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Africa’s “Little Italy” Christmas Celebration! Eritrean Italian

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Celebrate Christmas Twice in the African Country of Eritrea

When people think of Africa, images of leaping antelope, arid deserts, vast savannahs, and rich cultures come to mind. 

Not to mention, Africa also hosts a wide range of languages such as Swahili, French, Arabic, and Afrikaans. 

However, most people don’t think of Italian nor do they associate Italian holidays such as Christmas with the African continent. 

But what if we told you that there is, in fact, an East African country that hosts Italian as one of its many languages AND celebrates Christmas… TWICE?  


Welcome to Eritrea, a spectacular land where Christmas lovers and Italian enthusiasts can greet their holidays with a friendly ciao (hello). 

In this article, prepare to have your mind blown when we explain:

  • How Eritrea became Africa’s “Little Italy”
  • The Story Of Italian imperialism in Eritrea
  • Do Eritreans Speak Italian?
  • Why Eritreans & Italian-Eritreans celebrate Christmas TWICE
  • Where You Can Go To Better Your Italian Skills

Let’s get started. 


Welcome to Eritrea: Africa’s “Little Italy”

Did you know that Eritrea is a country in a region of East Africa known as the ‘Horn of Africa.’ This region also includes the countries of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia. 

But what does this have to do with Italian language, culture, and heritage? 

In short, Italy occupied Eritrea between the years of 1890-1941 as a result of colonization.

However, the longer narrative of Italy’s African colonization doesn’t stop there. Keep reading to understand how Eritrea incorporated an Italian heritage. 


History of Italian Occupation in Eritrea

First, the story actually begins with Great Britain’s pursuit of dominance over the Horn of Africa during the 19th century. With a strong French colonial power already situated in Djibouti, Britain wanted to establish itself in the surrounding areas: Ethiopia and Eritrea.  

However, with the proclamation of the Ethiopian Adwa Peace Treaty in 1884, angered Mahdist Muslims in Sudan became vengeful against Ethiopia. 

But what does Ethiopia, Britain, and the Adwa Peace Treaty have to do with Italian occupation? 

Don’t worry, we’re about to explain everything

When the Ethiopian Emperor died in battle against the Mahdist Muslims, there was a scramble for power in the country. Because of this, Ethiopia was in an extremely weak state of power and did not have the resources to beat the French in war. 

So, in 1890, Great Britain asked Italy to invade Eritrea and Ethiopia to ensure Britain’s allies maintained power in the region. 


Italian Immigration Eritrea

With that, thousands of Italians began to trickle down the Eritrean coast. And what’s more? In 1922, the rise of Mussolini in Italy shifted the country’s eyes towards Eritrea again! Now, Italy had BIG plans to colonize all of Horn of Africa.

Under Mussolini, Italy wanted to claim the entire Horn of Africa as “Africa Orientale Italiana”  or Italian East Africa. With that, Eritrea became the base country for Italy’s ports and was used to fuel Mussolini’s expansionist plans. 

Can you guess what happened next?

In 1935, thousands of Italian workers and soldiers poured into Eritrea with plans to invade Ethiopia. 

Even though the attempt to capture Ethiopia ultimately failed, Italian colonialism lasted over 50 years in Eritrea and its presence is still visible today. In fact, you can still find gelato shops, old Italian cars, and the best pasta outside of Italy as a result of this unique occupation.

So does this mean Eritreans still speak Italian? 

Well, yes! 


Do They Speak Italian In Eritrea? 

Nowadays, many other languages are spoken in Eritrea, including:

  • Tigrinya
  • Tigre
  • Arabic

But the matter of the fact is, much of the older generation in Eritrea still speak Italian. This is because many were still alive during the Italian occupation or are the direct descendants of Italian immigrants. 

You can also find many Italian-Eritreans, or Eritrea-born citizens of Italian descent, in the country. Think about it: you can practice your Italian skills over a cup of Italian coffee with the locals!  

Furthermore, remnants of the occupation can be found in Italian street names and old street signs. And not to mention, many Eritreans celebrate Italian holidays – like Christmas! 

Interestingly enough, what really makes an Italian Eritrean Christmas stand out is that the holiday is actually celebrated TWICE. 

But how and why? 


Italian Eritrean Christmas: Celebrate Christmas Twice

As tradition has it, the sovereign state of Eritrea celebrates the same Christmas Day that we are all familiar with: December 25th. However, they celebrate it again on January 7th, a day referred to as Geez Christmas

Sounds pretty cool, right? 

Let’s introduce you to a traditional Geez Christmas.


Eritrea Geez Christmas Celebration

First and foremost, Geez Christmas is considered a national holiday in Eritrea. The celebration is so popular that it’s even recognized by members of the Russian Orthodox Church – a branch of Christianity practiced in Eritrea. 

We know what you are thinking… why is Christmas celebrated twice in Eritrea? And why January 7th? 

The answer is surprisingly simple: 

January 7th is Christmas Day according to the Julian Calendar, which is the official calendar recognized in Eritrea and Ethiopia. 

Many Orthodox Christians around the world celebrate Christmas Day in January to recognize Jesus Christ’s birth as it is described in the Bible. This date works in accordance with the Julian calendar, which pre-dates the Gregorian calendar.

Is it all beginning to make a little more sense now?

Now that you know Eritrea is a one-stop shop to practice your Italian AND celebrate Christmas twice, what are you waiting for? Time to pack your bags and book a ticket to Eritrea! 


Need To Brush Up On Your Italian Before Your Trip?

Who knew Italian was spoken in Africa! Planning to celebrate Christmas in Eritrea or Italy this season? Don’t miss out on the language of the locals, learn Italian for yourself with Pimsleur.  

pimsleur language learning slang

And if you are feeling extra zealous, no need to stop there! Enjoy your first FREE lesson on us and learn as many languages as your heart desires. 

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