meskel breaking

Breaking Meskel Tradition to Curb Spread of the Pandemic

Meskel is one of the holidays in Ethiopia that is celebrated in a unique euphoric way. Despite the nationwide celebrations, some communities designate the holiday an elevated status than the rest. In such communities, Meskel is a time for people to get back to their homelands and spend some quality time with relatives and loved ones. Celebrated with special food and drinks, Meskel has assumed a notable socio-economic role in many communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has, however, disrupted the tradition in some of these areas. EBR’s Ermias Mulugeta looks into the relatively somber celebrations this year.

Yemane Gebre, aka Bariaw, 42, is a carpenter who has lived in Addis Ababa around Kera for almost 12 years. He was born over one thousand kilometers away from the capital Addis Ababa in Adigrat town of Tigray regional state, in the Northern part of Ethiopia.

For Yemane, every holiday is special, but he holds Meskel (finding of the true cross) in high regard. “Where I grew up, Meskel is celebrated in a special way. Every year, the people prepare themselves for a better celebration than the preceding year. The traditional food, “Tihelo” is served on the day of the celebration,” stated Yemane. People from Adigrat, who live in different parts of the country return to their home town for Meskel. “Back in the days, someone who didn’t return to Adigrat for Meskel was considered dead; their family would be deeply worried or they could possibly mourn their death.”

Keeping up with old traditions, Yemane travels to his homeland for Meskel celebrations every year. However, he decided to break tradition and celebrate Meskel in Addis instead, because of the coronavirus pandemic. “I made plans to go to Adigrat for the celebration but I chose to be cautious. I have elderly parents and if I go there and infect them, they will probably die. So, I would rather be here. If the pandemic is under control, I will travel next year.” For the past 11 years, Yemane has celebrated Meskel with his siblings and parents in his hometown. Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced him to stay back; therefore, he is preparing himself for the celebration in Addis Ababa.

“I am from Adigrat. That means I am Agame. Agames celebrate Meskel like it is our new year. The bonfire, the traditional dancing, the cultural foods, and beverage give the holiday a special vibe.” Agame is the name of a former province in Tigray. Agame is a Ge’ez word that means “fruitful.” I believe the name is given to the people on account of their culture of hard work and unbearable struggle to achieve a certain goal. Agames work like bees and they know the wise use of resources.

This year, the holiday vibe and the usual holiday spirit are on a low throughout the country as the pandemic cast its shadow on yet another social and economic activity. During its travels to the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Regional State, EBR witnessed lower vibrancy in the nationally acclaimed Meskel celebrations of Gurage zone. In a travel ban the Gurage zone administration issued to people planning to travel to the area for Meskel, it asked for people to reconsider their decision and stay put fearing that their movement can further spread the pandemic. Subsequently, the famous trips to different parts of Gurage zone have gone down immensely.

All but a few of the residents of Wolkite town in Gurage who spoke to EBR feel that this year’s celebrations are duller. Ashenafi Dari, a restaurant owner in Wolkite, stated: “everyone waits for this day but I don’t think the long-awaited celebration will be as good as we expected it.” Had it not been for the pandemic, remarked Ashenafi, the city would have been overcrowded by people who come from all over the country for the celebrations. Although the city is less crowded than it used to be on the run up to Meskel, EBR observed that the city is still congested with quite a sizeable crowd with commodities up for sale.

Federal and regional law enforcement offices collaborated to curb the number of people who would travel to Gurage zone for Meskel celebrations. However, EBR found out that people still used different means to bypass the control measures and made it to the celebrations in the zone. They traveled at night and bribed the traffic police or any other security detail on checkpoints to make it home.

Meskel (the finding of the true cross) is one of Ethiopia’s UNESCO registered intangible world heritages. Meskel commemorates the finding of the cross that Jesus Christ was crucified on. Legend has it that Queen Eleni, the mother of King Constantine, pleaded with God to fulfill her wishes and if they came true, she would search and find the cross Jesus Christ was crucified on. With her prayers answered, the Queen embarked on a search for the cross. She then learned from an old man that the cross is buried beneath one of three mountains of dirt by the city. He told her to set up a bonfire and that its smoke would go up and point out the mountain bearing the cross beneath it.

Once the smoke identified the place, the Queen ordered people to dig out the cross on September 27 and was finally able to keep her word to God by finding the cross on March 19. Ethiopian Orthodox priests explain that the celebration could have taken place on March 19. However, that date falls on the biggest fasting season in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian belief. The Church’s dogma prohibits high pitch worship let alone religious festivity during the fasting season.

As a result, the celebrations of the finding of the true cross fall on September 27 every year. On the given date, Ethiopia and Eritrea celebrate it warmly and colorfully. Ethiopian Orthodox Church choir boys and girls adorned in the green, yellow, and red colors of the Ethiopian flag present their songs in colorful street celebrations throughout the country. Every year numerous tourists flock to Ethiopia to witness this glamorous carnival and heartwarming religious celebration. Although the celebration takes place all over the country, the biggest celebration takes place in the capital Addis Ababa. Named after the holiday, the square in Addis Ababa where the celebration is held is “Meskel Square.” EBR

9th Year • Oct 16 – Nov 15 2020 • No. 91


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