Holiday Stories: My Memories Lead Me to Genna

Children celebrating Genna (Ethiopian X-mas) in Denver last year. The following piece is a reflection about the holiday by one of our readers, Bethlehem Gronneberg, a Software Development Engineer, based in Fargo, North Dakota. (Photo credit: Kellie Brown)

Holiday Reflection
By Bethlehem Gronneberg

Updated: Monday, December 26, 2011

Fargo, North Dakota – In a country where I left a piece of my heart, they celebrate x-mas otherwise known as Genna on January 7. Ethiopia and the Orthodox churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Macedonia, Georgia, and other groups continue to use the ancient Julian calendar, thus the date “mix up”.

Growing up, I remember going to an overnight church service on Christmas Eve at the Holy Trinity Cathedral with my parents, friends, and neighbors. Yes, I said overnight and yes, the whole neighborhood has a pilgrimage together, on foot for a couple miles or more, to the nearest church. At the gate, we take our shoes off, cover our hair with a scarf and make the sign of the cross before entering the church. The energy inside the church has always been captivating. The ornate clothes the priests wear and their collective singing voices, along with the incense burning, the cascading rhythm of the bells and the worshipers’ ululating response, used to make me feel like the angels are circling above us and all around us. The thundering voices of the deacon, praying through the megaphone, sounded like the voice of God was descending upon us. Though I don’t understand the words of the ancient Ethiopian language (Ge’ez) that the church uses for the service, it was beside the point… I was in heaven! The minutes and the hours pass by and nobody paid attention. Time was irrelevant.

When we returned home after the service, my mom would prepare this awesome deluxe breakfast. Everybody would gather around the same big plate and my mom would start saying blessings. She would continue to pray for our families, relatives and the whole world. Silently, we would pray that she would stop, so we can start devouring the sweet aroma that is teasing our nostrils. We finally would get to eat and afterwards sip coffee while listening to the radio. Later that day, friends and relatives would drop by our house and the special coffee brewing and drinking ceremony would start all over again. Coffee is to Ethiopians, as tea is for the British.

The children would be outfitted with their new clothes, specially bought for that day. At that time in Ethiopia, we had a black & white TV and only one channel was broadcasted in the evenings for a limited amount of time, so the radio was a big part of our lives. Radio broadened my knowledge in all sorts of areas. It was our gateway to the world. My elder sister and I would huddle around the radio and listen to the programs intently — stories of Santa and christmas trees in faraway lands. It was fascinating. “Absolutely miraculous!!” we would say. The grass is always greener on the other side.

The festivities would continue with some more of my mom’s best dishes that she had been preparing the night before. We also had the local drink, called “Tela”, that my mom and her helper prepared months in advance. We were not allowed to drink it since it is brewed like beer. But all my relatives said my mom makes the best Tela. My mom may be old now but her Tela making recipe is still next to none. Some have even taken it with them overseas.

At night, the family would gather around for yet another round of the coffee ceremony. My Mom would start humming some songs and we would beg her to continue. She has these lyrics of songs that include the names of each of her children in it, sung to a beautiful melody. And now, I would say, “I will be home for Christmas if only in my dreams..”
2011 Kwanzaa-Genna Holiday Celebration

15 Responses to “Holiday Stories: My Memories Lead Me to Genna”

  1. 1 Tinos Dec 26th, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Dear Betty,

    I enjoyed your heartfelt tribute not only to Genna but to your childhood, your mother, and Ethiopia!!

    Happy Holidays!

  2. 2 Addis Dec 26th, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Fargo, North Dakota?? wow, abeshas are everywhere on this planet. Thanks for sharing and enquan abro aderesen…!!!

  3. 3 Seblewongel Dec 26th, 2011 at 12:44 am

    a wise man once said culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why. it is made — destroyed (or preserved) — by its articulate voices. Thank you Bethelem for adding your voice.

    holiday cheers to all!

  4. 4 T.Gebregzi Dec 26th, 2011 at 1:58 am

    My story of gena is [similar] the only difference is my father was a member-aleka-semi priest of the ortodox church…most of us had a life related to farming, I had to take our cattle to a keeper before going to school happy with God and nature…some body said about Ethiopia in his beautifuly written article in amharic je mengiste semay mesel, so let us hope that the beautiful past of our country and tradition will come back in another but equally satisfieng way. Thank you.

  5. 5 Kedir Dec 26th, 2011 at 9:33 am

    thanks for sharing but how about muslim and jews holidays in Ethiopia? Genna is not only covering, hair with a scarf and make the sign of the cross…it is more than that. How about the genna game (horse hokey), regradless of religion.

  6. 6 Dagnew Dec 26th, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    Bethlehem – Thank you for the wonderful read. You truly sparked some childhood memories.

    Happy holidays!

  7. 7 mimi Dec 26th, 2011 at 5:15 pm


    The most beautiful things are expressed when they are felt from the heart.

    Happy Holidays!

  8. 8 Ras Mitat Dec 26th, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    hhhhmmmmmm…..”member-aleka-semi priest of the ortodox church??” what’s that mean, exactly?? :-)

    Marry x-mas

  9. 9 Behailu Dec 27th, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Betty – well said!


  10. 10 Selam Dec 27th, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Thank you Betty for the beautiful read. Enquan Abro aderesen. Melkam gena.

  11. 11 Mola Dec 27th, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    I enjoyed it! Thanks!

  12. 12 Mestawot Dec 27th, 2011 at 4:38 pm


    Happy Amet beal. Good memories of mama Ethiopia…

  13. 13 tigist Dec 27th, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Wow Betty May God bless you.Thank you very much telling us such a wonderfull meory comes in my Heart and makes me jump on high .Happy Ethiopian Gena.thank you

  14. 14 Deb Dec 27th, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    A wonderful expression of Christmas Celebration: senses, emotions, grandeur and splendor of it all. How awesome it must have been, and the memory even greater… Thank-you!

  15. 15 Semehar Dec 28th, 2011 at 7:22 pm

    “Silently, we would pray that she would stop”, I thought I was the only one hoping that prayers before meal times would be shorter. :) Great description and yes, grandma has the best songs.

    Thanks for sharing!

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