Your Expert Guide to Ethiopian Wedding Traditions

Attending a traditional Ethiopian wedding? Here's what you should know.
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by
Jenna Clark
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Jenna Clark
The Knot Contributor
  • Jenna is a freelance writer for The Knot Worldwide, specializing in wedding traditions and planning.
  • In addition to The Knot Worldwide, Jenna contributes to other online publications including Insider, People, BuzzFeed and The Daily Beast.
  • Jenna graduated from Hofstra University with a major in public relations and a minor in creative writing.
Updated Feb 10, 2023

If you are headed to Ethiopia for a friend's traditional Ethiopian wedding or are engaged and looking to honor you or your partner's Ethiopian roots, there are a couple of Ethiopian wedding traditions you can incorporate into the big day celebrating your everlasting love.

To better understand the Ethiopian traditions you may consider integrating into your wedding day and/or other wedding-related events, we spoke with expert event planner Feyisola Ogunfemi of Statuesque Events, Nia Khalil, a knowledgeable East African wedding planner and owner of Weddings With Nia, and renowned event planner Yodit Gebreyes Endale of Favored by Yodit about some Ethiopian wedding traditions you can add to your celebration to honor your ancestors and make the day more memorable.

A Brief History of Ethiopian Wedding Traditions

It is important to note that "Ethiopia is a culturally diverse country with various wedding traditions," says Khalil. However, "despite the diversity of customs among the country's 80+ ethnic groups, family involvement remains a common feature in every aspect of the wedding. While arranged marriages have given way to personal choice in selecting a spouse, families still play a crucial role in the wedding process."

Ethiopian Prewedding and Engagement Traditions

The beauty of Ethiopian weddings begun long before the big day with plenty of meaningful prewedding and engagement customs. Here's what you need to know about what happens before the big day.

The Shimagelay

The Shimagelay ceremony typically takes place during the morning of the wedding ceremony and "involves the future groom sending senior members of his family to the bride's home to request her hand in marriage. The elders elaborate on the groom's background, family upbringing and qualities, trying to convince the bride's parents that he can care for her financially, emotionally and spiritually," explains Khalil. As for the bride's family, they "usually resist at the door. There is a friendly and fun tussle before they finally let the groom into the house. Once he is in, he presents his gift to the bride and then everyone dances, and enjoys Ethiopian coffee and breakfast together before heading to the ceremony. This for us, is one of our favorite parts of the wedding and we always make sure it's photographed," adds Ogunfemi.

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Traditional Harari Engagement Traditions

Within the Harari culture, "the formal engagement involves delivering Kusha Khaat, a gift of sweets and chat leaves, to the bride's family. The leaves hold great significance in Harari culture. The bride's family does not immediately accept the proposal and asks the representatives to return. This allows for a convenient time to respond and places the bride's family on a pedestal. If the bride's family accepts the sweets and chat, the engagement becomes official and the families begin the wedding planning process," says Khalil.

Ethiopian Wedding Attire

With regard to attire, Ogunfemi explains that women usually wear Habesha Kemis (which are ankle-length dresses commonly worn to formal events). These dresses are usually white and contain Ethiopian print around the neckline. Meanwhile, men usually wear Habesha Libs. With this being said, you should be prepared to dress up for the occasion. It is important to note that "the different regions in Ethiopia have different clothing styles that are sometimes represented on the wedding day as well," adds Endale.

Traditional Harari Wedding Attire

If you're attending a traditional Harari wedding, "guests are expected to wear the Gey Ganafi or Fotha outfits, without outshining the bride. The bride is dressed in the most extravagant Gey Ganafi outfit with jewelry from head to toe and she distinguishes herself with a Siyaasa, a piece of jewelry worn on her head," explains Khalil.

Traditional Ethiopian Wedding Ceremony Customs

Wondering what to expect when it comes to the actual wedding ceremony? This is your guide to traditional Ethiopian wedding ceremony customs.

Church or Mosque

We can't forget to mention where traditional Ethiopian wedding ceremonies take place. "The wedding ceremony (the how) depends on the couple's denomination, whether they are orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. The processional will vary based on the couple's religious background. All family members and guests are dressed in their best Habesha attire and are seated, waiting for the bridal party to enter. The groom and his party enter the church first, followed by the bride and her parents. As soon as the bride enters, everyone rises and greets her. The priest or pastor leads the ceremony with the exchange of rings, vows and unity candles. Once the bride and groom are officially married, family and friends greet them outside of the church and celebrate their union with singing," explains Khalil. However, Since much of the Ethiopian population is Christian or Muslim, "traditional Ethiopian weddings usually take place in a church or mosque," notes Endale.

The Wedding Party

As for the wedding ceremony processional, "it's similar to western weddings except that the groom and groomsmen stand on the left side of the altar and bride and bridesmaid stand on the right," explains Endale.

Ethiopian Wedding Reception Traditions

Ethiopian wedding receptions are beautiful, festive events packed with plenty of singing and dancing. Here's what you should know about traditional Ethiopian wedding receptions.

Ethiopian Traditional Wedding Song

To kick off the wedding reception, the newlyweds generally enter with a special song. When entering the reception, it is common for the newlyweds to enter the venue to the traditional Amharic song "Mushiraye," says Khalil.

Traditional Ethiopian Wedding Dance

Depending on the region where the wedding takes place, Khalil notes that there may be different traditional dances participated in at a traditional Ethiopian wedding. In the Amhara region, a traditional wedding dance may include the Eskista. Furthermore, newlyweds from the Oromia region usually participate in the Shagoyee, which is a cultural dance.

Traditional Ethiopian Wedding Food

Traditional Ethiopian wedding food may include "Doro Wat ( chicken stew), Injera, Kitfo (beef tartare/minced with spices, butter ), rice and goat meat, sambusa's, lasagnas, etc, and Yebeg tibs ( lamb stew with jalapenos)," says Khalil. Desserts may be a staple of Ethiopian weddings, especially for the Harari people. There is "lots of butter biscuits, Halawa (sweet jelly dessert), Atriya (sweet vermicelli) and coffee and tea served," explains Khalil.

Traditional Ethiopian Postwedding Customs

The traditions don't stop once the wedding day ends. Many Ethiopian weddings also include a unique postwedding tradition the day after the main event.

Ethiopian Melse

Wedding festivities continue the day following the wedding reception. According to Khalil, "the Melse is an event reception that occurs on the day after the wedding reception. Only close friends and family attend this event and it's usually hosted by the bride's side of the family. The bride and groom wear their best habesha outfits coupled with a Kaba/Ethiopian embroidered cape and head jewelry. The bride and groom wear traditional habesha clothes as well as a "Kaba" which is a traditional cape embellished with gold or silver trimmings. The bridal party and guests also wear traditional habesha clothes. The bridal party is greeted with dancing and chanting," explains Khalil.

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