Christmas on January 7th

Forget shiny presents and delicious sugar cookies, Orthodox Christmas is orthodox. It is totally unlike the wonderfully commercialized Christmas most people celebrate in the United States. Instead of participating in the festivities of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” we groan at the forty-day vegan diet in the days leading up to it (or I do, at least, not that I ever make it past the first few hours before giving in to food).

My parents immigrated to the US from Eritrea, a small country in East Africa, and if they didn’t bring much with them, they brought their culture and their religion, Orthodox Christianity. It’s pretty similar to Catholicism except for a few beliefs and the way mass is held. It also tends to be more nationalized, allowing for local customs to be integrated into its practice. And so, we celebrate Christmas on January 7th at Saint Gabriel Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church by going to service from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. To clarify, not all Eritreans celebrate Christmas on the 7th, only the Orthodox Christian ones do.

Someone once told me that the reason for celebrating on a later date was because camels prevented from bringing news about Jesus’s birth to people in Eritrea fast enough, but I recently learned that it’s actually because we use a different calendar. When the Julian calendar was proven to be off by 11 minutes and 14 seconds in 1582, everyone except the Orthodox churches adopted the modified Gregorian calendar. Because of the slight difference, the Julian calendar has one whole extra day every 128.2 years, leading to the gap between the different Christmases. By about 2100, the date will end up being on the 8th.

The church I go to is nothing like the churches you see on TV. Walking through the front door you first see shelves of shoes stacked against the walls. It’s forbidden to wear shoes inside the church, both because of religious theory and because people will talk about your poor upraising. The carpeted path to the front separates the hall inside with the men in their suits to the left and the women in traditional white clothing to the right. At the front stand the priest in his gold robe and five helpers with white veils wrapped around their shoulders. I don’t pretend to know their official positions. They read/chant/sing lines from the Bible, alternating between Tigrinya and Ge’ez, the former a predominant language in Eritrea and the latter an extinct language only spoken in religious sermons, as members from the congregation stand, kneel and repeat as required. Someone beats a large drum, a coboro, throughout the whole thing, accompanied by the jingle of bells emitting incense. Like usual, the younger children are in the basement running around. It doesn’t seem that different from a regular service except for the attendance of the once-a-year-believers, but I guess to an outsider, the whole thing would sound pretty fascinating.

This year, after an extremely long sleep after the church service, my family and I headed out to my aunt’s house to eat injera, a spongy flatbread staple, and be merry with our friends. She had a Christmas tree up, an adopted American tradition, but there were no gift exchanges. Many Eritrean-Americans choose to give presents on December 25th for fun, not as part of the festivities. All in all, I greatly enjoyed this holiday: seeing my friends, playing with my young cousins, and eating food. It was nice.

Despite living in such far reaches of the metro, we all come together on this holiday to keep our traditions alive. Thousands of miles away from their homes and families, the Eritrean community has managed to create a new home here in Saint Paul, a Little Eritrea.

- Feven Gerezgiher, ThreeSixty Journalism teen reporter

Feven Gerezgiher