Orthodox Christians were busy yesterday, celebrating the Meskel at Bahti Meskerem and other public squares in the rest of Eritrea.
Eritrea celebrates Meskel (the finding of the true cross) every year on Meskerem 16, or September 26, as per the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s traditions.
Meskel, with its Damera and the lighting of torches on the eve… What is this all about? What has the cross of Christ got to do with bonfires and the flaming of hoye-hoye?
Meskel means “cross” in Ge’ez, an ancient language considered the predecessor of both Tigrigna and Amharic.
According to Church teachings, Queen Helena was the one who found the true cross, the actual cross of the crucifixion.
Apparently the cross of Christ was once lost (hidden from profane eyes) for 300 years following the Crucifixion, and Christians all over were looking for the precious relic. One day, Helena, mother of Constantine and who later became a saint, consulted with her son and agreed to start the search.
So Saint Helena went to Jerusalem in search of it. Arriving at Golgotha, she looked around in vain. All of a sudden, an old man by the name Kirakios ambled by. She stopped him and pleaded for him to help her in her search. He showed her three mounds and told her that the cross was inside one of them.
Accordingly, Helena gathered some firewood and made a bonfire (thus serving as a precursor for Damera) and sprinkled incense on it. The smoke produced by the spice soars towards heaven, turns around and nose dives onto the mound that contains the true cross.
Helena gets the message and starts to dig in the indicated mound. To her great surprise she discovers the true cross, and the people around her get so excited that they light torches and begin to sing and dance (which leads to our own hoye-hoye).
In Eritrea, Meskel is a colorful holiday. Damera bonfires take place either before or on the day, and firewood is prepared in the shape of a big bonfire. Women ululate, while men and priests chant as the Damera-procession happens. And it’s one of those holiday’s that most kids look forward to celebrate. As a kid, I loved being part of it. I would play hide and seek with my siblings or would join the procession and would chant or sing out loud.
Meskel also serves as a celebration of the coming of the sun and the end of rain, which means harvest for farmers.
Growing up, Meskel signified a lot of things for me and my neighborhood friends. Meskel was the end of summer and with it the start of the new school year. As disappointed as we were that summer was almost over, Meskel was our last summer adventure. And each summer as Meskel approached, we all gathered up two or three days before the holiday and made plans on how we were going to build our bonfire.
The young kids were paired with the older ones, so as they wouldn’t be lost and the girls were in charge of food and drinks. As the night to light the bonfire approached, preparations were on the go, the boys were out and about gathering firewood, and brushes of sticks for the bonfire, the girls as mentioned were doing their bits as well, and once they were finished they would also join the boys on their little so called firewood search.
Once all the necessary firewood and sticks to build the large bonfire were ready, the building process began. The bonfire would collapse once or twice before it was fully erected, and a sense of proud achievement overwhelmed the young kids as they constantly asked what time it was going to be lit. Back then, we might have not known what Meskel exactly meant, but our own definition of togetherness and harmony was important on its own.
As the minutes to light our bonfire approached, the older children poured gasoline all over the bonfire and the eldest would light it. As the bonfire became overtaken by the flaming fire, we would all sit a few feet away from it and enjoy the sparkle and spectacle of it all.
During each Meskel celebration, I remember it had become a tradition that once the flame starts to wither, we would take turns jumping over the blazing bonfire, in a way that was our last summer fun together as neighbors and friends.
As we grew older, most of us became occupied with school and work. However, it is beautiful to see that what was once our last summer adventure has now become our little siblings’ own summer adventure. Over the past few days, I have witnessed my little siblings do what I used to do back when I was their age. Seeing them out in their ragged summer clothes with their friends, building a bonfire, brought a sense of nostalgia, and for a second I wanted to trade my white-collar life for a day out in the scorching summer sun, in ragged clothes gathering firewood and sticks. Good old times!
Additionally, some of the most intriguing parts of the day are its religious beliefs, spiritual and non-spiritual chants, good food, and superstitions. For instance, as the firewood begins to burn, people eagerly wait to see or predict which direction the central wood that holds the rest falls. Depending on the direction of the fall – East, West, North, or South – spectators then make predictions whether it is going to be a good or bad year. As well, since it is believed that Christ is going to come back to Earth from the east in the last days, then it is believed to be good omen if the bonfire falls to that same direction. If it falls to the other sides, according to believers, we are all doomed!
In other parts of the world Meskel is known as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and it takes place on September 14.
Finally superstitions and folk beliefs aside, may hope reign over despair in the spirit of the coming season.