The Ethiopian Festival of the True Cross or Meskel

Ethiopian religious leaders carrying crosses during the Meskel celebration (Ethiopiaonlinevisa.com)

September 27th this year marks another big Ethiopian celebration. An even bigger festival than Enkutatash the Ethiopian New Year, is the Meskel “True Cross” Celebration which takes place on September 27th or 28th in leap year. Meskel 2021 is on September 27th . The festival commemorates the discovery of the “True Cross” on which Jesus was crucified, and is held annually in Meskel Square in Addis Ababa.

The word “meskel” is from the Ge’ez language which translates to “cross.” The festival is basically a celebration of the finding of the cross. The festival is held at the iconic Meskel square in Addis Ababa and draws out a large number of religious and civil leaders as well as public figures and Christian faithful. Meskel has been celebrated in Ethiopia for more than 1,600 years as an outdoor religious festival and has been registered at UNESCO since December 2013 as an Intangible World Heritage.

Meskel celebration in Addis Ababa (Source: Wikipedia)

The legend goes that in 4BC, the Roman Empress Helena (Queen Eleni) was able to locate the important artifact in Jerusalem by using the smoke from a huge fire. The celebration is especially important to Ethiopians as it is alleged that a piece of the cross Helena discovered was brought to Ethiopia, and hidden away somewhere in the mountains of  Amba Geshen, which itself has a cross-shaped plan.

Ethiopians commemorate the find by building their own massive bonfire, the Meskel, which they decorate with yellow flowers known as Adey Abeba before burning. Ethiopia’s religious leaders lead colorful processions and prayer around the fire, and attendees intently watch to see which way the bonfire will collapse, as it is believed to predict the future.

As you can see, the month of September is a month of cultural and religious celebrations in Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Calendar

Flag of Ethiopia

As we talked about the Enkutatash or the Ethiopian New year, I thought that it will be awesome to talk more about the Ethiopian calendar. After all, we are in 2014 in the Ethiopian calendar while we are in 2021 in the Gregorian calendar. Where does this come from? Do months have 30 and 31 days in the Ethiopian calendar like in the current calendar used by most people?

Well, the Ethiopian calendar is derived from the Egyptian solar calendar but adds a leap day every 4 years without exception. Like the Egyptian Coptic calendar, the Amharic calendar comprises 12 months of 30 days each, with an additional month of just 5 or 6 days, depending on the year, i.e. in the Ethiopian calendar, there are 13 months, with 12 months which all have 30 days, and one month with only 5 or 6 days; no need for a song to keep track of which month has 30 or 31 days or even 28 days (February, I am looking at you). Ethiopian calendar months begin on the same days as Coptic calendar months but are instead named in Ge’ez, the ancient language of northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea. Also a 6th day is added every four years to the 13th month, without exception, to indicate the leap year; this is placed 6 months before the corresponding Gregorian day.

The Ge’ez calendar is the principal calendar used in both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Map of Ethiopia and Eritrea

The beginning of the calendar is based on the birth of Jesus. Ethiopians use the Incarnation Era to indicate the year, which places the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus on March 25, AD 9 in the Julian calendar. On the other hand, Europeans adopted a different calculation for the Annunciation which placed it eight years earlier, meaning that there exists a gap of 8 years between the start of the Ethiopian calendar and the Gregorian. Most of the major celebrated holidays such as Christmas occur on completely different days, so instead of December 25th, it is celebrated on January 7th which is considered by the Ethiopian orthodox church as Jesus birth day.

Lastly, the time of the day is such that the day starts at sunrise, and sunset is the end of the day: the sun and the moon that are used to count time each have 12 hours before setting… so 6:00AM in the morning in other places of the world will be 12:00AM, midday is 6:00AM, and when the sun goes down it is 12:00PM in Ethiopia. I just wonder how you would tell time if you lived in a different country, and were trying to call a friend in Ethiopia, how would you know when to call?

Wouldn’t it be difficult for a foreigner to tell the time and the year in Ethiopia? I must admit that the Ethiopian calendar does seem a lot simpler than what we have though!

Ethiopian New Year… A Look at the Ethiopian Calendar

Flag of Ethiopia

A few days back, yours truly was invited to the celebration of the Ethiopian New year. Yes… this year Enkutatash, or the Ethiopian New year, was celebrated on September 11th, and my friend went on to tell me more about it. Did you know that we are currently in the year 2014 in the Ethiopian calendar?

The Ethiopian calendar is a solar calendar based on the ancient Egyptian calendar. The first month of the year is September, called Meskerem in Amharic, the local language. One of the reasons given is that during the month of September, the number of daylight hours and nighttime hours happen to be exactly equal in every part of the globe. Moreover, during this time of the year, the sun and the moon that are used to count time each have 12 hours before setting. Another reason often given is that it could be derived from the Bible, where the creation of the Heavens and Earth are said to have taken place in September. Lastly as in many world calendars, harvests must have been key in the setting up of the calendar.

Adey Abeba flower (Source: WikiCommons)

Enkutatash is the name for the Ethiopian New Year and means “gift of jewels” in Amharic. The story goes back almost 3,000 years to the Queen of Sheba of ancient Ethiopia who was returning from her visit to King Solomon of Israel, as mentioned in the Bible in I Kings 10 and II Chronicles 9. She had gifted King Solomon with 120 talents of gold (4.5 tons) as well as a large amount of unique spices and jewels. When the Queen returned to Ethiopia, her chiefs welcomed her with enku or jewels to replenish her treasury. The name Enku may also refer to the countryside, which is covered by bright yellow flowers known as Adey Abeba as this time of the year also marks the end of the raining season. The appearance of the bright yellow flowers also indicates the impending harvest which is to be celebrated (see… harvest).

Doro wot on Injera (Source: cookingchanneltv.com)

The celebration is both religious and secular. The day begins with big church services, followed by the family meal. Young children will receive small gifts of money or bread after the girls gather flowers and sing, and boys paint pictures of saints. Families eat the famed national flat bread injera with the national dish doro wot (chicken stew), which takes at least half a day to prepare, and is rarely missed during these celebrations; families visit friends, and adults drink Tej, the national Ethiopian wine made out of honey… reminds me so much of King Lalibela (bees)… is this where the tradition comes from?

This year in particular, the hope is for peace and harmony… to a happy new year. Enkuan Aderesachihu!