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Lynnwood’s Habesha Community Center celebrates Genna, Ethiopian Christmas

LYNNWOOD, Wash., January 19, 2022 – Ethiopian and Eritrean communities throughout Lynnwood gathered together on Friday, January 7 to celebrate Genna – Ethiopian Christmas. 

As the Ethiopian calendar months are different than the states’, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church considers January 7 the day of Jesus’ birth and therefore the day for major religious activity. 

Habesha Community Center of Lynnwood President Selam Habte explained to the Lynnwood Times the cultural differences and similarities between American and Ethiopian Christmas involved on this day. 

Habesha is a term that represents Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Christians. 

Genna Traditions

To Ethiopians, Genna is a strictly religious occasion with its own unique traditions that differ greatly from American culture. Gift giving, for example, is not central to the Ethiopian Christmas tradition. Instead, the focus is on ritual and ceremony which largely take place in or around the Ethiopian Orthodox churches

Many Ethiopians carry out a 43-day fast leading up to Christmas day, eating just one meal a day, free from meat, dairy, or eggs. The fast begins on November 25, a day known as Tsome Nebiyat (Fast of the Prophets), and is held through January 7.

One similarity between Christmas in Ethiopia and other areas of the world is the importance of food.

The 43-day fast is broken at daybreak on January 7 with a light meal. Later in the day, a Doro Wat, a spicy stew containing meat and vegetables sometimes topped with an egg, is eaten. Injera, Ethiopian flatbreads, are used to scoop up and eat the stew.

The same dish is eaten during Ethiopia’s Timkat festival, another important date on the Ethiopian calendar, accompanied by tej, an Ethiopian honey wine. 

During ceremonies, many people wear a traditional item of clothing called a Netela, a white cotton garment with woven colored borders worn similarly to a shawl. As Ethiopia’s traditional dress, the Netela is worn on a number of other public holidays and festive occasions.

As Genna is a very religious occasion on the Ethiopian calendar, Orthodox Christians attend mass on Christmas Eve (January 6), known in Ethiopia as the gahad of Christmas.

The church service typically begins around 6 p.m. and continues through the early hours of Christmas Day. Chanting and singing are central to these services, and many people visit several churches a night, partaking in various festivities before dawn. 

One Ethiopian legend claims that when the shepherds of the Christmas story heard about the birth of Jesus, they celebrated the news by playing a spontaneous game that resembled hockey using their wooden staffs.

For this reason, on Christmas day, mainly boys and young men play a game similar to hockey with a curved wooden stick and ball called Yágenna Chewata, or Genna for short. 

The Habesha Community Center will be celebrating Ethiopian New Year this upcoming September 11. 

Friendship City Program

On January 7, 2021, the city of Lynnwood confirmed a new Friendship City Relationship with Bole Kefle Ketema Wereda 10, a borough or sub-city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

Former Mayor Nicola Smith and Council Member Julieta Altamirano-Crosby participated in a virtual Friendship City Ceremony with the Honorable Emeru Fenta Kelbeessa, Leader of Kefle Ketema, Wereda 10 and Habesha Community Center members Selam Habte, Rahel Schwartz and Ermias Merid before signing a proclamation officially declaring the Friendship City relationship between both cities. 

Habesha Community Center of Lynnwood President Selam Habte

“My staff and I are committed to promoting diversity in our community,” stated Nicola Smith. “Three years ago, we identified a safe, welcoming, and livable city as one of our top five priorities. I am honored to join in a friendship relationship with Kefle Ketema, Wereda 10. I’m looking forward to working with the Honorable Emeru Fenta Kelbeessa, and members of the Habesha Community Center to learn how we can help support our Ethiopian neighbors in Lynnwood.”

One of the purposes of the friendship relationship is to create a more culturally integrated society. Habesha Community Center has since used this agreement to empower Habesha families in Lynnwood to be proud of their culture through several programs including a summer camp with a focus on community building and healthy living, which took place last year. 

“My goal every day is to empower families to be proud of their cultural identity and share that with the community they live in,” Selam Habte, president of the Habesha Community Center in Lynnwood and educator for the past five years, told the Lynnwood Times. “Our kids have to change hats when they go to school. They always have to be someone else that they are not. Seeing that every day in the school environment breaks my heart.”

As schools struggle to make the school environment culturally inclusive, Selam said it is the families’ and the community’s responsibility to ensure the first generation of Habesha kids know that their identity and culture is unique and something to be proud of. 

In the near future, the Habesha Community Center plans to implement an exchange student program and pen-pal relationship between cities at local high schools. After contacting several schools and receiving a positive response, they plan to implement these programs this upcoming fall. 

Several Ethiopian churches and businesses in the city of Lynnwood have also used the Friendship City program to come together through events, sharing their traditions from food to art to cultural dance. 

Among these traditions is the important Ethiopian coffee ceremony which brings people together in a circle to engage in the “universal language of being human.” Coffee is an important staple to Ethiopian culture, originating in the Ethiopian town of Keffa.

“Habehsa culture is unique, and it needs to be shared with others,” Habte told the Lynnwood Times. “If we continue to chat and find our similarities, the city of Lynnwood and Ethiopians have some stuff in common.”

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