Timkat: Ethiopian Christian festival marks fourth year on UNESCO’s intangible list

priests with colorful umbrellas, Timkat

Photo by Robert Wilson, courtesy of Flickr

THURSDAY, JANUARY 19: Rich, deep hues and velvet fabrics dot the landscape in Ethiopia during one of the grandest festivals of the year: Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian ceremony commemorating the baptism of Jesus.

Did you know? Ethiopia is home to more UNESCO sites than any other country in Africa. In December 2019, UNESCO inscribed Timkat on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Water, people swimming, crowds, Timkat

A Timkat ceremony, held at Fasiladas’ Bath in Gondar, Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As the countryside’s rolling hills are blooming with yellow spring flowers, pilgrims and priests dress in their finest clothing and form a procession that weaves through the rock-hewn churches and age-old passageways of Ethiopia. Central to the processions are models of the Ark of the Covenant (called tabots), carried by priests with caution and pride. To Ethiopian Christians, the tabot signifies the manifestation of Jesus as the Savior, when he came to the Jordan River to be baptized.

Timkat events begin on Timkat eve, when the tabots are ceremoniously wrapped in cloth and carried by priests in a procession. In the earliest morning hours, while the sky is still dark, crowds gather near bodies of water to witness a blessing of the waters—a reenactment of the baptism of Christ. Crowds are sprinkled with water, and baptismal vows are renewed. When all rituals are complete, pilgrims return home for feasts and continued celebrations.

Interested to learn more?

Read a message from UNESCO on Timkat, here.

GM Today recommends Timkat as one element of “A Year of Wild Human Experiences.” Check out the article, here.

The Library of Congress provides information on Timkat, available here.

Read more information about the “Ethiopian Epiphany” from UNESCO, here.

Ethiopians celebrate first Meskel since making UNESCO list

Children in colorful robes with dark skin stand in crowd appearing to perform

Children participate in the Meskel festivities at Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, 2012. Photo by opalpeterliu, courtesy of Flickr

SUNSET FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 26: Bonfires ignite an ancient story as darkness spreads across the Ethiopian landscape tonight: Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox Christians celebrate Demera, the eve of the grand holiday of Meskel. Recalling the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena in the fourth century, the bonfires of Meskel eve recreate the colossal bonfire that St. Helena experienced in a dream. Ethiopians remember a traditional Christian story that says St. Helena instructed the people of Jerusalem to bring wood for a bonfire; after adding incense, the bonfire’s smoke rose high into the sky and, returning to the ground, touched the precise spot where the true cross was located. It’s believed that a part of the true cross was brought to Ethiopia, where it lies at the mountain of Amba Geshen.


The Meskel festival traces its roots back 1,600 years, and although it hasn’t been celebrated with the same level of enthusiasm in every century, today’s Ethiopia is packed with adherents who grandly celebrate Meskel. (Photographs and more of last year’s ceremonies are at International Business Times.) Colorful Demera processions begin in the early evening of Meskel eve; firewood is gathered by community members, and the bonfire site is sprinkled with fresh yellow daisies. (Learn more from Wikipedia and AllAfrica.) Bonfires burn the night through, and when the flames at last begin to smolder, leftover ash is used to mark the foreheads of the faithful, in an act similar to that of Ash Wednesday. On Meskel, the people of Ethiopia attend religious services, gather with family, and feast together.

Did you know? Ethiopia is the only country in the world that celebrates the finding of the cross on a national level. Ethiopia recently petitioned—and succeeded, in December of 2013—in requesting UNESCO to register the Meskel events in Addis Ababa as a cultural heritage experience, for its “ancient nature … color and significance … and the attraction it has for a growing number of tourists as well as the immense participation of the society.”

How does Meskel taste, sound and feel? Ethiopian honey wine, exotic spices and the spiciest of hot peppers dazzle the plates mounded with food, as family honored recipes fill the table. In community settings, dozens of women gather to prepare food for hungry churchgoers, humming and singing traditional songs while they work. Homemade cheese, tomatoes and lentils are served with injera flatbread. (Make injera with this recipe, from Food.com.)

Following food, the time-honored Ethiopian coffee ceremony commences. (Toast your own cup to the coffee ceremony—or celebrate with family and friends—by learning more here.)


Meskel: Ethiopian Christians celebrate ‘cross’ day

Large group of Ethiopians in multitude of colors of robes

Meskel celebrations in Ethiopia. Photo courtesy of Flickr

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.

Christmas’s Last Hurrah: From the Orthodox East

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_113_Russia_Christmas_tree.jpgA Christmas tree in Russia. Photo courtesy of WikimediaMONDAY, JANUARY 7: As the final Christmas clearance sales signal the end of the Christmas season in America, some countries are just celebrating the big day: In accordance with the Julian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity draws huge crowds to Orthodox Christian churches in many nations today. (Check out photos from NBC News. Or, from the BBC. Or, the Washington Post.)

From Russia to the Rastas in Ethiopia, today means feasting with family, adoring the baby Jesus and exchanging gifts. Christian countries following the Gregorian calendar marked Epiphany and Three Kings Day on January 6—by tradition, when the three kings presented the Christ baby with gold, frankincense and myrrh. But that celebration won’t come for another 13 days for Orthodox Christians.

The Moscow Patriarchate will celebrate Christmas on November 7, which means that the most widely attended Nativity liturgies are held late at night on November 6 into the very first hours of November 7. Russian Christmas begins with traditional Orthodox fasting in anticipation. Russians look for the appearance of a first star. Customs and schedules vary across the Orthodox world, but the Nativity typically is greeted in Russia with the Lord’s Prayer, words of thanksgiving and Kutya or Sochivo—wheat-based porridges. (Food traditions are examined by USA Today.) “The Holy Supper” culminates in a formal Christmas dinner, when the table is covered with scrumptious dishes. On the day of Nativity, neighbors and family visit one another and spend the day eating, drinking and singing carols. (Get details from About.com.)

In Jamaica and in Rasta communities worldwide, Christmas falls on this Orthodox schedule following the custom of the Rasta homeland: Ethiopia. Unlike most Christmas feasts, the Rastafari dinner consists of vegetarian dishes and maintains strict food laws. (Hungry for a vegetarian dish? Try out a recipe from Vegetarian Times.) Following the feast, prophesies and readings prepare the way for a Nyabinghi meeting. The Rasta messianic figure Haile Selassie cemented the importance of Christmas for future devotees by announcing, on Christmas Day in 1937, “There is no greater day of gratitude and joy for Christians than celebrating the birthday of Our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_113_Father_Winter_Belarus.jpgGrandfather Frost of Belarus. Head officials of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church say the Soviet replacement of Christ with a secular Grandfather Frost is the reason why New Year outshines Christmas in Russia. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia CommonsFROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE:

Recently released studies of world religion show a startling rift among Russia’s Orthodox Christians: Despite some 80 percent of Russians identifying as Orthodox, only 8 percent attend religious services on a regular basis. In light of this, a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy (and high-ranking official of the Russian Orthodox Church) proposed something bold: moving Christmas Day to January 1. (Read more in Asia News.) He argues that during the Soviet-era’s 70 years of official atheism, the secular New Year exploded in popularity. New Year events continue to be the most elaborate events of the year, and by closing the religious/secular gap, the professor argues that Russians will have more energy for Christmas festivities.


While Rastas and followers of the Julian calendar mark Christmas today, other Julian followers—of Julian Marley, that is—have been talking about the reggae composer’s recent gig in India. Julian reports that his tunes, much like those of his father, are inspired by God and spirituality. (Read more in the Times of India.) Meanwhile, Bob Marley’s granddaughter, Donisha Prenderghast, has been making headlines with first screenings of a documentary about her own Rasta journey. Donisha began exploring her Rasta roots in 2003 and produced RasTa: A Soul’s Journey, which explores the changes in Rastafari image through the past few decades. (Read details in the UK’s Harrow Observer.)


As the Orthodox world ramped up for Christmas, Christians following the more widely used Gregorian calendar marked January 6 as Epiphany and, in Hispanic countries, Three Kings Day. Disneyland marked an especially large-scale Three Kings Day event this year, after an extremely successful launch year in 2012; the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree in Frontierland hosted Mexican folklorico dancing, mariachi musicians, sweet tamales and Mexican hot chocolate and, of course, king cake. (USA Today reported.) Even Nickelodeon star Dora the Explorer hosted an inside look at Three Kings Day. (Watch the episode at Nick Jr.com.)

Hispanic traditions may be picking up momentum worldwide—Mexico was just named a “Top Christmas Destination” by CNN, largely for its religious ritual Las Posadas. In Puerto Rico, children follow up Thanksgiving with a list to their favorite king, asking for gifts that they hope to receive on Three Kings Day. (No Santa Claus here!) In return for boxes of grass or hay placed beneath their beds for the kings’ horses, children receive gifts on the morning of Three Kings Day. During the week of Three Kings Day, the Three Kings travel around the island, visiting towns and children’s hospitals; the Three Kings Museum, the first of its kind, was inaugurated in 2004 in Puerto Rico and contains costumes that were blessed by Pope John Paul II.

Miami greeted Three Kings yesterday with a parade and grand marshals LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh; a bilingual performance of the biblical story took place at the GALA Theatre in Washington, D.C. Mexico marked the day with fervor, too, while New Orleans used the day to kick off Carnivale season.

Ethiopian Christian: Discover the True Cross during Meskel

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-0924_Ethiopian_carries_two_Orthodox_crosses.jpgAn Ethiopian carries two of the tradtionally ornate crosses produced for worship in this African nation.FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 28: World news reports recently showed tens of thousands of Ethiopians gathered in Meskel Square to mourn their late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Today, Ethiopians celebrate the holiday for which this square is named: Meskel, a unique holiday celebrating the discovery of the True Cross by St. Helena. The sea of candles lighting the night for weeks to mourn Zenawi (view photos here) will become bonfires as this holiday nears.

Meskel recalls an ancient Christian story: In her search for Christian relics, Roman Empress Helena (the mother of Emperor Constantine) lit an enormous bonfire to help find the cross on which Jesus was crucified, a relic called the True Cross by believers. Today for Meskel, bonfires once again are lit, ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful and some even believe the direction of the fire’s smoke predicts future events. (Wikipedia has details.)

Ethiopians have a particular reverence for the True Cross tradition, because it’s believed that a part of this precious Christian relic was brought to Ethiopia. Of course, countless churches and shrines around the world claim to possess a bit of this relic. Around the world, Catholics and Orthodox Christians revere these relics, but Ethiopians are distinctive in their annual celebration of the True Cross’s discovery.

The traditional story begins in the 4th century with Empress Helena in the midst of her travels to find and preserve early Christian landmarks. One night, Helena was instructed, through a dream, to light a bonfire; the smoke would float in the direction of the true Cross. She ordered all of Jerusalem to gather firewood and, upon adding frankincense to the fire, the smoke rose high—and returned to ground level, precisely above where the Cross was buried. To this day, Meskel celebrations include a careful attention to the direction of the bonfires’ smoke.

Far from Ethiopia, another cross relic was recently reported missing: a 3mm piece of wood that belonged to a church in Killeshin, Ireland. (The BBC has the story.) This relic of the True Cross was contained in a pewter container and was brought to Holy Cross Church in 1822.

Ethiopian Orthodox: A baptism, an Ark and Timkat

https://readthespirit.com/religious-holidays-festivals/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2013/03/wpid-SF_112_Timkat_Ethiopian_dancers_umbrellas.jpgPhoto in public domainFRIDAY, JANUARY 20: Two weeks after the Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas, a holiday of vibrant velvets, sequins, satins, and supreme joy sweeps through the country in a three-day festival known as Timkat. The Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany recalls the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, with a Divine Liturgy taking place at 2 a.m. near a natural pool of water. (Wikipedia has details.) Following the Divine Liturgy, the pool of water is blessed and holy water is sprinkled upon those who have gathered.

Tradition is key in Timkat rituals: winding horns and religious bells noisily signal the removal of the replica of the Ark of the Covenant, known as the Tabot, from each church. The Tabot has a place at every Ethiopian altar, though it is rarely seen by anyone other than clergy members; during Timkat, it is wrapped in cloth and carried on the head of a priest in an elaborate procession. Once near a chosen body of water, the faithful slumber outside of a ceremonial tent where a priest or priests and the Tabot reside. The priests pray throughout the night. In early morning hours, clergy and laity hold the Divine Liturgy, and the Tabot is used to bless the nearby pool of water where the liturgy is held. As dawn gives way to daylight, priests and clergy dance and sing through the streets—often carrying velvet, sequined umbrellas and bearing robes of equal richness—and the Tabot of each altar is carried back to its place. (View photos of Timkat from the Huffington Post. Or, check out a gallery from the BBC.) On this, the rare occasion when the Tabot is taken from its traditional resting place, it is brought to its full potential as representation of the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he traveled to the Jordan River for baptism.

The Ark of the Covenant is a religious relic in which Ethiopians take special pride. Throughout most of the world, representations of the ancient Ark are symbolic. That’s the case in Ethiopian churches, as well. Hollywood even had its way with this potent symbolism in the Indiana Jones movie series. But the source of Ethiopian pride runs deep: For many centuries, one traditional line of Christian stories holds that the true Ark wound up in an Ethiopian shrine at Axum in northern Ethiopia. For Ethiopian Christians, this is a matter of faith and national pride.

The days of Timkat often bring sunshine and warm weather, as the rainy season is ending in Ethiopia and blue skies greet joyous Christians. Beneath the sun, men, women and children dress in their finest; special meals are shared, usually including freshly brewed Ethiopian mead and beer; and gifts are given to children.

As 2012 is a Leap Year, Ethiopia’s Timkat will begin on Jan. 20 instead of Jan. 19.