In the first year the Peace Corps was in Ethiopia, way back in 1962, PCVs were invited to sing Christmas carols at Jubilee Palace, the residence of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, King of Kings, and Conquering Lion of Judah. (I might have forgotten a few of his other titles.)
Jubilee Palace was the real thing, built in Addis Ababa in 1955 in commemoration of the first twenty-five years of the Emperor’s reign. We had been to the Palace once before, in September of ’62 shortly after arriving in country, when we had been welcomed to the Empire by His Majesty. We toured the palace’s park-like grounds of trees, gardens and pools, and viewed his private collection of animals. Besides the Imperial lions, antelopes and monkeys, his cheetahs were a special interest to all of us because we could step inside the cage and pet them.
PCVs who lived in Addis often saw the Emperor in the city. I remember several occasions when walking back to the Commercial School on Smuts Street after lunch to teach my afternoon classes I would stop in my tracks as the Emperor’s Rolls-Royce passed me on Churchill Road. We PCVs knew to bow respectfully and the Emperor would recognize us with a nod while Ethiopians beside us fell to their knees in respect of HIM (His Imperial Majesty). And the Emperor, spotting us, a faranji on the sidewalk, would nod to us in recognition. It was a big deal, I must admit, to be recognized by the little man.
So, going to the Palace for Christmas Eve was also a “big deal.” About fifty of us assembled in the darkness outside the walls and then led onto the grounds by the U.S. Ambassador and positioned like neighborhood carolers in front of the second floor balcony where the Emperor appeared with several of his young grandchildren to hear our motley crew sing very off-key a half dozen familiar Western Christmas carols.
When we finished singing he thanked us and wished us “Merry Christmas” in English which was special as the Emperor rarely spoke in English. [Now there was also a rumor that our language instructors had taught us a carol in Amharic that actually said, “throw Jesus out with the bath water,” but we were never able to prove it.]
Nevertheless, we were welcomed into the Palace for champagne and tej, the national drink, to be greeted by His Majesty, and to march up to the throne and bow again to HIM and say hello in our bumbling Amharic. A girlfriend of mine at the time, knowing that the Emperor spoke fluent French, greeted His Majesty in her college classroom French. The Emperor smiled, and told her in French that she might want to work on her accent.
After all of these years, I wonder what he must have thought of the lot us gangling and gawking Americans. I’m sure he was grateful we were teaching in his schools – even if we mangled Amharic and couldn’t carry a tune. As for myself, I remember that for me it was a special moment – singing carols for the Emperor of Ethiopia on Christmas Eve. Not a bad way for a farm boy from Illinois to celebrate his first Christmas in Africa.