Ethiopia has several celebrations unique to the country. One of the biggest religious celebrations in the Orthodox Church is Meskel which lies on the 27 of September (Western calendar) or 17 Meskerem (Ethiopian calendar). It is celebrated in reminiscence of the day on which Roman Empress Eleni of Jerusalem searched and found the true cross, on which Jesus was crucified, in the 4th century. One of the reasons the celebration holds such great significance is that a piece of the cross is believed to have been sent to Ethiopia and now resides in Amba Geshen.
It is believed that it was revealed to Empress Eleni in a dream that the smoke from a bonfire would indicate the whereabouts of the cross. In accordance, on the day before Meskel, known as Demera, a giant pyre of branches, demera, is constructed and then set on fire close to sun set. Annually, a giant demera is set up in the city center, Meskel square, for the celebration. It is decorated with yellow daisies that spring in the surrounding areas during that season.
A large part of the Demera celebration consists of hundreds of colorfully dressed priests and deacons chanting and dancing while parading through the square. They beat drums and carry ornate crosses and traditional church umbrellas during the parade. In recent years there has been a marching band, a historical drama and a choir of up to 2500 singers. Thousands gather in the semi-circle sits around the square to watch the spectacle.
High church officials circle and bless the pyre before they each take a flaming torch and set it on fire. Special Meskel Hymns are sung as the pyre burns. It is burnt to ashes late into the night while celebrations carry on, sometimes through the night. The direction in which the pyre falls is believed to be a sign with future significance. Rain is expected to fall to put out the fire, and if it does, the year is believed to be a prosperous one. On the next day, Meskel, people use the ashes from the burnt pyre to mark themselves with the sign of the cross.
Smaller pyres are constructed around the city and burnt in individual homes and neighborhoods for those who celebrate with family and neighbors. The celebration is accompanied by special traditional foods and drinks.
Meskel and Demera are also celebrated throughout the country in several other destinations, Axum’s cathedral of Maryam Tsion being one of the most historic.