In Ethiopia the great Lenten Fast variously known as Hudadi or the Abiy Tsom has been running since Monday 4th March. In the Ethiopian Orthodox church the Lenten fast these 55 days every year. Why is it 55 days when in the western church it is 40 days? Why the two extra weeks? The first and last week of Hudadi are the extra ones that add up those extra days!

 

The first week of Hudadi is known as the fast of Eraclius, a Byzantine Emperor who lived in 614 A.D. During his reign the Persians invaded Jerusalem and took the Cross of the Lord. Eraclius made an expedition to Persia and having defeated the Persians he took the Cross back to Jerusalem. The Christians in Jerusalem who were very happy because of Eraclius’s victory and the return of the Cross, dedicated the first week before Lent to be the fast of Eraclius and included it in their canons.

 

Palm Sunday (21st April) or Hosanna –the Sunday before Easter, is a very special day in the Orthodox church commemorating Jesus’s march into Jerusalem on a donkey with Palm fonds laid before him. It is marked with palms (worn by many worshippers on hands or head), processions and special services in the church. The week following Hosanna – the last week of Hudadu is Passion Week which remembers the Apostles who fasted in commemoration of Christ’s Passion. Holy Week known as the “Week of Pains” or the Himamat is the strictest part of Lent. During Himamat no absolution is given, and during this week the fast becomes yet more rigorous. For some strict worshippers, having broken the fast after mass on Thursday they will not eat any food nor drink even a drop of water until Easter morning. So they totally abstain for all of Good Friday (or Sekelet) and Saturday, breaking this fast after the church service that goes through the night on Saturday, finishing at around 3am on Sunday morning. These three days are known as “Qanona”. The priests neither eat nor drink but remain in the churches singing and praying incessantly.

 

No other major religion has such penitential fasting. For the strict observers of the fast, the 55 days of Lent are very tough on the body. Fasting in Ethiopia not only means a vegan diet but also means many hours of no food or drink. Each fasting day the observer will not eat of drink anything from the time they wake up until after the mass in the middle of the day is finished in church for many that means 3-4pm. Two simple meals may then follow, a late ‘lunch’ or more properly ‘break-fast’, and a light supper in the evening. What is staggering is that there is no drinking – not water, not coffee, nothing – during those fasting hours.

 

On Easter Sunday – Fasika – chicken, cheep, goats and cattle are dispatched for the pot as the fasting comes to an end in no uncertain terms. Sunday sees piles of sheep skins on street corners, to be picked up by small dealers in trucks. For the days leading up to Easter flocks of sheep and goats as well as herds of oxen were driven by herders into the city, chickens were driven in trucks and pick ups. They are sold at impromptu markets all over the city to be slaughtered in back yards. Prices of livestock more than double for Easter. Sheep come to Addis with drovers bringing them across countryside from several hundred miles away, across Shoa and even as far as Wollo.

 

After Easter there is no fasting not even on Wednesdays and Fridays until after Pentecost on 4 June (Parakilitos). In the countryside the end of the fasting is celebrated in different ways. In Tigray priests are feted with parties held by different households from their parish. In Wollo I have seen the girls making swings from rope to hand off trees and play on them singing songs, while the boys have javelin contests. Its also a second wedding season as people like to get married before the rainy season and after the fasting. These are enjoyable times in the countryside, and if you have the chance to spend a week or so up in the countryside on a Tesfa Trek in Wollo, Tigray or the Simiens you will be a very welcome guest and participant at the celebrations.