan Meda. The procession winds through town again as the horsemen cavort alongside, their mounts handsomely decorated with red tassels, embroidered saddlecloths, and silver bridles. The elders march solemnly, accompanied by singing leaping priests and young men, while the beating of staffs and prayer sticks recalls the ancient rites of the Old Testament.