Christmas In Ethiopia-Pico Iyer

“Yet on the day before Christmas–as flawless and blue as every other day I spent in Ethiopia–the streets were bright with cross-shaped wreaths of purple and gold, and as night began to fall, the bars put on their single tubes of neon lighting, and I could see bright candles in shacks, and twinkling trees in cafes. Children let off fireworks in small parks, and women in gorgeous silks, with painted feet, trooped into my hotel.

And on a misty Christmas Eve, the streets were filled again with white robed worshipers. The bells of the Selassie (Trinity) Cathedral tolled and tolled and tolled, and soon all corners of the glowing church were crowded with gaunt white figures in hoods, and deacons in white with red crosses on their backs, and priests in black robes with small white hats, and women with gold sandals beneath their white: a whole swirl of half-mythic figures, ragged, barefoot, but upright, filling all the pews in the church’s ornate interior, the green and red and yellow flag of Ethiopia fluttering above them.

Upstairs, in a gallery, a group of robed deacons was standing in a circle, chanting, slowly and solemnly, as if to some age-old rhythm. One of them, on the ground, banged a slow, slow drum, and all the men around him, clutching their T-shaped prayer sticks, slowly waving their sistrums, let out a slow, solemn, wailing chant that carried into the night and down into the nave below.

Outside, in the pitch blackness, worshipers were making deep prostrations, extending their whole bodies along the ground, and mumbling prayers, or standing in nooks and corners with their psalters. Candles had been placed in the hands of every saint, in all the twelve alcoves along the church, above the stained glass; believers circumambulated the darkened building bearing tapers, their figures making ghostly shadows on the walls.

From the trees, in the dark, I heard a banging drum. Cries and chants and ululations from somewhere among the gravestones. A haunting, unworldly, and ancient chant that went through me to the core.

I followed the sound through the trees and the abject darkness, and came upon a wondrous sight: a whole avenue of people, on the ground, lit up by candles before them, outside the entrance to another church, old and small and round. Around it, on every side, barefoot, bedragged, hooded bodies, all in white, more bodies than I could count, hardly visible by the light of the candles they were holding, and gathering in small groups under straw roofs, or standing against headstones, or assembled in a circle under a tree, just praying, or listening, in silence, to a sermon, or singing alleluias in the night.

Everywhere I turned, there were figures, some of them asleep, for they had not eaten all day and many of them had been fasting for two months–no meat, no eggs. Others stood on either side of distant tombs, a candle on each side of them. Others were lined up in what looked to be a manger, their sweet, high voices rising into the dark.

Within the church, there were so many people one could hardly move. Boys were playing oxskin drums, and lines of men in multicolored raiment, with gold and violet hats, were singing from their holy books, the altars in front of them shaking with their piety. Outside, one of the groups struck up a hymn and started clapping, and others picked up the rhythm, and then there was a wild ululation that signaled, thrillingly, glad tidings to the world, and the arrival of something bright.

All across the candlelit city it was like that on Christmas Eve, white-robed figures from another age, with laughing eyes and beads and crosses, chanting by the light of tapers. And sometimes, as I looked around me, at the round church, and the rough ground, and the ragged, hopeful figures sitting or standing and singing through the night, I felt that this must have been how it was in Bethlehem, two thousand years before. There was no sign of the modern world, no electricity or hype. Only ragged figures, with candles, singing their devotion.

“You really feel it, ” said the investment banker, moved. “You really feel the joy that must have arisen when God was born.” And he was right.

Before I went to Ethiopia, I had said, half-facetiously, that I was going there to “get around Christmas,” leaving, on December 25th, to avoid the commercialism and loneliness and impossible expectations that constitute the holiday for us. I had not known that Ethiopia really was the way to get to the heart of Christmas, and of almost everything else. I am no Christian, but Christianity made sense to me in Ethiopia–and many things as basic as hope and dignity, necessity and faith– and as I looked at the stars through the branches and the flicker of candles, I really could imagine three wise men coming to a manger, following the skies. Everything revved up and complicated fell away, and I was left in Ethiopia with the small, forgotten soul of the whole thing: thanksgiving amidst hardship and songs of glorious praise.”

-Pico Iyer, from his essay “Ethiopia: Prayers in the Wilderness”.

~ by sacredblasphemies on 12/22/2011.

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