ALLAFRICA REPORT: Luc Van Kemenade
28 September 2011
Tens of millions of people in Ethiopia celebrated their annual Meskel eve on Tuesday, an Orthodox Christian festival that landmarks the discovery of the "true cross" of Jesus Christ by Saint Helena and the end of the rainy season.
In Addis Ababa the streets are strewn with fresh, yellow-coloured, daisies, called Meskel flowers in Ethiopia's national language Amharic, turning the capital city into a colourful bouquet.On every corner people dressed in white, pile wood, grasses and daisy flowers into pyramid-like bundles, called demera to make into bonfires later.
Ethiopians are honouring Saint Helena's discovery of Jesus' crucifix in Israel in the fourth century. Helena, who was the first Christian empress of Rome, is believed to have given the right wing of the cross as a gift to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The flank is buried near a monastery in Wollo in Ethiopia's northern highlands, says the church. Ethiopia has a population of over 80 million people, almost half of which are Orthodox Christians.
The heart of the celebration can be found Meskel Square in Addis Ababa's town centre. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians dressed in elegant robes flock to the slopes of the square to attend a mass led by the Ethiopian patriarch Abune Pawlos.Priests and deacons clap, sing and parade to the sound of large drums. Crowd members, often held back by policemen, sing, pray and hold up their eucalyptus candles, turning the stairs into a carpet of light.
In the grand finale of the celebration, the patriarch sets fire to a giant demera at the centre of the square, symbolising the way Saint Helena was said to have found the cross that Jesus was crucified on. According to the legend the smoke from a fire guided her in the right direction.
Once the fire is lit, there is no way to hold back the frenzied crowd. People storm into the square to dance around the bonfire and then reach into the ash to draw small crosses on their foreheads.