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Festivals and Events

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.

Timkat (Epiphany)

Timkat (which means ‘baptism’ in Amharic) is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany. It is celebrated on January 19 (or 20 on Leap years), corresponding to the 10th day of the month of Ter following the Ethiopian calendar. It is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.

During the ceremonies of Timkat, the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which is present on every Ethiopian altar, is reverently wrapped in rich cloth and borne in procession on the head of the priests. The Tabot, which is otherwise rarely seen by the laity, represents the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah when he came to the Jordan for baptism. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated near a stream or pool early in the morning (around 2 am). Then the nearby body of water is blessed towards dawn and sprinkled on the participants, some of whom enter the water and immerse themselves, symbolically renewing their baptismal vows. But the festival does not end there.

By noon on Timkat Day a large crowd has assembled at the ritual site, those who went home for a little sleep having returned, and the holy ark is escorted back to its church in colourful procession. The clergy, bearing robes and umbrellas of many hues, perform rollicking dances and songs; the elders march solemnly with their weapons, attended by middle-ages men singing a long-drawn, low-pitched haaa hooo; and the children run about with sticks and games. Dressed up in their finest, the women chatter excitedly on their one real day of freedom in the year. The young braves leap up and down in spirited dances, tirelessly repeating rhythmic songs. When the Holy Ark has been safely restored to its dwelling-place, everyone goes home for feasting.

Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year)

Enkutatash (Ethiopian New Year): falls on the first month of the year in Ethiopian calendar (Meskerem 1) or September 11 on the Gregorian calendar at the end of the Ethiopian rain season.

Enkutatash means the “gift of jewels”. When the famous Queen of Sheba returned from her expensive trip to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem, her chiefs welcomed her bolt by replenishing her treasury with inku (jewels). The spring festival has been celebrated since this early time and as the rains come to their abrupt end, dancing and singing can be heard at every village in the green countryside. Today’s Enkutatash is also the season for exchanging formal New Year greetings and cards with beloved once.

St Gabriel in Kulubi

Kulubi is known for its large church, dedicated to Saint Gabriel, which is the site of a massive twice-yearly pilgrimages (on 26 July and 28 December) attended by tens of thousands of Orthodox pilgrims. The present church was erected in 1962 by Emperor Haile Selassie; replacing one his father Ras Mekonnen had erected to celebrate the Ethiopian victory on the Italian army in the Battle of Adwa.

St Gabriel is the Patron Saint who guards over homes and churches. Pilgrims walk up the hill to the church to fulfill a vow and give gifts to the poor and to the church.

Normally the visit to this festival is proposed in combination with the visit of Harar and Dire Dawa.

Fasika (Ethiopian Easter)

Fasika is a much more important festival than Christmas, since the Death and the Resurrection of Jesus is more significant in Orthodox theology than his birth. Fasting becomes more intense over the 56-day period of Lent, when no meat or animal products of any kind, including milk and butter, are eaten. Good Friday starts by going to the church, and is a day of preparation for the breaking of this long fasting period.

The faithful prostrate themselves in church, bowing down and rising up until they get tired. The main religious service takes place on Saturday night. It is a somber, sacred occasion with music and dancing until the early hours of the morning. At 3:00 a.m. everyone returns home to break their fast, and a chicken is slaughtered at midnight for the symbolic occasion. In the morning, after a rest, a sheep is slaughtered to start the feasting on Easter Sunday.

Easter in Ethiopia is a day when people celebrate; there is a release of enjoyment after the long build-up of suffering which has taken place, to represent Christ’s fasting for forty days and forty nights. People often have food and tej, a locally-brewed alcohol from fresh honey


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