This week saw the return of Eritrean students to school, most of whom were obviously moaning. And who can blame them after the long and exciting summer they had. Oh what is that I hear! There is no school today!
Only two days into the new school year and school is already out for a day and it is all thanks to a holiday.
“If only everyday was a holiday”, complains Abiel, who does not happen to like going to school.
“What holiday are we celebrating this time?” asks Abiel to his aunt.
“Meskel, my dear son” replies aunt Tekea.
“Is that the one where we build a big bonfire and jump over it” asks Abiel, with excitement lingering in his eyes.
“Yes that is the one” affirms Aunt Tekea.
Eritrea celebrates Meskel (the finding of the true cross) every year on Meskerem 17 according to the Ge’ez calendar, Orthodox Church’s tradition, or September 27, as per the Gregorian calendar.
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 “True cross” in Ge’ez, an ancient language considered the predecessor of both Tigrigna and Tigre.
According to Church teachings, Queen Helena was the one who found the true cross, the actual cross of the crucifixion.
When the Body of Jesus was removed from the Cross to prevent His followers from finding it, the Cross was thrown in a ditch or well, and then covered with stones and earth.
In the year 312 A.D., almost 300 years later, while Constantine, who had not yet converted to Christianity, was in combat with Maxentius for the throne of the Roman Empire, he prayed to the Lord God of the Christians to help him in his battle. In answer to his prayer, a sign appeared in the sky. A luminous cross was seen with the words “BY THIS SIGN YOU WILL CONQUER” (in Latin,
“IN HOC SIGNO VINCES”) inscribed on it.
Constantine won the battle over Maxentius. Indebted to God for his victory at the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, Constantine commanded that the Sign of Christianity be placed on the Roman standards and on the shields of all the soldiers.
Then, on September 14, 326, Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena, found in Jerusalem the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The legend of the story of the discovery of the True Cross is that when St. Helena arrived in Golgotha, she looked around in vain. All of a sudden, an old man ambled by, whose name was Kirakios, as St. Helena came to find out later. St. Helena was guided to the site of the Crucifixion by Kirakios, who had inherited traditional knowledge as to its location. After arriving at the location, 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 to 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 version of hoye-hoye).
In Eritrea, Meskel is a colorful holiday. A Damera bonfire takes place either before or on the day, and firewood is prepared in the shape of a big bonfire. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration. Charcoal from the remains of the fire is afterwards collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross. Women ululate while men and priests chant as the Damera-procession happens. And it’s one of those holidays that most kids look forward to celebrate. Kids love being part of it. They would play hide and seek with their siblings or would join the procession and 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 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 they won’t be lost and 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 was overtaken by the flaming fire, we would all sit a few feet away from it and enjoy the sparkle and spectacle of it all.
In every Meskel celebration, I remember it had become a tradition that once the flame started 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 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!
Intriguingly, some of the most important 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 in 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, may hope reign over despair in the spirit of the coming season.