Essay on the Rastafarian perception Christmas, which first appeared in the Sunday Mirror, Harare, December 24, 2006
Christmas as the saying goes, means different things to different people. Even so, being the only Rastafarian in my wide circle of friends and family, my way of marking this occasion remains something of an enigma. I get many cards, and presents, but I never return the gesture. I also decline to attend Christmas parties. Then, in the first week of January, those of my people that are online get e-cards with the Amharic Greeting, Inkwan lalidätu baal badahna adarrasaw (lit. “Congratulations, to the Birth of Him the feast in safety He has brought you”)
And so, it emerges that Rastafarians do celebrate the Birth of Christ, except that it’s not called Christmas and it’s not celebrated on the 25th of December. It is called Lidät, an Amharic word meaning “Birthday”. Because the Amharic language has its own alphabet, you will sometimes find this spelled as Ledet or Lidet as there is no standard transliteration in Western letters.
Already, it is clear from the name that the origin of this custom is Ethiopia, the spiritual home of Rastafari. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian Churches in the world, has been celebrating the Birth of Christ on the 7th of January long before European Christendom even came up with its own version of Christmas. In the light of the on-going controversy about the exact date, let me hasten to mention that the Orthodox Church does not claim that this was the day Jesus was born. Rather, the Feast was instituted by the Three Kings who arrived in Bethlehem on this day and paid homage to the Infant Christ.
“Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him,” Gospel of Matthew 2:1-2.
Further testament of the particular importance of Lidät is found in a prophecy of the visit if these Three Kings, dating from the time of the Patriarch Adam, who was given their gifts as a consolation after his expulsion from Eden.
“After these things God said to Adam, You asked Me for something from the garden, to be comforted therewith, and I have given you these three tokens as a consolation to you; that you trust in Me and in My covenant with you. For I will come and save you; and kings shall bring me when in the flesh, gold, incense and myrrh; gold as a token of My kingdom; incense as a token of My divinity; and myrrh as a token of My suffering and of My death. But, O Adam, put these by you in the cave; the gold that it may shed light over you by night; the incense, that you smell its sweet savour; and the myrrh, to comfort you in your sorrow,” I Adam and Eve 31: 1-3.
Tradition has it that Balthasar, one of the Three Kings, was from Ethiopia, and is often depicted as a Black man even in the West.
In Ethiopia, Lidät is celebrated with a special service at church. The more devout will fast on the gahad (“Christmas Eve”), and the even more devout for 40 days prior. At home, a big feast is prepared. No tree, no snow, no mistletoe. The main decoration depicts the Manger scene, where the Three Kings pay homage to the Infant. Tradition has it that Balthasar, the Ethiopian King, brought the frankincense. And, only children get presents. On this day, children play a hockey-like game called Genna, from where we get the alternative name of the Feast.
It is easy to see why this version of Christmas appeals to the Rastafarian, quite apart from the fact that it signifies a return to an original, African Judaeo-Christian tradition. Lidät is there in the Bible! It is not corrupted by the materialism, debauchery and the occult overtones of the Western Christmas. In fact, when we look upon the rest of society taking part in Christmas, we see what goes on as proof of what has become an established teaching of the various Rastafarian movements- that the world is ruled by a Luciferian political and economic Order, and that what is now commonly called “Christianity” (derisively called the “Ghost-spell”) is a tool to control the masses, and deny them their heritage.
One has only to look at the millions of human beings slaving in Asian sweat-shops for less than a dollar a day- generating US$32b- so that the European child can have the latest MP3 player to see that this Christmas does not convey goodwill to all Mankind. This child is told that the gift came from Santa Claus, whose address is always given as the North Pole, and was made by his elves. To celebrate Christmas on Western terms is therefore to condone, sustain, even, such a system. This is why I won’t attend the Christmas parties.
In Zimbabwe, celebration of this Christmas by African people is no more than active cooperation in this same global political system’s continuing operation to suck wealth from this country, for the benefit of other people. And what do we get out of it- no money for school fees in January!
Many have asked me why I have continued to observe Lidät, despite the scorn and condemnation that is often poured on me even by friends and family and despite the fact that I am often alone. But, I know the nature of that which I have embraced, and also of that which I have rejected. So, there can be no question that I can be detracted, especially not by people who do not have a clue what Christmas is really about.
“O Judah, keep thy solemn feasts, perform thy vows: for the wicked shall no more pass through thee; he is utterly cut off,” Nahum 1:15. “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” Romans 12:2. As I said, Christmas means different things to different people. For some, it is about spending US dollars, the loot of deals in the parallel economy, on the latest gadgets and trinkets. For some, the urge to spend all the bonus on booze and women will once again prove irresistible.
But for the Rastafarian, it is a time to not only celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour in the manner prescribed by tradition, but to reflect on this event in the context of the original prophecy as told to our father Adam, and the expectations of the time of the manifestation of God not only as Priest but King, which the Emperor Haile Selassie has fulfilled. Next year in September, according to the Ethiopian calendar, begins the new Millennium. Just as we use A.D. to denote dates in the Western calendar, they are called Amet Meherit (the year of Mercy).
So, this year is the 1999th Year of Mercy. This, to the Rastafarian, says that despite all the disasters that have befallen Mankind, there is still purpose and beauty in life because of the Mercy that our Creator has shown us. Could a more precious gift be asked for?
Malkam Baal hulu (Happy Holiday to you all)
First published Tahsas 15 1999 / December 24 2006