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Customs of Ethiopia

Marriage and Family

Because marriage represents the union of two families, the choice of spouse is usually arranged by the families, although individuals have some say in the decision. Divorce is not common.

The Amharic family is strongly patriarchal, a pattern typical throughout Ethiopia. Sons usually bring their brides to live with or near their father’s family, and three or more generations in the male line frequently live under one roof. Age is highly respected in Ethiopia, and the elderly are cared for by their children. Women’s duties and privileges are clearly defined both within the home and elsewhere, and most women lead sheltered lives. Families tend to be very private.


The Ethiopian diet generally includes lamb, goat, and fowl. Ethiopians do not usually eat pork, turkey, or ham. Common foods include injera, a fermented bread made of teff flour (a native grain), and wat, a spicy stew made with beef or chicken. Strict religious dietary and fasting customs, especially for Muslims, also influence the diet. Many people survive on grains alone.

Amharic hosts take pride in offering guests the best meal they are capable of providing, and guests reciprocate by leaving some food on the plate to indicate that the host has more than adequately provided for them. Food is eaten with the fingers of the right hand, never the left.


The Amhara place great emphasis on formal but very courteous greetings to both friends and strangers. Shaking hands with one or both hands is common between members of the same sex. Friends often embrace each other formally but warmly. There is no physical contact when members of opposite sexes greet each other.

The Amharic home is generally a highly private and personal domain, and it is not usual to visit without an invitation. When visiting a home for the first time, a small gift is in order. Visitors are expected to accept any refreshments or food offered.


Leisure time is generally spent at home. Individual games of skill such as board games and races are the most popular forms of recreation. Soccer is the most popular sport.

Holidays and Celebrations

Ethiopia traditionally follows the Coptic calendar, although business is conducted using Western time and calendar standards. There is a seven-year difference separating the Coptic and the Gregorian, or Western, calendars; for example, 1998 is 1991 in Ethiopia. Also, the 24-hour day begins at sunrise, not midnight.

Christmas begins, and does not end, the year—it falls on 7 January. On Christmas, a special game is played by some Ethiopians that is not played at any other time of the year. Similar to field hockey, it is said to derive from an old story that shepherds, brimming with joy to hear of the birth of Jesus Christ, spontaneously used their hooked staffs to make up a game that expressed their happiness. It is called Ganna.

The Epiphany, or Visit of the Three Magi, is celebrated on 19 January. Victory Day is on 6 March, and Patriots’ Victory Day on 6 April. Good Friday, the Friday preceding Easter, is a holiday in Ethiopia, and Easter, called Fasika, is the most important holiday of the year.

Labor Day is observed on 1 May. The Ethiopian New Year, called Enkutatash, follows the end of the rainy season, when flowers, having been well watered, are in bloom. Children gather the flowers on this day and go singing from house to house, depositing small bouquets. They hope to receive a handful of roasted grain in return.

Revolution Day is observed on 12 September, and Saint Michael’s Day, on 8 November, comes at the end of the harvest. Ethiopians attend special services at churches consecrated to Saint Michael; afterward there is singing and dancing, and it is possible for young men to find their future brides at these festivities.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas