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Genna (Ethiopian Christmas) at Lalibela, (January 7)

Among the major feasts which are associated with Jesus and observed by the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the incarnation of nativity, Genna or Ethiopian Christmas is one of the highly celebrated feasts. The annual celebration of Genna on Tahisas 29 (January 7) commemorates the birthday of Christ. It is also the break of the fasting period, usually known as Tsoma Nebiat (fasting of the Prophets). 

In the town of Lalibela, the colorful celebration of Genna coincides with the birthday of King Lalibela, who took the credit for the construction of 11 rock hewn churches approximately 880 years ago. While celebrating Genna at Lalibela, the clergy venerate the miraculous events which occurred when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Angels and herds praised God at the same time when Jesus was born at Bethlehem. The clergy commemorate this incident at the cliff of Beta Mariam Church (one of the eleven rock hewn churches in the enclosure). They do so by performing the hymn, half being at the top of the cliff and the remaining half at the bottom. While the clergy at the top of the cliff symbolizes the angels, those at the bottom represent the herds. 

Lalibela and its 11 rock hewn churches will be filled with tens of thousands of pilgrims who come from all directions of Ethiopia and from all walks of life. Most of the pilgrims reach at St. Lalibela from far off hamlets and inaccessible valleys, walking on their bare feet for days, weeks, and even for months to share the blessing of Christmas day. Even if Ethiopian Christmas is on January 7, there will be different ceremonies to be held around the rock-hewn churches starting the night of 4th January.  

On the night before January 7th the pilgrims jam the church of Beta Mariam, a church dedicated to Virgin Mary, shoulder to shoulder and swarm the surrounding hills. To begin the Mass, priests chant and rattle sistras, palm-size instruments from Old Testament times and the celebrations continue throughout the night.

At sunrise, the church is emptied. More than 100 priests climb the rocky steps to the rim of the pit overlooking the church and form a line that snake to the very edge of the drop. They wear white turbans, carry golden scarves and adorned with red sashes stitched into the hems of their white robes. Several deacons begin beating large drums, and the priests begin to sway in unison, rattling their sistras, then crouching in a wavy line to the beat and rising again, this is a reference to King David's dance the last of the Christmas ceremonies. It is an ancient Christian tradition which has remained unchanged and witnessing this event, you feel like you are transported centuries and centuries back in time.