Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas in the Land of Balthazar

ALL-ABOARD-with-medallion

 Welcome today's entry for the  

indieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop:

Christmas in the Land of Balthasar




Morning Prayers at the "New Jerusalem:" Lalibela

This year I have the privilege of celebrating Christmas in one of the oldest Christian countries on earth: Ethiopia.



Many of you will know that it was in Ethiopia that “Lucy,” the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of a female human ancestor, was discovered in 1974. It is less commonly known that not only did Christianity become the state religion of Ethiopia before it was adopted by Constantine for Rome, it was also the home of Balthazar — at least according to Ethiopian legend.



Ethiopia is a country rich in legend, history and culture. The Ethiopian royal family (not deposed until the last quarter of the 20th century) claimed its direct decent from the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. “Sheba?” you ask, “but wasn’t that was in Yemen.” Not according to the Ethiopians—and there is substantial archaeological evidence to support them! Modern research suggests that the culture that flourished on both sides of the Red Sea and led to the establishment of the ancient cities in Yemen originated — like mankind itself — in Ethiopia.

The Queen of Sheba by Edward Poynter, 1890

Ethiopia was also home to a people that practiced a form of Judaism so ancient it was alien to the modern Jewish rituals and their right to immigrate to Israel was disputed. Furthermore, the Ethiopians claim to possess the original Ark of the Covenant, i.e. the wooden chest in which the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments was stored and for which Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. If that sounds far-fetched, remember that according to the Bible Moses’ wife was “Ethiopian.” (And for those of you who want to read more, Graham Hancock has written a book called The Sign and the Seal.)

During religious processions, people dance in the streets, often behind a replica of the Ark.
But all that pre-dates the legend of Balthazar.



According to Christian tradition, three wise-men (also called magi or kings) came “from the East” following a bright star in search of the King of the Jews. 

"The Three Wise Men" by James Tissot
That star came to a halt over the stables in which Mary had given birth to Christ. The three wise men entered and knelt before the infant Jesus, presenting gifts of gold, incense and myrrh.  With time the three magi were given names: Melchior, Casper and Balthazar.  They were also given characteristics: Casper was old and bearded, Melchior middle-aged, and Balthazar--at least since the 12th Century--was increasingly depicted as a young black man. It is perhaps not coincidental that the 12th Century was the period in which Christians controlled Jerusalem and in which an Ethiopian prince lived there in exile. (This prince, incidentally, was to build a complex of churches hewn out of bedrock after the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin, allegedly in an effort to construct a New Jerusalem. But that is another story....)



The Ethiopians claim the black magi, Balthazar, as one of their own—and they have some justification. First, Ethiopia was at the time of Christ a powerful and wealthy empire. It had an advanced, sophisticated and hierarchical culture with royal palaces, massive temples, and a written language. Ethiopia’s trading ties stretched up the Red Sea to Egypt, the Levant and Greece, and also across the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea to India. The products they sold included not just ivory but gold, incense and myrrh.


The "Adoration of the Magi" by Martin Schongauer
According to the Bible, the three magi returned to their own countries. The Ethiopians believe that Balthazar returned to Ethiopia and began spreading Christianity at once. Thus, they argue, there were already many Christian communities in Ethiopia even before their King converted and made it the state religion of his empire in AD 345 — before Constantine made it the state religion of the Roman Empire.



Christianity has been the primary religion of Ethiopia ever since, although nowadays roughly one third of the population is Muslim. The language of the Ethiopian Church is still the ancient Semitic language of Ge’ez, spoken in AD 345, and the liturgy most closely resembles Syrian Orthodox traditions. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church shares the adoration of Mary, the Holy Trinity and many saints with other Christian churches, notably the Apostles and St. George, but they also have their own Ethiopian saints.  One of my favorites is St. Yared, who is credited with developing Ethiopian Church music.

St. Yared in a Ethiopian Church Painting

Daily life in Ethiopia is dominated by the Church to this day. Before dawn the first service is sung — and broadcast via loud speakers to the surrounding community. Services are sung again around dusk. Services last up to three hours and never less than 90 minutes. Each church is dedicated to a different saint and on that saint’s day there are special services. Every day of the year, people congregate in the yard and spill out into the street at one or more churchs, with the largest crowds at the church whose saint's day it is. 



Driving to work means passing crowds of men and women, both wearing white cotton shawls over their heads and shoulders, gathered before one or more of the four churches I pass in my 15 minute drive.  Drivers often bow their heads and cross themselves as they pass. People sell candles, crosses and other religious trinkets before the churches. Beggars, particularly handicapped beggars, congregate there as well.

Ethiopians also take fasting very seriously. In fact, they fast — meaning they eat no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products — roughly 150 days out of the year. They fast for forty days before Christmas, just as they fast before Easter.



Christmas itself is celebrated on January 8. It is celebrated with mass and feasting and gift-giving to commemorate the gifts brought to the Christ child by the magi. The Church services have special Christmas music, but unlike our carols they are not song sung by the congregation and certainly not broadcast over the radio. A special bread is baked in an outside clay oven and served with a meal of raw, ground beef — for those who can afford it. Others slaughter a sheep or a lamb. 

Hearing Mass Outside - Lalibela
There are no special decorations associated with Christmas. No Christmas Trees or colored lights. No Santa Claus. And no shopping madness. Stores are not decorated, and there are no reminders of the number of “shopping days” until Christmas. To an outsider, Christmas is not very different from another other day. The more important holidays in the Ethiopian Church calendar are Timkat (commemorating the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan River) and Meskel (commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena.)  

Timkat in Addis Ababa 2014

Tomorrow, December 15, indieBRAGChristmas Blog Hop continues with an entry from

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