PCVs Sing Christmas Carols To Emperor Haile Selassie
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.
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It was Wofford’s idea, as I recall it, and we all thought it was great. I don’t remember which carols we sang, but I do remember being invited into the palace for Champagne and cigars (for the men). I also ruefully remember bringing my camera, but loaded only with slow film and having no flash. The pictures “didn’t turn out”. What a bungled opportunity! The memory will have to do us.
2010 in reverse…John , I am Greeter at the National Cathedral .One of the great pleasure of this duty is recognizing foreign languages and faranji faces…so I last Friday I greeted many Ethiopians on Christnas Eve singing Christmas Carols!!!!
One of the great gifts to the early Peace Corps were the photos taken by Rowland Scherman. He put us on the map and in magazines and newspapers, and as I recall, Rowland and his partner Jim Walls bought the beers. What more could PCVs in Ethiopia want?
I too was there. If it were not for the Emporer, Peace Corps would not have been invited to Ethiopia. The ministry officials with whom he had consulted thought that we would be hippies. Sadly, these officials had not been abroad. The generation that had gone abroad during the early 30’s, were assassinated by the Italians in 1937 and the older generation staffing the Ministrys were literally living in the 10th Century. More recent foreign-educated Ethiopians were given jobs with the various ministries, most frequently with the title of Assistant to the Minister, but they were not expected to be involved in policy. To buy them off as it were, they would be given a housing allowance, a car and a pretty sectretary, and no duties!
One volunteer from our project was driving one of our Peace Corps Jeeps, bright light blue in color, and came around a corner and ran straight into the Emporer’s motorcade. As he tried to slow down, he attempted to bow to the Emporer. He said the Emporer was visibally amused by his attempt at respect.
During our first visit to be individually greated by the Emporer, after the Champaign had been served, we were served Tej, an ancient drink made from honey. It was as close to the Sumarian Mead as one can imagine. In fact, the oldest piece of Sumarian script that has been dicifered was a recipe for Mead! In any case, we became quite inebreated. I have an 8mm piece of film showning someone putting their hand in the mouth of a Cheetah, while another PCV pulled its tail!
Paul Tsongas, who served in our project, returned to Ethiopia as a Congressman, and spoke with Mengistu, the head of the government that overthrew Haile Selassie, in the palace. He recalled how odd it was with the Emporer’s lions crying out from their cage on the palace grounds.