Meskel, Finding of the True Cross
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.
Experience Meskel on these trips
Fusing history, culture, landscapes and wildlife along a perfectly paced circuit, this trip is a synthesis of the very best experiences on offer in Ethiopia’s northern highlands. Explorations of the ancient cities Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar and Lalibela are broken…
More Festivals in Ethiopia
Christmas in Ethiopia
Christmas in Ethiopia is celebrated on the 7th of January each year. A magical time to be in the country, particularly in the religious epicentre of Lalibela, or the bustling …
The Timkat festival is one of the biggest celebrations on the Ethiopian calendar. The festival is built around the baptism of Jesus Christ, and is a national holiday in …
Ethiopian New Year
For most of the western world, September represents the end of summer, and the beginning of long bleak winters spent behind closed windows and locked doors. However, in Ethiopia, …