Eritrea celebrates a number of holidays in January. The first is New Year followed by the Orthodox Christmas and twelve days later; another holiday to celebrate is what we call “Timket”, the Epiphany.
Timket or Epiphany is one of Eritrea’s nationwide celebrated holidays of the year. A few words long explanation on Epiphany: it is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ.
The name of the feast as celebrated in the Orthodox churches may be rendered in English as the Theophany, it is closer in form to the Greek (“God shining forth” or “divine manifestation”).
The western countries celebrate a twelve-day festival including Christmas on December 25th followed by epiphany on January the 6th but in Eritrea, according to the Orthodox pretext and Grogorian calander, Christmas is celebrated on January 7th having to forward Epiphany celebration or Timket, as it is known here, on January 19th; and on leap years Timket falls on the20th of January.
Furthermore there is a fascinating difference: while Western countries celebrate, on this occasion, the visitation of the Three wise Men known as Mechior, Caspar and Balthzar to the newly Born Jesus Christ, in Eritrea it literally the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by St.John, that is celebrated.
Timket is a significant holiday for the Eritreans, other than the colorful ceremony. Traditionally it is said to be that Timket ends the cold and windy season as the icy winds supposedly drown away in the Timket water. if such is true, I for one can’t wait for the cold season to be over.
What renders the occasion of a spectacle, is that in Eritrea the holiday is a rather jubilant colorful celebration with ceremonious rituals.
The gathering at Mai Timket, a wide water basin with a statue depicting John the Baptist baptizing Jesus Christ in the middle, has always been a landmark event, both for locals and foreigners.
Thousands attend early morning Mass featuring preaching, ceremonial dances of the priests and spiritual hymns and songs. The celebration of Timket has specific traditions of course. The major tradition is a process ceremony that involves the so called “Tabot”, the Ark of the Covenant of every church’s altar in Asmara.
The Tabot is wrapped in rich cloth and borne on the head of a priest, who leads in the procession. This represents the manifestation of Jesus when he came to the Jordan for baptism.
The procession is finished near a pool or a stream, where the Divine Liturgy is served at about 2 a.m. It is a tradition followed by the inhabitants, to accompany the Tabot, when it is carried by priests from each church to the body of water, escorted by the faithful and members of the clergy.
The ‘march’s’ highlight is the chanting, dancing, beating drums and waving prayer sticks. As evening falls, the priests and the gathered crowd participate in an overnight vigil and Mass around the Arks.
Following Mass, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, usually in the presence of invited dignitaries, dips a golden processional cross in the water of Timket and ‘blesses’ the water it and then sprinkles some on the faithful.
After the ceremony, the ‘real ceremony’ begins, that is when countless people from all sundry, enter in the water and immerse themselves. Some whom find the ‘dipping’ less convenient, they fill containers and take home some ‘take away holy water’.
Some other fill their containers with a different purpose which is to shower the water all over people they meet on their way back home: a thrilling activity at least to young kids and youth, it is actually what they look forward to.
If I may also share some of my personal experiences: back when I was in College of Arts and Social Sciences in Adi Keih, it is a vivid memory of how, the mass usually gathered at the town square and as soon as the ceremony was over, most of the participant of the event would hurry back to their dormitories with bottles filled with the holy water, with their minds fixated on the idea of emptying them on their friends, who probably skipped the ceremony to catch forty winks.
Waking up to cold water descending upon ones face can be rather rude, but it is just a matter of seconds before all get into the act as well. Past all the mischief, the celebration of Timket is not over.
The Tabots are brought back to their respective churches, escorted with dancing and singing individuals but mostly children, paraded in a long procession through the streets with the priests dressed in their elaborate robes.
At the end everyone goes back home to continue celebrating Timket with the family, after having managed to dry up; families usually gather together to feast as different varieties of cuisine and the very commonly practiced traditional coffee ceremony.