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Semir Worku | Ethiopia | January 5

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Meskel - The Finding of the True Cross

Thefestival of Meskel is second in importance only to Timkat, and has been celebrated in the country for over 1,600 years. The word actually means "cross" and the feast commemorates the discovery of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The original event took place on 19 March, AD 326, but the feast is now celebrated on 27 September.

Many of the rites observed throughout the festival are said to be directly connected to the legend of Empress Helena. On the eve of Meskel, tall branches are tied as one whilst yellow daisies, popularly called meskel flowers, are placed at the top. During the night, these branches are gathered together in front of the compound gates and ignited. This symbolizes the actions of the Empress whom lit incense and prayed for help, when no one would show her the Holy Sepulcher. Where the smoke drifted, she dug and found three crosses being one of them, the True Cross, where many miracles were attributed.

Meskel also signifies the physical presence of the True Cross at the remote mountain monastery of Gishen Mariam located in the Wollo region. In this monastery, there is a massive volume called the Tefut, written during the reign of Zera Yacob (1434-1468), which records the story of how a fragment of the Cross was acquired.

During this time of year, flowers bloom on the mountains and plains, and the meadows are yellow with the brilliant Meskel daisy. Dancing, feasting, merrymaking, bonfires, and even gun salutes mark the occasion. The festival begins by planting a green tree on Meskel Eve in town squares and village marketplaces. Everyone brings a pole topped with meskel daisies to form the towering pyramid that will soon be a beacon of flame. Torches of eucalyptus twigs called chibo are used to light the bundle of branches called demera.

Best place to witness this festival


In Addis Ababa, celebrations start in the early afternoon when a huge procession bearing flaming torches approaches Meskel Square from various directions. The marchers include priests in their brightly hued vestments, students, brass bands, contingents of the armed forces, and bedecked floats carrying huge lit crosses. They circle the demera and fling their torches upon it, while singing a special Meskel song. Thousands gather at the square to join in and welcome the season of flowers and golden sunshine called Tseday. As evening darkens, the flames glow brighter. It is not until dawn that the burning pyramid consumes itself and the big tree at the centre finally falls. During the celebrations, each house is stocked with tella (the local beer), and strangers are made welcome.

 
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