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Meskel (Finding of the True Cross)

 Meskel is an annual religious holiday in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena (saint Helena)in the fourth century. It occurs on the 17th day of Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27 of the Gregorian calendar,

or on 28 September in leap years). ‘Meskel’ is Ge’ez (the official language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church for ‘cross’.

The Meskel celebration includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera, based on the belief that Queen Helena had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she shall make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke raised high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.

According to local traditions, this Demera-procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration. Charcoal from the remains of the fire is afterwards collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross.

One explanation for the high rank this festival has in the church calendar is that it is believed that a part of the true Cross has been brought to Ethiopia from Egypt. It is said to be kept at Amba Geshen, which itself has a cross shape.

The most ancient meaning of these feasts – as was also the case in Europe – was no doubt seasonal: the month of Meskerem marked the end of the rains, the resumption of work, and the reopening of communications.