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Celebrating Meskel as a child

By :- Luwam Kahsay H.

How great I felt when I saw kids enjoying their last summer holidays carefree as if they were told it is the last day of their freedom before going back to school. That made me nostalgic but as it is said in our culture “Childhood days never come back!”

On every holiday, especially Meskel, my two brothers and I would take over the reins of leadership at home. Our demands seemed to never end. We would ask for new clothes, shoes, school bags and everything that we believed was classic compared with what our classmates and neighboring kids bought. My mom would complain that we were getting on her nerves when we wouldn’t stop bugging her to buy us stuff. But deep down, the best mom that she has always been, she really enjoyed spoiling us now and then.

Growing up, my brothers and I and our neighborhood kids needed any lame excuse to go out and play around with fire. (Now you know why every child always looked forward to Kudus Yohannes and Meskel celebrations!) On the eve of Meskel, at the sunset, before making our own bonfire we would go to every household in our neighborhood so that they could hop across the hoye, a dry cactus plant, three times as a sign of crossing into a new season or year.

Last Thursday, Meskel was celebrated, and the big part of the celebration began on the eve of Meskel by putting together a bundle of hoye for a bonfire, which is known as damera, the next day. The bundle of hoye, sprinkled with sedge and yellow daisies, was set ablaze on Thursday at the celebration held at Bahti Meskerem Square. The celebration, as always, was attended by members of the clergy, government officials and members of the general public.

The damera is left to burn until it entirely turns into ashes, and the faithful use the ashes to mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross.

When I was talking to Mrs. Amlesu, a 99-year-old neighbor of mine, about the celebration of Meskel she started singing the song that is commonly sung at the celebraton “Nmeskeley nmeskeley, drib koboro hazaley!” (Reserve two drums for the celebration of Meskel), with a quavering voice. All of a sudden she became emotional. The song took her back to her young age. After gathering all her energy, she said that Meskel marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of harvest.

I asked her the origins of Meskel, the religious festival, and the rituals that accompany it. Using the little information I was able to grab from her as a starting point, I did research and found some information.

It is said that in the year 326 Queen Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, discovered the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Unable to spot out the exact place, she prayed for help. She was told to make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the True Cross was buried, and she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground exactly where the Cross had been buried. After extracting the Holy Cross, Empress Helena lit torches signaling her success. Meskel, Tigrinya word for Cross, falls on 27 September or on 28 September in leap year.

It is also believed that although the Cross was discovered in March, Meskel was moved to September to avoid holding a festival during Lent.

Going back to my childhood memories, after going house to house in our neighborhood holding our burning hoye, we always looked forward to the tips we were collecting from every household. Afterwards we would collect all the remaining hoye and have a bonfire.

With the money we collected we treated ourselves to candies and cookies that we would consume sitting at some corner in our neighborhood wearing our new clothes. And when we turned 12 or 13, we used to sit at the stairs of the Cathedral at the city center enjoying our ice-creams and watching pedestrians.

Though I am happy with my life now, I always wonder how great it would be to regain the care free joy of my early childhood. Don’t you?

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