Locally known as Meskel (መስቀል), the Finding of the True Cross, is one of the most celebrated Ethiopian holidays. Although it is a Christian Orthodox holiday, it is a national holiday where government offices are officially closed and is celebrated throughout the country. Its origin roots deep into the old Christ days in Israel, where Queen Eleni found the true cross.
Meskel is celebrated by dancing, feasting and lighting a massive bonfire known in Ethiopian tradition as “Damera”. Meskel commemorates the finding of the True Cross in the fourth century when Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the True Cross on which Christ was crucified. The feast is celebrated in Ethiopia on September 17 Ethiopian calendar (September 27 Gregorian calendar), 6 months after the discovery of the True Cross. The celebration of Meskel signifies the presence of the True Cross at mountain of Gishen Mariam monastery and also symbolises the events carried out by Empress Helena.
According to tradition, Empress Helena lit incense and prayed for assistance to guide her. The smoke drifted towards the direction of the buried cross. She dug and found three crosses; one of them was the True Cross used to crucify Jesus Christ. Empress Helena then gave a piece of the True Cross to all churches, including the Ethiopian Church. This piece was then brought to Ethiopia. According to the Ethiopian legend, when people get close to the piece of the True Cross it made them naked by its powerful light. Because of this, a decision was made to bury it at the mountain of Gishen Mariam monastery in Wollo. The monastery of Gishen Mariam holds a volume of a book which records the story of the True Cross of Christ and how it was acquired.
There are two occasions on Meskel. The first is Demera (September 26), in which bonfires are built topped by a cross to which flowers are tied. The flowers are Meskel Daisies. The Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church orchestrates the lightening ceremony. After the bonfires are blessed they are lit and dancing and singing begins around them. Priests in full ceremonial dress sing around the bonfire. While the Demera is set on fire there is an inner feeling of brightness for all those who are around it. Little Demera are also built at individual houses or villages. After some time, splinters from the bundles of burning wood collapse. Which direction they fall is very significant: north, south, east or west Interpretations are soon conjectured as to whether the fields of grain are going to be plentiful or not, or there is peace all year round, etc. At the closing of the Demera, a rain shower is expected to fall to help put the fire out. If the rain falls and the fire is extinguished, there is a belief that the year will be prosperous.
The day after the Demera is Meskel. This day is observed with plenty of food and drink as believers go to the spot of the Demera and, using ashes from the fire, mark their heads with the sign of the cross. The festival coincides with the mass blooming of the golden yellow Meskel daisies. The best place to see the Meskel Festival is in the capital Addis Ababa at the famous Meskel Square. But all along the Historic route (Bahir Dar, Gonder, Axum, Adigrat, Mekelle, Gurage zone and Lalibela) and in other major towns, Meskel is colorfully celebrated.
This is as colorful as Timket, however instead of water the focus of the celebration is a bonfire before topped with an image of a cross to which flowers are tied. On the day of the festival, as it is coincides with the mass blooming of the bright yellow Maskal daisies, called Adey Ababa, are tied to fronds, and piled high in town squares. Colorful processions carrying bumming torches converge on to the square, where a pyre is lit and the celebrations continue until dawn, symbolically heralding the advent of a new year after the rainy season is Over.
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