Orthodox Christians were busy today, celebrating the Meskel festival at Meskel Square in Addis and other public squares in the rest of Ethiopia.
Both Ethiopia and Eritrea celebrate the Meskel Holiday (Finding of True Cross) every year on Meskerem 16, or Setember 26, per Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches’ traditions.
Meskel means Cross in Ge’ez, ancient language, considered the predecessor of both Tigrigna and Amharic languages.
According to Church teachings, Queen Helena (Saint Helena) was the one who found the True Cross, the actual cross of the crucifixion.
In Ethiopia, what makes the ceremony unique is that bonfire, Demera, is lit to commemorate the event that happened centuries ago. Why Bonfire? Church teaches Queen Helena was told in a dream to make a bonfire whose smoke would show her where the True Cross was buried. After the revelation the Queen asked her people in Jerusalem to make the bonfire as told, which led her to the exact location of the Cross.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church teaches a quarter, or a piece of, the Cross was given to Ethiopia, which has kept it at Gishen Mariam monastery where it is secretly guarded.
Meskel is a colorful festival; Demera, bonfire, happens either before or on the day; firewood is prepared in the shape of cross. Women ululate, men and priests chant as the Demera-procession happens. And it’s one of those festivals that most kids look forward to celebrate. As a kid, I loved being part of it. I would play hide and seek with my best friends or would join the procession and would chant, sing out loud.
As the firewood begins to burn, people eagerly wait to see or predict which direction the central wood that holds the rest falls. Depending on the direction of the fall, East, West, North, South, spectators then make predictions whether it is going to be a good or bad year.
Religious belief, spiritual and non spiritual chants, good food, and superstitious belief—Meskel brings them all out.
Meskel comes after Ethiopia’s new year, which is a spring season in the Southern hemisphere, so it is even more colorful thanks to mother nature. The signature flowers for Ethiopia’s spring season are Yellow Daisies, Adey Abeba, which decorate the Meskel firewood before it is lit.
In Ethiopia, Meskel is cherished by all Orthodox Christians, but it is more warmly celebrated among certain ethnic groups such as the Gurague. For the Gurague, who are known for the special cuisines Kitfo and Kocho, Meskel is their most favorite religious holiday. Tigrayans, Oromos, and Amharas also celebrate it well. There is always something unique as you travel from one region to the other.
Meskel is also seen as a seasonal holiday, celebrating the coming of the sun and the end of rain, which means work for farmers.
Outside Ethiopia and Eritrea, Meskel is known as Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. And it takes place on September 14.
Happy Meskel Holiday to those who celebrate in both Ethiopia and Eritrea!
May hope reign over despair in the spirit of this Spring season.