Ethiopian Festivals: Meskel & Timkat
Ethiopia has a rich religious culture. There are religious festivals that draw thousands of Ethiopians to cities to commemorate ancient beliefs. Two of those festivals stand out for any Christian. They are Meskel and Timkat. These two festivals mark key events that involve Jesus Christ who is believed to be the son of God. They believe God sent His only son to live like a man on earth many years ago with the purpose of saving men from evil. These festivals are of great value to Ethiopians considering the amount of effort they put in to make them as colorful as they appear.
What is the Ethiopian Meskel Celebration?
Meskel festival is a religious festival celebrated in Ethiopia on 27th September on the Gregorian calendar. The festival commemorates the day the true cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified on was found. That is why this day is also called finding the true cross. A lady by the name Helena, popularly known as Nigist Eleni found the cross. She had searched for long without any success until one day when she received a dream. In the dream, she saw herself lighting a big fire that produced a lot of smoke. The smoke led her to where the cross was buried. After finding the real cross on which Jesus was crucified, she lit torches to celebrate her success. This explains why celebrations in Ethiopia today involve lighting of torches. Half of the cross was given to emperor Dawit of Ethiopia in the middle ages as an appreciation for the protection he had given to Christians.
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How Meskel is celebrated
On the eve of Meskel, there are celebrations known as demera. Demera involves eating, drinking, dancing and other joyful celebrations. During this celebration, participants plant trees in marketplaces and in their homes. The name Meskel comes from daises that are put on tall branches that are tied together. Those branches are then stacked together and set ablaze using the torches that participants are carrying. The procession encircles the burning branches which are called demera and chant special Meskel songs. A patriarch from the Ethiopian Orthodox church presides over the burning festival.
Faithful’s who cannot make it to the public celebration create their own small demeras at home. Once the demera burns to ashes, they give interpretation depending on the direction in which it falls. On the same day, it is expected to rain to signify a prosperous year. The burning of these branches often goes on into the night. The following day which is the actual Meskel festival, they go to the place where they burnt the demera. They pick up the ash and draw the sign of the cross on their foreheads. There is a lot of feasting and celebrations that follow as it is considered they have found the cross.
Timkat festival is the celebration that commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the river of Jordan by John the Baptist. Pilgrims congregate from all parts of the country to celebrate the epiphany. It takes place on 19th January every year. If you want to visit Ethiopia then this is the prime time. The Timkat festival lasts for 3 days. The amazing part of the whole festival is the re-enactment of the baptism of Jesus Christ.
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How Timkat is celebrated
A model of the ark of the covenant which is known as Talbot leads the procession that is heading to a river. Only the senior priests can carry the Talbot to a specified spot in the river. Carrying the ark of the covenant to the river signifies the coming of Jesus to the river to be baptized by John the Baptist. The ark of the covenant contains the ten commandments that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. Talbot is holy and only a few people can handle it.
The procession holds celebration besides the river where they bless the water in the stream. Early in the morning at about 2 am, they sprinkle water on the participants. Some of them are immersed in water and renew their baptism vows. A large variety of local Ethiopian artefacts are available during the celebration. There are crosses of different sizes, traditional attire and body ornaments that are used. All the people attending epiphany dress in white robes. The white robes signify purity and holiness. It is a colorful scene that blends well with the Ethiopian songs that are sung during the festival. Being a night festival, you also get a chance to enjoy their ancient way of producing light.
Day of Epiphany
On January 20th, there are traditional dances and drumming that sets the pace for Timkat celebration. Special food such as Injera, Shiro, kitfo and berbere is served. To a visitor, these are tasty meals you can only find in Ethiopia. They cook them with precision and add traditional spices to give the best taste. Ethiopia being an ancient civilization nation boasts of a rich culture. Religious festivals are held in ancient churches that Ethiopians believe they were built by angels. These churches are mainly found in the region of Lalibela in the northern part of Ethiopia. See The Day of Epiphany in Pictures, here.
Ethiopia became a Christian country a long time ago before European countries. Missionaries were in Ethiopia as early as 40 years after the birth of Jesus. Its proximity to Egypt which was a powerful kingdom explains Ethiopia’s early civilization. The queen of Sheba visited Solomon the king of Israel and had brought him gold and other precious gifts. Ethiopia had gold as early as those days. The most amazing thing is that the country still values those ancient practices and they have hardly changed despite the current changes.
For someone who wishes to visit Africa, there is no better country with a rich culture as Ethiopia. From their unique Gregorian calendar to their strange architecture and above all their magical festivals. There is so much to see beyond what can be written. There is so much traditional food to be tasted, ornaments to wear and songs to sing along to. Meskel and Timkat festivals are the icing on the cake.
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