Meskel is a festival in celebration of Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, finding the true cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Mirrored in many ways by Ash Wednesday in the west, the festival competes for top billing and is considered the most important festival for the laity and ordained alike.
Officially – in the eyes of the papacy and much of the Vatican centred Catholic faith – Meskel is a minor Christian feast, only celebrated by the staunch conservatives. In Ethiopia however, this is not the case and the country grinds to standstill during this festive period.
Considered a hugely important public holiday in Ethiopia, Meskel is now on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UN Agency for Education, Science and Culture.
The feast is celebrated on the 27th September, a time when the country is at its most beautiful following the rainy season, with flowers in full bloom and yellow daisy-like flowers covering the hills around Addis Ababa.
The celebration begins in earnest on the 26th of September, the eve of the feast, as families across the land prepare the demera, a tall prism built from twigs meant to resemble the burning fir tree that guided Helena to the cross.
Once this is prepared, a cross made from demera flowers is placed upon the pile, and the families return home, in anticipation of the start of celebrations.
As morning approaches, communities across the land attend a liturgy held within local churches.
Those living in Ethiopia’s capital head to Meskel square, and as the square slowly begins to fill out, large groups of brightly coloured umbrellas appear over the horizon, embellished in gold details and interweaving patterns.
Once the square is full, priests lead the celebrations, and cheers erupt throughout the semicircular stadium as mass comes to an end.
It is at this point that the patriarch of the family collects a bull or goat, used a sacrificial vessel. As crimson pours over the floor, the men take a shot of traditionally home-brewed alcohol, meant to ward off bad spirits.
The animal must fall to the right, if not it must immediately be moved, so it is lying on its right side. In folklore, it is said that those who do not follow this tradition are ushering in a curse over their family.
By late afternoon, families are gathered around their own demera, singing traditional folk songs and hymns as the younger members of the family gyrate in time, constantly circling the stick structure now protruding over every garden wall across the land.
As darkness sets in, the demera is set ablaze and the dancing intensifies around the flames as they rise higher and higher, sending plums of smoke up into the deep black midnight sky.
As the demera smoulders and burns down, families will often collect the ashes left and mark themselves with a cross, symbolizing their devotion to God.
Source: Brilliant Ethiopia