On September 26th, teachers, parents and students of International Community School (ICS) dressed up in traditional clothing and gathered after school to celebrate early one of the most cheerful annual religious holidays, Meskel. It is a religious event performed on September 27th in the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox which celebrates the fourth century discovery of the True Cross (which Jesus Christ was crucified on) by the Roman Empress Helena or also known as Queen Eleni.
This commemoration is based on the belief that an angel came into Queen Eleni’s dreams and told her to start a bonfire and follow the smoke in order to find the place where the cross was buried. From that day and on, the tradition of kindling a bonfire with a cross on top is preserved until today through Meskel to celebrate its finding.
As seen in the picture above, before the start of the significatory burning of the large bonfire, performers standing in a large circle were either clapping while lightly dancing or playing the drums in unison to the melodies of a male solo singer. While the beats of the drums enlightened the mood, the unfamiliar style of the singing established a rather subtle but lively performance. The unique fusion of contrasting sentiments caught my attention as it reminded me of both the cultures of Central Asia and of the Indigenous people of South America. The performers were dressed in elegant Ethiopian traditional white robe decorated with delicate gold patterns and a small cross on the back. Some of them were wearing white head coverings as part of the Orthodox customs, strengthening the religious spirit of Meskel.
|[Students, teachers and parents watching the performance before the firing of the bonfire.
Photo courtesy of Ga Yun (Lynna) Kim.]
Behind the performers was the bonfire with a cross on top, as shown above in the picture. It was piled with firewood and charming yellow flowers called ‘meskel abeba’ which translates to meskel flowers, the official Ethiopian language. As the climax of the event reached, adults also dressed in white clothing but with less formal attire started to circle the bonfire. They slowly walked around the bonfire while chanting in Amharic and holding sticks lit with fire. As the speed of the circle escalated and the chant intensified, the bonfire gradually caught on flames. The atmosphere was soon dominated with thick grey smoke as it sparked furiously in red and orange flames and the adults quickly evacuated to the side.
|[People circling the bonfire and starting to fire it. Photo courtesy of Ga Yun (Lynna) Kim]
|[The bonfire releasing thick smoke as it is catching on fire.
Photo courtesy of Ga Yun (Lynna) Kim]
|[The bonfire on powerful orange flames and adults running to the side to avoid the fire.
Photo courtesy of Ga Yun (Lynna) Kim]
The crowd observed the bonfire flaming energetically in amazement and seemed to talk about the cross that was on top of the bonfire. When I asked my Ethiopian friend, she told me that just until a few generations ago, people would observe the direction that the cross would fall in order to determine whether they have good luck or not at that time of the year.
It was very interesting to see students, even foreign kids, dressed up in Ethiopian traditional clothes to celebrate this holiday. From my experience of living in various countries, it is very unusual to see students voluntarily wear their traditional clothing to school unless it is like International Day where everyone is expected to wear their country’s traditional costumes. Thus, it was fascinating to see Ethiopian students wearing full traditional costumes from head to toe, even with matching hair accessories and footwear. The students and the celebration demonstrated how ICS truly embraces the culture of its community and tries its best to allow other foreign students to directly explore and experience the culture of the country they are living in. I hope to see more schools or even workplaces to follow the spirit and mindset of ICS and preserve their local traditions as well.
Ga Yun (Lynna) Kim
International Community School of Addis Ababa
Ga Yun (Lynna) Kim firstname.lastname@example.org
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