I was lucky enough to arrive in Addis a week before Meskel, one of the big holidays / festivals of the year. Meskel is celebrated by the Orthodox Christian churches (so about half the population), and commemorates the discovery of Jesus’ cross by Saint Helena around 300 AD (Meskel means “cross”). She apparently dreamt that she should make a bonfire, whose smoke would point to the cross’ location. So she did, and the smoke rose up in the sky and came back down in the exact spot where the cross was buried. Some believe that this spot was actually in Ethiopia, which is a great source of honor for Christians here (and one reason this festival is so important in Ethiopia).
Addis’ celebration to remember this event includes parades down the street by the different churches, each dressed in the traditional delicate white clothing but decorated with different colors:
The processions make their way to Meskel Square (named for its role in this celebration), where people have been waiting all day to get a good seat for the night’s event. My friend Hemen and I made our way towards Meskel Square, and as we got closer we practically swam through the masses of people. After a great deal of speeches, a person up front began chanting. This too went on for a while, and its timeless waves of minor melodies reminded me of Persian chanting I’d heard growing up in the Baha’i community.
All this time it was getting dark, and just after dusk the thousands of people stretched across the stands began to light their candles. I’d never seen candles like this before: they’re long thin sticks of cotton dipped in wax. Hemen said the wax also has honey mixed in, so as the occasional flickers of light became a widespread glow, a lovely mild scent of honey filled the night air!
The entire evening’s events were building towards the burning of the Demera, the giant bonfire built to commemorate the one the queen used centuries before. It was tall and cone-shaped (think a 40-foot tall Christmas tree!), flanked by eucalyptus branches and ringed by the petite yellow “Meskel daisies” people had been carrying around all day. The anticipation was rising palpably as we waited for the Demera to be lit. Some people believe that the direction it falls in after burning is a predictor of the year’s fortune (each of the four directions translates to something good, luckily 🙂 ). Finally, necks craning, we saw that it was lit! The flames quickly climbed high into the sky, and smoke blew all over. A huge wave of cheers arose, and high-pitched AI-LAI-LAI-LAI’s from women. (People found it hilarious when I tried to make this sound too… wasn’t too hard, but it feels kind of surprising to hear such a high-pitched noise coming out of your mouth! It’s a wordless embodiment of pure uninhibited joy.)
Soon after, Hemen grabbed my hand and we wormed our way through the crowd again so as not to get submerged when the main wave of people left after the Demera fell. Finally we made it back onto the streets, passing dozens of mini-Demera’s burning in peoples’ yards. A friend of mine who was flying into Addis that night said as the plane came in to land, she could see the flecks of light from the mini-Demera’s across the entire city. There were even little tiny Demera’s, barely 2 feet high, that children had made and were decorating with Meskel daisies. All these fires, bringing light and warmth into the cool night, and preceding the next day’s break from work when people could spend time with their families… What a beautiful sight!