Sept. 27 is the annual celebration of Meskal in the Ethiopian Orthodox and Eritrean Orthodox churches.

It is the first major date of the church’s liturgical year and serves as a time of Thanksgiving at harvest. It also marks the end of Ethiopia's rainy season and is the first opportunity in months for people to travel and visit family.

Many websites say the word means cross. And the holy day celebrates the discovery of a piece of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The discovery was said to have been made by St. Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. That portion of the cross is kept in a monastery in Ethiopia.

The day is observed as the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the other churches, including Orthodox, Catholic and some Protestant.

The main focus of the day is the Demera — a large bonfire held in each village or city. The Christmas tree-shaped bonfire is covered with yellow flowers and often has a tall cross on top.

People dressed in their finery head to the bonfire site. The procession includes priests, laypeople, bands and, sometimes, military members and floats carrying large lit crosses.

The parade circles the cross, a priest prays and the attendees chant: “The cross has saved us from sin and the cross is our power. The light of the cross is revealed. The new year has dawned.” The fire is then lit by a ranking person or a priest.

People watch the bonfire until the main pole falls. Custom holds that if the pole falls to the east, the coming year will offer peace and abundance.

People collect fire from the group celebration to use in purifying ceremonies in the home. After the fire burns out, people collect the charcoal and draw crosses on their foreheads.

In addition to religious services, joyous secular celebrations are held.

Parties, dancing and generous amounts of the local beer can be found at the celebration.

Sources: interfaith-calendar.org/2018.htm; adventureabyssinia.com; ethiopiauncovered.com; aishatoursethiopia.com; National Days/National Ways: Historical, Political, and Religious Celebrations Around the World, edited by Linda K. Fuller; Religious Celebrations: An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals, Solemn Observances and Spiritual Commemorations, edited by J. Gordon Melton

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