Meskel: Ethiopian Christians celebrate ‘cross’ day

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 27:  Men and women far and wide are mourning the tragic attacks at the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya—once again reminding the world of the many dangers of contemporary life across the African continent. But, just to the north of Kenya in Ethiopia, a colorful outdoor festival will be breaking out this week. Meskel is little known in the U.S., but is a beloved festival of processions, lots of daisies and bonfires, as well, in Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox communities.

The term generally is translated as “cross” and is a feast widely regarded among Ethiopians as a celebration of the True Cross—at least a portion of it—coming to Ethiopia and still preserved today in the cross-shaped Amba Geshen —a mountain in Ethiopia with historic and sacred associations for the Ethiopian people. (Note: Dates vary on many world holidays; Christians celebrate various Feasts of the Cross, each autumn. Wikipedia has an overview of these diverse observances.)

Meskel celebrations begin on Meskel Eve, in commemoration of the famed bonfire that Christian tradition says was lit by Queen Helena in the 4th century. Tradition holds that Queen Helena had a dream in which it was revealed that if she made a bonfire, she would be pointed to the location of the cross on which Jesus Christ had been crucified. At that, Helena ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood to make a pile; frankincense was added to the logs, and flames ignited. (Wikipedia has details.) The smoke rose high and returned to the ground some distance later—at the spot of the true Cross. At the discovery, Empress Helena distributed pieces of the Cross to the Ethiopian Church and other churches.

Ethiopian legend has it that when one stands too close to the true Cross, he is made naked by its strong light; in a preventative measure, the Cross was buried on the sacred mountain. The monastery of Gishen Mariam houses a volume that records the ancient story of the true Cross and how it was obtained.

The bonfires lit on Meskel Eve are known as Demera. The firewood is first covered with fresh daisies, and following the bonfire, charcoal is used to shape a cross onto the foreheads of attendees (similar to Ash Wednesday customs common in Western Christianity).


More recent “good news” from Ethiopia: The Ethiopian Public Health Association (EPHA) recently laid the cornerstone for the construction of new headquarters. Compared to the current rented building, EPHA will soon call home a nine-story building complex. (All Africa has the story.) Construction will be partly funded by the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Representatives report plans for the building to also offer public health education and training.