St. John’s Day: Only time we were ever allowed near a burning fire

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

Addey Mebrat lives at the other end of Asmara, a lone wolf in her declining years. She hates small kids and is not slow at lashing out at any group of kids who dare enter her house uninvited.

The neighborhood children often hesitate to visit her house for the traditional hoye-hoye performance.

“Do you think she will welcome us?” asks one of the kids.

“Let’s try!”

“But she has a bad temper, especially when she sees kids,” warns another kid.

“Last year, after all the songs we sung and the kolkal we burned, she gave us only five Nafkas and told us to scram.”

“Doesn’t hurt to try anyway ”

So they all go to Addey Mebrat’s and, with their kolkal burning hot, they start to sing.

Hoye Hoye

Addey Mebrat, Our Old Mother

Please come out with an open hand To reward your beloved children Addey Mebrat comes out from the dark room where she usually stays hidden from curious eyes. She calls the kids to step forward and she stretches an open hand.

The kids see something shimmering in her creased palm.

One of the kids with a fearless heart goes nearer and grabs the Nakfa. He couldn’t believe his eyes.

This is Fifty Nakfa!

“Ruhus Beal Kudus Yohanns, Addey Mebrat!”

“Go away now! I don’t want to be disturbed!”

“Happy St. John’s day, just the same!” shout back the kids and go back home very happy.

We call this holiday Kudus Yohanns (St. John, the beloved disciple of Christ). According to the traditional or Ge’ez New Year, we are now in 2012! But for those who are looking for the fountain of youth, I’m sorry to tell you this but it does not exist.

For Eritrean children, Kudus Yohanns is a festival par excellence. New Year means n e w clothes, and lots of meat to boot. And nobody cares about the calendar.

The New Year in the Geez calendar, commonly known in Eritrea as St. John, is celebrated on the 11th or 12th day of the month of September. One of the major holidays in Eritrea, although the Geez New Year is considered a religious holiday, it is also a day to celebrate the coming of spring as it also heralds the end of the rainy season and a whole new season ahead to collect the harvest.

Traditionally, the old know Saint John’s day as the Ge’ez New year. How come? You ask! Well, Eritreans are used to the Gregorian calendar while the elderly mostly resort to the Julian calendar mainly for the purpose of keeping track of traditional and religious holidays, and because of this the New Year begins in the month of September.

The celebration of this New Year dates back decades to the early settlers. Reasons for celebrating this new beginning in September is said to be biblical: in the Old Testament, it is believed that after the great floods, the new season began with the month of September.

What makes kudus Yohanns interesting to children though, apart f r o m clothes and the slaughter of a sheep or chicken, is the torch-burning event conducted on the eve of the holiday known as Hoye-Hoye.

Traditionally, a fire was lit at sunset on the eve of St. John’s Day. The firewood was collected for days beforehand, and prayers and blessings were said as the fire was lit. There are also other traditions associated with the fire, including walking around the fire three times and throwing a pebble into the center of the fire saying a special prayer, and also jumping over the embers of the fire as it died to get new endeavors off to a good start or to rid themselves of their own weaknesses and inadequacies.

When I was a kid, we used to light a dried Kolka (cactus) or a shig (bundle of dried twigs) and go around asking for “treat or trick” just the way they do it at Halloween in America. That was the only time we were allowed to play with fire. Of course that happened under the watchful eyes of our cautious parents or older siblings and neighbors.

You go door to door shouting hoye-hoye and reciting old chants whose origin are shrouded in mystery.

Belay o Belay, Ho

In the middle of the lake, Ho

Planting Javelin, Ho

Ready to fight, Ho

The family that opened its door to welcome the night hollers would shell out a couple of Nakfa’s which made us very happy.

“Come on, step across the burning torch,” we would exhort the merry gentlemen. And they would step across the flaming and smoking kolkal three times forward and three times backward and would give us their blessings. But we valued their financial contribution more than their hollow blessing.

“It is not the same in the village,” objects my aunt.

She told me that in the village, the “treat and trick” part is absent. There, hoye hoye is more of a spiritual and superstitious nature.

On the eve of Kuddus Yohanns, the villagers light their shig and circumambulate the village with the village church as the focal point. Then they all go to the open ground or baito in the village and build a bonfire invoking God to forgive them their sins and bless them with good harvest and a time of peace.

Krie Eleison (Have mercy on us O Lord)!

And after reciting the Abuna Zebenesemayat (the prayer) in unison, they disperse and go home. The stepping across a burning kolkal by the family is an event conducted by the members of the family and not for money, as is done in the big Eritrean towns like Asmara.

In the village, a neighbor’s kid arrives with a burning torch early in the morning, gets inside your home and recites the Akohkay (A bad spirit repellent invocation).

Akokhay, Akokhay

May the cooking pot for wild herb vanish,

And be replaced by a pot of buttered porridge.

Once every house is disinfected with similar recitation, you are guaranteed a year of plenty and prosperity. The social part of the New Year celebration begins with the slaughtering of a livestock.

Meanwhile, the women and young ladies during the last week of the year gather in big groups and go down the river nearby, cheerfully singing traditional melodies and dance to it as they spend a fun time playing with the water.

It’s the time of the year the women, surrounded by families and neighbors, strengthen their bonds. This week is known as “Pagumen”: unlike the western one, in the geez calendar we have 12 months of 30 days each, with the remaining five or six days making up a week of Pagumen, right before the holy day of St John.

On the eve of Saint John’s day, fathers slaughter a sheep, a goat or at least a hen. Most people prefer a sheep to a goat but some argue a goat is much cheaper and has much more meat. Mothers or daughters take the last steps of brewing Swa, homemade beer; bake Injera, thin flat spongy sour bread preferably made of Taff flour and cook Zgni, a hot meat stew. Green straw (Setti) is spread on the floor and maybe a soothing incense smoke fills the room. The whole event is very exciting and every family member contributes at some point during the whole process.

New Year resolution doesn’t exist in our culture. Here, people simply pray asking God to bless the New Year with plenty of food and peace.