Ethiopia follows the Ethiopian calendar, consequently Christmas falls on January 7th and Epiphany on January 19th. Timkat, Ethiopia’s Epiphany celebration, is a celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. The festival lasts for three days and is at its most colorful in the capital, Addis Ababa, where everyone gets involved in the celebrations.
As part of the celebration, a ritual baptism is done. A stream or pool is blessed before dawn. The water is sprinkled on some participants, while other immerse themselves in the water to symbolically renew their baptismal vows.
Pilgrims come from far and wide to take part in the festival and witness the re-enactment of the baptism. All over the country large crowds assemble as the religious festivities commence, with spectacular processions, song, dance and prayer.
In Addis Ababa, the festival is particularly spectacular. The streets are adorned with green, red and yellow to represent the Ethiopian flag and priests walk through the streets holding colorful and richly decorated umbrellas.
The religious ceremony commences on the first day when the Tabot, a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Ethiopian altar (somewhat like the Western altar stone), is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and borne in procession on the head of the priest.
The Tabots are then carried to the river in a procession led by the most senior priest of each church, who carry the arks on top of their heads. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated near a stream or pool early in the morning (around 2 a.m.). Then the nearby body of water is blessed towards dawn and sprinkled on the participants, some of whom jump in the water to renew their baptismal vows.
The second day of Timkat marks the main celebrations, with Orthodox Ethiopians from every segment of society merrily march through the streets in a riot of color, singing, dancing and feasting. All but one of the Tabots are returned to their respective churches.
On the third day of Timkat, known as the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, the Tabot of St. Michael’s Church is escorted back to its church in colorful procession and festivities.
About the Tabot
The Tabot symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets describing the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai to serve as the core principles of the moral behavior for humanity. The Tabot, which is otherwise rarely seen by the laity, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he came to the Jordan for baptism.
The original Ark of the Covenant is said to be under permanent guard in Northern Ethiopia, protected by priests who have sworn never to leave the sacred grounds.