Monday, July 15, 2024

The Ethiopian Orthodox community in the capital celebrates Christmas


While most of the capital's residents were sleeping early Sunday morning, incense hung over the huge hall Ethiopian Cathedral in Northeast Washington, hundreds of white-robed parishioners chanted to the rhythmic beating of drums in celebration of Orthodox Christmas.

According to the Julian calendar, used by Ethiopians, Russians and some Eastern Orthodox, the birth of Jesus is celebrated on January 7, often with a night service and mass.

(Video: Jenna Portnoy/The Washington Post)

Late Saturday and into the early hours of Sunday, a meditative veil fell over worshipers at Debre Meheret Kidus Michael Ethiopian Orthodox Cathedral.

Worshipers of all ages wearing layers of gauze, representing the light of Jesus, began entering the hall at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, stored shoes in plastic bags and settled in for eight hours of liturgical chants and declarations in the Ge'ez language. White socked feet walking on burgundy carpet.

One of the translators said: “Truly, his light is truly amazing.”

Early in the night, children would sway to the beat of the meticulously played drums, but as the hours passed they began to fall asleep, many of them passing out at their parents' feet, relaxing under a white cloth.

Just before midnight, a church leader held aloft an image of Jesus embraced by Mary as fire from a central flame passed from person to person until hundreds carried lit candles.

The overhead lights dimmed, and Abune Fanuel, the Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop of Washington, D.C., dressed in ornate robes and flanked by similarly decorated church leaders, moved through the hall as cheers and drumming reached a crescendo.

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(Video: Jenna Portnoy/The Washington Post)

The Mass began immediately with the reading of the Gospels and Communion. By 2:45 a.m., it was time for Eid, he had ended a 45-day fast from animal products.

By mid-morning on Sunday, Aki Amsalo was feeling festive and was about to eat a second meal of chicken and lamb stew, cabbage with meat and other dishes prepared by his wife, Haimanot Arete, eaten in the traditional way from a single communal tray.

“We haven't gone to sleep yet. We've had breakfast again. We'll do it again,” he said over the phone from home as he narrated the meal to dozens of family and friends. Amsalo, 53, lives in Riverdale Park, works for DHL in logistics and runs Audio-visual operations in the church.

Amsalo was born in Ethiopia and came to the United States to study in the late 1980s with a plan to return home after college, but like many of the tens of thousands of Ethiopians in the greater Washington area, he built a school life here instead.

About 30 parishioners founded the church in 1993 in a small room in the Woodner Building on 16th Street Northwest. The congregation outgrew multiple spaces, and in the mid-1990s built the cathedral at 3010 Earl Place NE, where jewel-colored paintings cover the walls.

Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas bears few of the hallmarks of the Christmas that many celebrate with Santa and served 13 days earlier, which celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ based on the Gregorian calendar, developed by Pope Gregory XIII in the 16th century to align more closely with the solar year.

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Protestant governments and churches followed suit, as did most Greek Orthodox churches after 1923. The differences did not matter to Woyintu Dorisa, 50, of Maryland, which was at the heart of the holiday for all faiths.

“We are very happy to come together as a family and celebrate the birth of Christ,” she said through a translator.

Rainerio Manuel
Rainerio Manuel

"Infuriatingly humble alcohol fanatic. Unapologetic beer practitioner. Analyst."