An Ethiopian wedding is a family affair and the wedding festivities begin well before the wedding day and continue until months and sometimes a year after the wedding day.

Starting from the beginning…

Ethiopia is made up of many diverse ethnic groups and as such, the ceremonies, customs and traditions discussed below will vary by ethnic group. Some examples of these diverse traditions are: Ga’at/Genfo event in the Tigre culture where women of the Bride’s family gather and celebrate the upcoming wedding by making Ga’at/Genfo, Ensosela event in Guragae culture occurs where the bride and her female family members and friends gather and have a beautifying ceremony, Aruz Mawalal event in Harari culture where the bride wears her axlass and goes house to house singing traditional songs with her single friends to invite family and friends to the wedding. Traditionally, marriages in Ethiopia were arranged by the family of the bride and groom. Today, the bride and groom decide who they will marry but families are still very much involved in the process.

Shimagelay: Before the groom proposes to his bride to be, he must send elder members of his family called “shimagelay” to the bride’s parents home to ask for her hand in marriage. The bride’s family will initially resist until the groom’s side has “sold” them on how the groom will provide for the bride and their future family, what kind of caretaker he will be, the kind of life the bride will lead with him and other qualities deemed necessary for a husband. Once the families agree to the marriage, they will enjoy a meal together to celebrate the joining of two families.

Tilosh: Tilosh is an event that usually takes place the night before the wedding. Selected members of the groom’s family, his groomsmen and best man, as messengers for the groom, go to the bride’s parents home with a suitcase full of gifts for the bride. Upon arrival, they are received by the parents, relatives, and bridesmaids. The bride is not present during this event. They will first greet the parents and other elders in the home with a kiss on the knees as a sign of respect. Then, they would stand in front of the hosts who demand to see the items inside the suitcases. The best man does the majority of the talking and before he takes out each item, he would first give exaggerated descriptions and phrases to make the item appear more expensive/rare. In response, the bride’s family and bridesmaids would deliberately belittle the value of each gift. In addition, while the best man if presenting a certain gift, a bridesmaid will sneak and take an item from the suitcase such as a shoe, or an earring. When the best man goes to present the item and only has 1 of a pair, the hosts will ridicule the groom for only bringing only one shoe or item. The groomsmen will respond by saying it was not their groom, but a jealous bridesmaid that did such mischief. This entertaining and theatrical banter continues until the bridesmaids receive each gift. Afterwards, the family will provide the final blessing for the groom to marry the bride and they will all enjoy a traditional feast.


Wedding Morning: When the big arrives, relatives and guests get together at the bride and groom’s homes to assist the bride and groom in preparing for the day. The groom dresses in traditional garb and is blessed by his parents, relatives and elders. He and his friends then head to the bride’s home. They are greeted at the entrance by the bride’s family and bridesmaids who are all singing and dancing and preventing the groom and groomsmen from walking in. The groomsmen will “fight” off the bride’s family to allow the groom to walk in and claim his bride! This is an old custom to prevent the groom from entering until he pays his dowry.

Once he’s let in, the groom is welcomed and sits down to eat with his bride, while elders and parents bless the couple. The bride and groom and all others at the home will then head to the church for the ceremony.

Ceremony: The family and guests are all dressed in Habesha clothes and are seated and awaiting the arrival of the bridal party. The groom and bridal party walk in first and wait for the bride. The bride walks down the aisle with her father and everyone in the church must rise and welcome the bride. Once the priests have done their blessing and the bride and groom exchange vows (a ritual which can last up to 3 hours), they will be deemed husband and wife! The bride and groom exit the church and are greeted by family and friends who are singing and chanting to celebrate the new union.

Shirishir: After the ceremony, the bride, groom, bridal party and close friends and family of the bride and groom will head to an outdoor location such as a park that is ideal for photographs. The bride and groom will have a photo session with each other and all others at the shirishir. Then they will eat and take time to rest before heading to the wedding reception.

Reception: The bride and groom along with their bridal party walk into the reception traditionally to the song “Mushiraye.”  They walk to the dance floor where they bride and groom have their first dance and are then joined by their bridal party and close family members. This short dancing session ends and the bride and groom are seated. The priests are then invited to bless the food. After the blessing of the food, the bride and groom, followed by the best man and maid of honor go to get food. The bride and groom must not take out their own food, but simply walk over to observe the food. The best man and maid of honor with make the bride and groom’s plate. Once everyone has eaten, the dancing will begin and does not stop until the wee hours of the night. Towards the end of the night, the dance floor will be cleared and the elders of both the bride and groom’s families will be seated. The bride and groom will go down the line and kiss the knees of all the elders as a sign of respect. This can be an emotional ritual as the bride is thought to be saying goodbye to her family and joining the groom’s family. The dancing will continue and the bride and groom will try to escape but the bride’s family will make a last attempt to keep the bride from leaving by blocking the path of the bride and groom. The groomsmen will fight off those blocking the groom’s path and make way for the groom to take his bride.

Melse: The melse is a reception that occurs on the day after the wedding for close friends and family members hosted by the Bride’s family. 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 bride and groom walk in with their bridal party and immediately begin dancing. Once the dancing stops, the food is blessed and the bridal party begins serving food and drinks and they are considered “hosts” of the melse. After food, the dancing begins for hours. The dancing is stopped for a naming ceremony called “Dabo Sim” where the groom’s family gives the bride a name that she will be called by the groom’s family from that day forward. The naming ceremony is lighthearted and often begins with the groom’s family and his groomsmen presenting a name that they know the bride’s family will not accept such as “she is a lucky one”..etc. The bride’s’ family and bridesmaids will adamantly resist the names until the groom’s side presents an acceptable name. Once the name has been accepted, the bread or “Dabo” will be cut and passed out to the guests by the bridal party. Each guest has to recite the name before they are given a piece of bread. If they say the wrong name, they will not get a piece of bread. After the Dabo Sim ceremony, the dancing continues into the night. Close family and friends of the bride and groom can choose to have a “melse” for the bride and groom any time after the wedding. The bride and groom often have several Melses’ after their wedding.

Kilikil: is an intimate reception event held a day or two after the Melse hosted by the Groom’s family. The word Kilkil means mixing. This event allows members of each side of the bride and groom to gather and mingle one another intimately. The entire bridal party is also invited and are the ones serving/hosting the guests. This is also where both the bride and the groom pay their final respects to their families as they are hosting the guests and making sure families are well acquainted.  In the US the diaspora generally mix the melse and kilkil but in Ethiopia it is a separate event.