Less than two weeks after the much celebrated Ethiopian New Year, it is time to saddle up for another colorful ceremony: The Meskel Festival. Meskel, which means 'cross' in Amharic, is an annual christian holiday celebrated by the Orthodox Christians of the country. Ever since it was added to UNESCO's representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, the Meskel Festival has attracted thousands of tourists from all around the world. It is known as the celebration of the finding of the True Holy Cross of Christ.

Meskel holiday observances

Gregorian Year Meskel date
2021 Septmber 27
2022 Septmber 27
2023 Septmber 28
2024 Septmber 27
2025 Septmber 27
2026 Septmber 27
2027 Septmber 28
2028 Septmber 27
2029 Septmber 27
2030 Septmber 27

The story of Meskel

The story of the finding of the true cross dates back to the 4th century, during the reign of Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. At the time, the relics of the True Cross of Jesus had been lost for centuries. Guided by the instructions of an angel, she was led to an elder man who would reveal to her that the True Cross was hidden in a place called Golgotha. It was in fact buried deep in a landfill. In order to find it, she was told to light a bonfire along with some incense. The smoke from the bonfire would lead St. Helena straight to the place where the relics of the True Cross were buried. The next day, a huge bonfire was lit and the True Cross was finally found.

The celebration

In the days leading to the celebration, the neighborhoods of Addis Ababa start to buzz with activity. In preparation for the bonfire, the streets are cleaned. They are decorated with flags, grass, and yellow daisies (also known as Adey Abeba or Meskel daisies). A bonfire is made with long fire torches that are supported by a central pole. The top of the pole is decorated by yellow daisies in the shape of a cross.
The Ethiopian Orthodox church organizes a large festival which is held in Meskel Square. The ceremony begins with a large parade of colorful choirs, loud drums and religious chants. The crowd gathers around the bonfire, which stands tall in the middle of the square. As the ceremony progresses, you can hear the excitement grow in the crowd. Finally, religious leaders bless the bonfire and light it ablaze. The crowd erupts in cheers, chanting as the heat and the glow of the bonfire spread throughout the square.
Away from the crowd and the cameras, each neighborhood organizes their own bonfire. Local youngsters host a small event which will include blessings from the elders, charity donations, a coffee ceremony and even live music.
Eventually the fire begins to smolder, leaving the central pole standing alone over a bed of warm ashes. The leftover ash is used to make cross marks on the foreheads of the faithful.

Despite a mostly religious significance, the Meskel festival is a highly celebrated cultural holiday with rituals that vary from one ethnic group to the other. In cities as well as in the countryside, it is seen as a time to celebrate the community. It is also a symbol of hope as it officially heralds the beginning of Tsedey, the spring season.

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