By Tinishu Solomon
Millions of Ethiopian Orthodox church members on Wednesday celebrated the Demera, the eve of the discovery of the cross on which Jesus Christ is believed to have been crucified.
Celebrations began in the afternoon with tens of thousands of followers gathering at Meskel Square to celebrate the holy day, together with hundreds of pilgrims, tourists and foreign diplomats.
In Addis Ababa, all roads leading to the city’s famous Meskel Square were closed for the day to avoid traffic jams.
Demera, the eve of the discovery of the cross, one of the main religious ceremonies of Ethiopia’s most dominant religion, is celebrated colorfully throughout the country.
More than 100,000 people, including hundreds of priests and deacons attired in Ethiopia’s traditional plain white clothes, gathered to mark the day with a grand bonfire ceremony, lit by the leader of the Orthodox Church.
Demera, also known as Meskel Festival, is also celebrated in remembrance of Empress Helena, who according to tradition was led to the cross after smoke from incense she was burning during her prayers drifted towards the direction of three buried crosses, one of which was the True Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. She gave pieces of the True Cross to all churches, including the Ethiopian Church, with parts of it said to be in Israel.
The ancient festival, dating back 1,600 years, is celebrated with yellow Meskel daisies placed on top of huge bonfires as priests, carrying silver Coptic crosses and flaming torches, dance with their followers around the fires singing and chanting.
This year, however, marked the first time in 21 years when the celebration was observed in the absence of the late Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos who died in August.
The celebration also marks the end of Ethiopia’s three month long rainy season. The Horn of Africa country uses its own calendar, which has 13 months, or Pagume. Like a leap year, Pagume has either 5 or 6 days depending on the season.
According to Ethiopian tradition, the Meskel cross was reburied on the mountain of Gishen Mariam monastery in Wollo region after a powerful light emanating from it stripped naked anyone who approached.
The monastery of Gishen Mariam, one of the country’s main tourist attractions, has records of the story of the True Cross of Christ and how it was acquired.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has more than 50,000 churches and 1,200 monasteries with about 50,000 monks and nuns for an estimated 40 million plus orthodox Christians, about half of the country’s total population.
Ethiopia is lobbying that the Meskel Festival be granted UNESCO World Heritage status.