Celebrating the Baptism of Christ, every January 19th (January 20 during leap year), Timkat is the greatest colorful festival of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. It celebrates the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. Timkat is a three-day affair and all the ceremonies are conducted with great pomp. The eve of Timket is called Ketera. This is when the Tabots of each church are carried out in procession to a river or pool of water where the next day's celebration will take place. A special tent is set up where each Tabot rests as members of the church choirs chant hymns. This is accompanied by a special dance by the priests with their prayer sticks and sistera, the beating of drums, ringing of bells, and blowing of trumpets.
The Tabot symbolizes the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Law, which Moses received on Mount Sinai. It is the Tabot rather than the church building, which is consecrated, and it is accorded extreme reverence. When the Tabot is carried out, it is wrapped in brocade or velvet "like the mantle of Christ" and carried on the head of a priest with colorful ceremonial umbrellas shading it. The priests pray through out the cold night and mass is performed about 2:00 am the next day. Near dawn the people go to the water and attend the prayers. After the prayer, a senior priest uses a golden processional cross to bless the water and extinguishes a burning consecrated candle in the water. Then he sprinkles the water on the assembled congregation in commemoration of Christ's baptism. Many of the more fervent leap fully dressed into the water to renew their vows.
The Timkat ceremony is merely a commemoration, not an annual rebaptism. After the baptism, the Tabots of each church, except St. Michael's church, start their way back to their respective churches. The elders march solemnly, accompanied by singing, leaping priests and young men, the beating of staffs and prayer sticks recalling the ancient rites of the Old Testament (11 Sam.Chap.6)
The next day, 20 Jan, is the feast of Michael the Archangel, Ethiopia's most popular saint. And it is only on this morning that the Tabot of St. Michael’s is returned to his church, also accompanied by the singing and dancing of priests and locals with their colorful dress. Thus ends the three-day celebration, a unique ceremony of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which evolved in relative isolation from the rest of the world. Timkat, truly is the most spectacular of Ethiopia's festival.
The best place to attend the event is Lalibela, Gonder or Addis Ababa. In Addis Ababa many tents are pitched in the grassy field at Jan Meda, to the northeast of the city center. At 2:00am a mass is attended by crowds who've brought picnics to enjoy by the light of oil lamps. At dawn the priest extinguishes a candle burning on a pole set in a nearby river using a ceremonial cross. Some in the congregation leap into the river. The Tabots are then taken back to the Churches in procession, accompanied by horsemen, while the festivities continue.