Life in Ethiopia revolves around its own ancient calendar. It is the “sidereal” calendar, similar to the Coptic Egyptian calendar, but not quite! Sidereal time is a time-keeping system that astronomers use, based on the earth’s rate of rotation measured relative to the fixed stars.
The names of the months are in Ge’ez, the orthodox language of the Ethiopian Church. There are 13 months in the Ethiopian calendar, 12 months have 30 days each, and the 13th month will have 5 days in a normal year, and 6 days every 4th year (leap year).
The year ended this year (2014) on the 10th September, but will differ every year, depending on the leap years. The first day of the Ethiopian year this year (2014 our time) was “our” September 11th. However it is important to note that there is a 7 year 8 month gap between the Ethiopian calendar and the Gregorian calendar. So our 2014 for example is their 2007!
There is a wonderful celebration, combining a national and a liturgical holiday all in one: the end of the year symbolizes the end of the rains, a new year and a new harvest. This celebration takes place in the Meskel Square, in the middle of town. It is an annual religious holiday and the Ethiopian Orthodox church commemorates the discovery of the “true cross” by St Helena. The belief is that she had a dream about the location of the true cross of Christ was, and she made a fire of wood and frankincense and the smoke rose and then returned to earth exactly where the cross lay. So this 1600 year old tradition is still celebrated today.
FLOWERS AND BONFIRES:
The Meskel flower, after which the festival is named, is a bright, yellow wildflower, that grows prolifically in the highland countryside, after the monsoon rains. They are like carpets of vibrant cheerfulness, mile and after mile after mile of them! For the celebration, flowers are picked and bonfire sticks and twigs are gathered. At the main Meskel square in town, a huge bonfire is made, decorated with the yellow flowers and in many homes, a similar yet smaller version is made for the family, to be lit once people return home after the ceremony in the main square. On the day of this celebration, it appears that every person walking the roads back to their homes is carrying one armful of these happy flowers and the other filled with firewood! Everyone seems animated and excited, looking forward to the ceremony.
WHICH WAY WILL IT FALL?
From mid-day, crowds mostly dressed in the white national dress, start to enter the square, vying for the best places for the best view of the choirs and the fire. As the day draws to a close, an elaborate ceremony is held in the square, with many and various choirs singing and swaying as they parade close to the waiting bonfire (Demera). As it comes closer to the setting of the sun, the square is packed (literally shoulder to shoulder) with people and the excitement and tension is palpable. With the final procession complete the crowds happily light their hand-held locally designed candles (which are brilliant and don’t drip!): watching the candles light up around the square is a truly spiritual experience. And then finally the huge bonfire is lit, amidst great cheering and whistling from the immense crowd. Within the bonfire is a cross and which way it falls is said to predict the year ahead. Luckily this year, it fell the “right” way, and people left happily and content, believing they could look forward to a good and fruitful year, with good harvests and good rain.
BACK HOME AGAIN:
Many families then return to their own homes and light their “mini” versions of the huge Demera, and have an evening of singing and celebration: another year has begun.