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Eritrean holiday traditions mix old, new

Taking part in a traditional Eritrean coffee ceremony during Friday evening’s Culture Corner Holiday Open House at Minnesota West are Rahawa Tesfagabir (from left), Zewdi Tesfarghi, Tsehaymesh Asgedom and Sina Gebremessihe. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

WORTHINGTON — Raising her family in southwest Minnesota with Eritrean traditions at her roots, Aida Simon has found a balance to blend America’s Christian traditions of decorated trees and gift-giving with the Orthodox Christian traditions involving coffee ceremonies and neighborly gatherings.

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As such, the family essentially celebrates Christmas twice each holiday season — once on Dec. 25, as is tradition in American Christian homes, and again on Jan. 7, the date on the Julian calendar that marks the St. Gabriel Orthodox Tewahedo.

“January is a very important month (in Eritrea),” said Simon, a program aide at the Nobles County Integration Collaborative in Worthington. Her native home of Eritrea includes a mixture of religions, with Orthodox Christian and Muslim faiths among the majority.

Orthodox Christians in Eritrea begin the month of December with a 40-day fasting and all-vegetable diet that continues until Jan. 7, when Christmas is celebrated with feasting, family and a lengthy church service.

“The church is unlike any churches in America,” Simon shared, adding that shoes are forbidden to be worn inside the church. As a result, shelves line the entryway and are the first thing visitors will see once they step foot inside.

In the sanctuary, Eritrean men dressed in traditional outfits sit on one side of the aisle, while the women, in traditional white Zuria dresses and head pieces that cover up their hair, are seated on the other.

“At the front, you’ll see the priest in his gold robe —he’ll have five helpers with white veils wrapped around their shoulders,” Simon said.

The priest alternates between Tigriniya and Ge’ez, which is part of the Latin language and typically spoken only during religious ceremonies. The Christmas service begins at 8 p.m. and continues until 2 a.m. in the Eritrean Orthodox church. The six-hour service includes a drum ceremony, or Coboro, with jingle bells and the scent of incense wafting through the church. Hymn singing, readings, chanting and kneeling are all a part of the traditional Christmas service, Simon said.

During the ceremony, children are in the basement, learning the tradition and culture of Orthodox Christians.

“It’s very fascinating to see,” Simon said.

When the service ends, families return home and begin the Christmas feast. Injera (a spongy flat bread) is served with dero (spicy chicken) are traditionally served in the Eritrean home, in addition to goat or lamb, which is given as a sacrifice to God.

“The most beautiful part is the coffee ceremony.” Simon said, adding that a younger woman traditionally roasts the coffee beans and prepares the coffee. The ceremony is performed up to three or four times per day, depending on when guests arrive. The coffee is typically served with popcorn and Panettone, a cake adapted from Italians. Home-baked bread is also served.

The feasting and celebration continues until dawn, and then families return home to rest. By early afternoon, the women return to the kitchen and begin preparing another huge feast for family and friends, she said.

Gifts are also exchanged on Jan. 7 in Eritrea, with children typically receiving new shoes or a new outfit.

“There’s a lot of people who might not be able to celebrate Christmas in Eritrea, (so others) will extend their hand to the needy so they can feel the joy of the day,” Simon explained. “You do it secretly — no one is to know that you gave something to someone. You leave it on their doorstep or in their house. It could be food — meat, bread, sugar, flour — or clothing … to make sure that everyone feels the joys of Christmas.”

Now that Simon’s family lives in the United States — her mother lives in Minneapolis and she has siblings in Minneapolis, Worthington and Sioux Falls, S.D. — they will gather for both the Dec. 25 and Jan. 7 holidays in Minneapolis. On Dec. 25, the family members will open gifts, and on Jan. 7, they will attend the Eritrean Orthodox church service there.

An Eritrean Orthodox church recently opened in Sioux Falls, and Simon and her family attend services there a couple of times per month. It’s important, she said, for her children to experience church in the Eritrean culture.

“I’ve lived in different countries, but one thing my parents took with them —no matter what — was their religion and their culture,” Simon said.

Now, with the blending of her Eritrean heritage and adaptation into American culture, her children are gaining new experiences, such as decorating the Christmas tree.

“The only decoration we have is that Panettone … is put under the tree,” Simon said of her fellow Eritreans.

However, those now living in the U.S. —including her family — decorate their tree like most other families.

“I go to ShopKo, Walmart and Hobby Lobby and find the prettiest decorations and put it up,” Simon said with a laugh.

The tree will remain in place until after the Jan. 7 Eritrean Christmas is celebrated.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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