Epiphany in Eritrea : Of Tabots and Water Splashes

Eritrea celebrates a host of holidays in January. First comes New Year, followed by the Orthodox Christmas, and twelve days later comes another holiday to celebrate: Timket or the Epiphany, as it is called. I am somewhat certain we all gain quite a bit of weight over these twenty days of nonstop feasting and celebrations.

In all seriousness, Timket or Epiphany is one of Eritrea’s nationally celebrated holidays. It’s 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 church may be rendered in English as the Theophany, as closer in form to the Greek (“God shining forth” or “divine manifestation”). Here it is one of the Great Feasts of the liturgical year, being third in rank, behind only Easter and Christmas. It is celebrated on January 6 of the calendar that a particular Church uses. On the Julian calendar, which some of the Orthodox churches follow, including the likes of Eritrea, the date corresponds, during the present century, to January 19 on the Gregorian or Revised Julian calendar.

Many in the West observe a twelve-day festival, starting on December 25 and ending on January 5, known as Christmas tide or the Twelve Days of Christmas. However, for the Catholic Church today, “Christmas Time runs from First Vespers (Evening Prayer I) of the Nativity of the Lord up to and including the Sunday after Epiphany or after January 6”, a period not limited to twelve days. Some Christian cultures, especially those of Latin America and some in Europe, extend the season to as many as forty days, ending on Candlemas (February 2). Today in Orthodox churches, the emphasis on this feast is on the shining forth and revelation of Jesus Christ as the Messiah and Second Person of the Trinity at the time of his baptism. It is also celebrated because, according to tradition, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptist marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity manifested themselves simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor). Thus the holy day is considered to be a Trinitarian feast.

The celebration in Eritrea is one of spectacle scenes quite colorful and jubilant. 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 of the Christian faithful attend early morning Mass featuring preaching, ceremonial dances of the priests and spiritual songs.

The celebration of Timket has specific traditions of course. The major tradition is a process ceremony that involves the Tabot. This is a model of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Eritrean altar. The Tabot is wrapped in rich cloth and borne on the head of the priest, who takes part 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. The Tabot is carried by priests from each church to the body of water, accompanied by the faithful and members of the clergy 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 the Governor of the Central Region and invited dignitaries, dips a golden processional cross in the water to Timket and blesses it and then sprinkles some on the faithful. This is to serve as a reminder of baptism – the remission of sins and that through the baptismal waters a person accepts the obligations of Christian commitment.

After the ceremony, most people enter the water and immerse themselves, as a symbol of renewing baptismal vows. Some even go to the extent of filling up their water bottles and containers they brought with them solely for that purpose, and as they leave the water basin they sprinkle it all over the people around. To some it might be bothersome, but to young kids it is what they look forward to, going around splashing water at complete strangers and soaking their clothes.

Also common among the youth, back when I was in college in Adi Keih, was to hurry back to their dormitories with bottles filled with the holy water and the intent on emptying them on their friends, who probably skipped the ceremony to catch forty winks. Waking up to cold water descending upon one’s face can be a rather rude awakening, but it is just a matter of seconds before all get into the act as well.

Past all the shenanigans, the celebration of Timket is not over. The Tabot is brought back to the church, escorted by dancing and singing by children, paraded in a long procession through the streets with the priests dressed in their elaborate robes followed by huge crowds. By the end, everyone goes back home to continue the celebration. After having managed to dry up, families usually gather together to feast as different varieties of cuisine are set at the dining table. After the food is blessed, members of the family feast as they immerse themselves in deep conversations of the ceremony, accompanied by the little ones’ hilarious antics of the day.

Timket is a significant holiday for Eritreans. Besides the colorful ceremony, it is said that Timket ends the cold holiday season, 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.