Ethiopia celebrates a number of unique festivals, the biggest of which are Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year), Meskel (the finding of the True Cross), Genna (Ethiopian Christmas) and Timkat (Ethiopian Epiphany). Whilst new year is celebrated country-wide, many of the other festivals are specific to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church so major celebrations only take place in areas where this is the dominant religion.
Enkutatash: Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on 11th September (or 12th September in leap years) as this is the date on which the Queen of Sheba is believed to have returned to Axum after visiting King Solomon in Jerusalem. Festivities take place across the country.
Meskel: the finding of the True Cross is celebrated on 27th September (28th September in leap years) and is named after the yellow flowers that blanket the Ethiopian highlands at that time of year. Legend has it that in the early 4th century, almost 300 years after Jesus' crucifixion, Emperor Constantine's mother, Helen, discovered the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that a fragment of this holy relic was presented to Emperor Dawit in the early 15th century, and is now kept at the monastery of Gishen Maryam, near Dessie. This festival is celebrated with bonfires in towns and cities across the country, but the best place to experience the festivities is in Addis Ababa.
Genna: also known as Leddet, this is the Ethiopian Christmas, celebrated on 7th January (8th January in leap years). The event is preceded by 43 days of fasting, then an all-night church vigil, before a large feast is eaten, traditionally including a spicy chicken and egg stew. Genna is a family-orientated holiday, but there is not a strong tradition of gift-giving. In some areas, celebrations include the playing of a traditional hockey-like game, supposedly played by shepherds on the night Jesus was born. The most impressive celebrations take place in Lalibela, where thousands gather to see singing and chanting priests set against an ancient and enchanting backdrop.
Timket: Ethiopian Epiphany, commemorating Jesus's baptism, is celebrated on 19th January (20th January in leap years). It is an even bigger event than Christmas for Orthodox Christians. Each Orthodox church contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant and on the eve of Timkat, these are wrapped in colourful cloth and paraded from the churches to prominent places around town. There is singing and dancing through the night before the parades return to the churches the following morning. The most impressive Timket celebrations are in Gondar, where at the height of the celebrations, hundreds of people jump into Fasil's Pool to re-enact the original baptism.