Happy Meskel!

Gerald Jones discusses Meskel, the Ethiopian Christian celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Gerald Jones, Regional Director for Ethiopia, yesterday shared details of an Ethiopian Christian holiday. Meskel is the celebration of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which falls near the Ethiopian calendar’s new year:

Attached is a photo from our recent (28 September) celebration of “Meskel.” Meskel means “cross” in Amharic and it a major celebration (both religious and national) that commemorates the finding of the True Cross by the Empress Helena. Tradition holds that, praying for assistance, Empress Helena had a revelation; she was to light a bonfire, and the smoke would lead her to the resting place of the True Cross.

The picture depicts the celebration on the main square in Addis Ababa. This square itself is called Meskel Square. During the 17 years of Communist rule beginning in 1974, the Communist authorities renamed it “Revolution Square,” but as soon as the Communist government fell in 1991, it quickly reverted to its old name.

The major celebrations occur on Meskel Eve. Around 6:00 pm, huge crowds gather in the Square where many priests assemble to chant in the Geez liturgical language and dance the measured steps of liturgical dance. These days, parish youth groups also gather and sing and dance, and it is wonderful to see young boys and girls actively involved in this traditional celebration.

At the center of the square there is an enormous bonfire (called the Demera), around which the priests parade. Patriarch and dignitaries circle and eventually light the pyre, which is topped by a huge cross. The structure goes up in flames as the crowd cheers and ululates.

At the local level, neighborhoods often each set up their own Demera where they sing, dance, mingle and drink coffee. The overall atmosphere is very festive. The celebration is observed throughout the country; indeed, in the week before Easter, thousands of people leave Addis Ababa to observe Meskel with their families in the countryside.

September is really a “holiday season” in Ethiopia; our New Year is 12 September (by our calendar it is now 2004) and shortly afterwards, we celebrate Meskel!

You can read Mr. Jones’ report on the recent drought conditions in East Africa here.

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