Ethiopian Christmas or Gena is one of the country’s most colorful holidays. Ethiopian Christmas falls on January 7 in the Gregorian calendar which corresponds to Thahisas 29, or 28, when it is a leap year, Zemene Yohannes – year of John –in the Ethiopian calendar. Thahisas corresponds to December, but unlike December, Thahisas is the fourth month of the Ethiopian year as the year begins in September.
The celebration of Ethiopian Christmas is marked by activities such as horse racing and authentic folk dancing. In Lalibela, Gena is celebrated in particularly appealing ways because the birth date of King Lalibela is celebrated simultaneously. In the rural areas across Ethiopia, a popular game which looks like hockey, but is in fact typically Ethiopian, is conducted between two youthful teams. The game is named after the festival and is called YegenaChewata.
YegenaChewata has always been known as the ‘game for all’, cutting through social strata. The understanding is that the master and subordinate divide has no room in the game. The game is played by all, and there should be no feelings of revenge and intimidation by the losing side. On the field, all contenders are equals, and they expected to display their talents and skills to the best of their ability.
YegenaChewata is played with a crude hockey stick – Gena, and a small wooden ball -Rur. Men and boys participate. Players dress in loose fitting calf- length trousers, and wrap a cloth – dig -around the waist, when they play.
Leaders for the two competing teams are chosen. Then two pairs of players will give themselves secret names. The secret names will be given to the team leaders who will assign players to the two groups using the secret names. The players will join one of the teams only if the teams are from the same villages or kebeles (town district).
There are nine players and a goal keeper in a team, and a total of ten teams compete in a Gena tournament. The game of YegenaChewata is all about scoring a goal by hitting a Rur that is made either of plastic or of wood, and preventing the Rur from finding its way into the goalmouth. Players kick and pass the Rur to one another, in order to score a goal.
The game of Yegena Chewata is played differently in different part of the country: There is Qurquse: where players can follow the rules and regulations of the game according to their duty and responsibility, nothing is fixed. But when playing qurquse-style, kicking the Rur is strictly forbidden. The player may only dribble the ball.
Then there is Muche where the Rur is pushed in a sweeping-like action. Here players can sweep opponents’ feet together so contenders have to be able to jump high to protect them from injury!
Afsomelgat and Kelbomelgat are more complex forms of play with slight differences. Every player can show off his own individual talent and skill. There are no rules about moving the Rur. Players can use any kicking style as long as no fellow players are harmed. The Afsomelgat form of play is generally played on holy days.
A team is required to give a list of 15 players to the leaders, of which 5 are substitutes. A captain is elected. The smallest number of players allowed to play is seven. A team will register their substitutes and replace players, one by one or all at one time, as required. Once a player is substituted he will not be allowed to return to the field. The captain is the person in charge of reporting to the referee when the Rur is offline. He is also the person who ensures players play fairly, and maintain sporting codes. So that others can easily identify the captain, a signifying symbol will be placed in his hand.
It is expected that the outfits worn by the teams should reflect the culture of the areas or regions that they are representing. A given team may have two types of outfits of different colors and designs to get themselves registered. As a rule, the outfits are not permitted to be identical. If, accidentally, the attires are similar, the host team is asked to make a change. If both teams are not from the locality where the tournament is held, they change their outfits by mutual agreement. If no agreement is reached, they will draw lots. Players are also expected to wear appropriate shoes, and to cover their forelegs so as to minimize leg injuries. Adornment by cultural or modern jewelry is not permitted. Goalkeepers guard against injuries by wearing gloves as well as leg and body covers. All players must be easily identified by a conspicuous number on the front and back upper body.
Referees and coaches have specific duties and responsibilities. Referees have the responsibility of managing the game and identifying the winning team, controlling time, and other features of the game. Sixty minutes is allotted to each game, divided into two halves, with a ten minute break in the middle. Injury time for the first and second half will be added before the break, and before the end, respectively. Coaches bear the responsibility of developing each player’s potential, encouraging excellence in execution, and providing positive feedback to the players.
The winner of the YegenaChewata cultural game will be identified by the greatest number of goals scored at the end of the second half. A twenty minute of extra time will be added if there are equal goals scored. The knockout period works much like it does in soccer.
YegenaChewata was particularly popular during the reign of the great feudal lord, Emperor Menelik. There is a saying: Begenna Chewata Aykotum Geta that means‘the master will not hold grudges if he gets hurt while playing Gena’. The tournaments marked a time when different classes of society were able to come together to experience sporting rivalry and put their accepted place in the community aside.
As in the past, after a tournament, the victorious team will celebrate by processing at evening time, through the village, heroes of the sporting festival.
Merry Ethiopian Christmas!!