Meskel, The finding of the true cross
Meskel, one of the major Ethiopian orthodox festivals is celebrated on 27th September and lasts for two days. Legend says that the cross upon which Christ was crucified was discovered in the year 326 by Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. Unable to find the holy artifact, she set up long poles and set them on fire. Skyward raised the smoke and down it bent, touching the spot on the earth where the original cross was found buried. Queen Helen lit up torches heralding her success to the neighboring areas.


In the middle Ages, the Patriarch of Alexandria gave the Ethiopian Emperor Dawit half of the True Cross in return for the protection offered to the Coptic Christians. A fragment of the True Cross is reputed to be held at the Gishen Maryam monastery, about 70 kilometers of Dessie.

The eve of Meskel (26th of September) is called Demera (bonfire). A huge bonfire is built, topped with a cross to which flowers are tied. The patriarch of the Orthodox Church leads the lightening ceremony. After the bonfire is blessed dancing and singing begins around it and an inner feeling of brightness spreads through all those around it. Little Demeras are built at individual houses and villages. The direction in which the bundle of wood collapses gives room for interpretations about the harvest, if there is going to be peace and so on. At the end of the Demera a rain shower is expected to fall to help put the fire off. If the rain falls and the fire is extinguished by it there is a belief that the year will be prosperous.

The day after Demera is Meskel. The festival is colorfully celebrated and there is plenty of food. Believers make crosses on their head with the ashes of the bonfire as a sign of devotion to the cross.The festival coincidences with the mass blooming of yellow Meskel daisies, which are a symbol of a new beginning after the rainy season.

In every major city the ceremony is celebrated colorfully, but the best place to celebrate Meskel is still the capital Addis Ababa.

Baptism of Christ, 19 January
Timket is the greatest festival of orthodox Christians in Ethiopia. Falling on the 19 of January (or the 20 of January once in every four years), it celebrates the baptism of Christ in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. It's a three-day affair and all the ceremonies are conducted with great pomp. The eve of Timket (18 January) is called Ketera. On this day the tabots of each church are carried out in procession to a place near a river where the next day's celebration will take place. A special tent is set up for each tabot, each hosting a proud manner depicting the church's saint. The ceremony is accompanied by hymns and dances of the priests, drum beating, bell ringing and blowing of trumpets.

A tabot is a replica of the Arc of the Covenant and the ten tablets of the law which Moses received on Mount Sinai. It is the tabot rather than the church building, which is consecrated, and it is accorded extreme relevance.The priests pray throughout the night and mass is performed around 2 AM. Processional crosses of varying size and elaboration as well as various Ethiopian artifacts can be seen on the occasion. When the tabot is carried out, it is wrapped in brocade or velvet and carried on the head of a priest with colorful ceremonial umbrellas to shade it.

The next morning (19Jan) around dawn ecclesiastics and believers go to the water and attend the praying. A senior priest dips a golden processional cross in the water to bless it and extinguishes a consecrated candle in it. Then he sprinkles the water on the people in commemoration of Christ's baptism.

Many believers leap fully dressed into the water to renew their vows. Timket Krestos - baptism of Christ – is merely a commemoration, not an annual rebaptism. After the baptism the tabots of each church, except St. Michael's church, start their way back to their respective churches. The elders walk solemnly, accompanied by singing, leaping of priests and young men and beating of prayer sticks in an ancient ritual.

The next day (20 January) is the feast of the Archangel Michael, Ethiopia's most popular saint. This morning, his tabot is returned to his church, again accompanied by singing and dancing of priests. This marks the end of the three-day celebration. The best place to attend the event is Lalibela, Gondar or Addis Ababa. In Addis Ababa many tents are pitched at Jan Meda, in the northeast part of the city. Crowds with lit oil lamps attend the mass at 2 AM.

Genna, Ethiopian Christmas
For people brought up in the northern hemisphere, Christmas is traditionally associated with the snow and ice of winter. In the southern hemisphere and equatorial regions, of course, the festival is held in much warmer weather. But snow or sun, people of many nations has celebrated Christmas yet again, although not necessarily on the same day. The Gregorian calendar celebrates Christmas on the 25th of December while Ethiopian Christmas falls on January the 7th - a hot summer's day - , since Ethiopia uses still the Julian calendar. While excitement over Christmas festivities dies down in other parts of the world in Ethiopia it is just beginning.

The Ethiopian name for Christmas is Genna, which comes from the word Gennana (eminent) and expresses the coming of the Lord to free mankind of its sins. Genna is also the name of a hockey-like game which is said to have been played by the shepherds when they heard of the birth Christi. Men and boys in villages now play the traditional Genna game with great enthusiasm in the late afternoon of the Christmas day - a spectacle much enjoyed by village communities and elders. Genna begins early in the day, around 6 AM, when people gather in churches for mass.

The clergy prepares for the birth of Christ by fasting for 43 days, also known as the fast of the prophets. During Christmas service they lift their voices in hymn and chant just as it has been done for over a thousand years when Ethiopia accepted Christianity. Everyone stands throughout the service. This ancient rite culminates in the spectacular procession of the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, which is carried on top of a priest's head. The procession makes its way three times around the church amidst ululation, chiming church bells and dazzling umbrellas followed by a throng of Christians with lighted candles. After mass, people go to their homes to feast. Food and drink is plentiful. Many homes prepare Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew eaten with the sourdough pancake-like bread called ingera. Often Tej, a local wine-like drink made from honey, accompanies the feast.

Christmas is quietly shared and celebrated in groups of friends and family. Gift giving is a very small part of Christmas festivities in Ethiopia. Only small gifts are exchanged amongst family and friends at home. But one gift most eagerly awaited by all children is a new outfit that they wear with pride and joy on Christmas day. The festive mood continues until the late hours of the evening.

However, there is something special that endures long past the sun-drenched day of Ethiopian Christmas. The sparkle of joy, giving and sharing, extends beyond religious beliefs and spreads the spirit of peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind throughout the world.

Other grand Festivals
Feast of St. Gabriel, 28. December

St. Gabriel is the Patron Saint who guards over homes and churches. There is a huge pilgrimage to the St. Gabriel's church on the Kullubi hill, about 70 km from Addis Ababa near Dire Dawa. Many pilgrims carry heavy burdens as penance, children are brought to be baptized and offerings are distributed to the poor.

Buhe, 21. August
Bands of small boys wander from house to house, singing and jostling until they are given some sweets, money or fresh dough (buhe). In the evening, bonfires are lit outside each home.

Axum Hidar - beginning of December
The Hidar Zion festival is related to the presence of the Arc of the Covenant in Axum und with the belief that it is a symbol for St. Mary's womb. Every year thousands of pilgrims from all over Ethiopia gather in Axum, the holiest city of the Ethiopians, to celebrate this festival.

Gishen Maryam, 1. October
Thousands of pilgrims come every year to the location west of Dessie to celebrate St. Mary's day.

Adwa Day, 2. March
Commemorates the victory of Menelik II over Italy in 1896

Patriots' Day, 5. May
Celebrates the end of the Italian occupation in 1941

Ethiopian good Friday, 6. April

Fasika in May

Ethiopian Easter Sunday

'Idd al Fatr
Is the biggest Muslim festival of the year, celebrating the end of the fasting period Ramadan. After praying and listening to the Imam, goats and sheep are slaughtered and part of the meat is shared with the poor. Everybody wears new clothes while visiting friends and relatives as well as the family graves. Also horse racing is common during these days.

'Idd al Adha in August
Muslim festivals and holidays follow the moon calendar and fall each year on different dates and celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed and different martyrs.