The most important religious holiday on the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s calendar is called “Meskel” and is based on a legend of the discovery of the true cross of Christ in the fourth century A.D. by Helen, who was Emperor of Rome at the time. It is thought that a piece of the true cross she rediscovered was brought to Ethiopia and remains there to this day.
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Meskel takes place in Addis Ababa two weeks after Ethiopian New Year. The main celebration is in Meskel Square, which was named after the holiday and not the other way around.
The story goes that Helena saw in a vision where the true cross of Christ was buried. She had a huge bonfire lit in Jerusalem, and the smoke moved in a direction that pointed to its location. Today, a large bonfire is lit during Meskel. The firewood is draped with yellow flowers before being lit ablaze. After the fire has subsided, people take charcoals from its ash heap and draw the shape of a cross on their foreheads. Some also believe that carefully watching the way the fire burns gives omens of future events.