11 December 2007

Holidays & Celebrations:
The Feast of the Cross


By Karen Mercury

Maskal, the commemoration of the Finding of the True Cross, is celebrated in Ethiopia on the 26th of September. Maskal daisies bloom in the central highlands, giving hope for prosperity. The stories of the finding of the True Cross vary, and most accept that the Byzantine Queen Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, set off for Jerusalem to find the cross on which Jesus was crucified. She found the cross by burning incense and following the smoke under the hill of Golgotha. She had bonfires lit on Palestinian hills which could be seen by those in Constantinople.

As for how the cross came to Ethiopia, the 15th c. Tefut manuscript details that the Christian Kings of Ethiopia were often asked to protect Egyptian Copts from Egyptian Muslims. In return, the Ethiopian Emperor Dawit asked for four pieces of the True Cross that were guarded by torchbearers on their journey, then placed in a church in Wollo. Since then, Ethiopian Christians celebrate the occasion with flaming torches and giant bonfires.

Criers start the day by running about chanting "Ahho Akhoy! Awake from idleness! Awake from darkness! Maskal is coming!" Children rush around gathering wood or offerings to purchase firewood for the damera bonfires. My historical The Four Quarters of the World described the scene in Gondar in 1868:
For it sounded like a band of children, raising their voice in a cherubic wavering song, down in the street below. They chattered and clamored, and Delphine rose and went to the balcony. She smiled widely to see a crowd of Abyssinian children, standing in the darkening twilight, bundles of wood at their feet, their upturned faces entreating her for fagots of wood.

"Oh, they're darling!" Even the infirm on her portico had forgotten their troubles, and the crippled were walking, the mute were howling, the insane were serene.

Behind her, Kaspar grunted. "Those squalling ruffians! They are saying--if you can't understand--that they need the wood to contribute to the illumination, and that in honor of your visit they will encircle Qudus Gabriel--that's a local church--with a belt of fire that will blaze to the heavens and eclipse the very stars in the firmament."

"They're saying all that, then?"

"Of course! They're saying that such a flaming demonstration in your honor requires a substantial acknowledgement in return, so they want money--you confounded children!--to donate to the saints, of course, and--Stop that! You're not giving them any money!"
An hour past midnight, quite a party gets going. Debterah priests would get elevated, make open-air chants in praise of the Cross, and joust with sticks. The Rev. Henry Aaron Stern wrote: "Their voices, which are a torture when heard in the church, were not devoid of harmony on the hills, in the perfect stillness of the night. Roused from their slumbers by the strains of the singers, the whole population quitted their lairs, and in pious fervor mingled their own execrable screams with the voices of the trained choristers of the capital."

Delphine made out some figures standing atop a knoll not thirty feet distant, but all men looked alike, nearly blending into the night sky behind them, lit up by oil-dipped rag torches. They had to step carefully, crushed on all sides by torch-wielding pilgrims who waved their beacons in dangerous proximity to Delphine's skirts.
At a given signal the torches were thrust into the heaps of wood and, amidst the clashing of swords, the beating of negarit drums, the finding of the Maskal was proclaimed:

When everyone rushed forward in their excitement toward the warka tree that was the highest acclivity of their particular knoll, Delphine was wrenched back from the crowd's tide by two strong hands she was by now thoroughly familiar with. As she laughed with delight, she felt him effortlessly lift her high, holding both her ankles in one broad palm and perching her like a mermaid on his shoulder so solid it may as well have been a tree limb.

She could easily see over the heads of the mob. Simultaneously at a dozen hills throughout the valley, men thrust torches into the heaps of wood, and the fires soared into the heavens with a hellish boom. Now every man worth his salt unsheathed his shotel, clashing playfully with his neighbor. Anatole, not known for his swordsmanship, feebly jousted with a Bedouin.

Although Delphine doubted this was the most pious manner in which to mark the crucifixion of Christ, it was a wondrous sight to see the flames of the dameras fluttering three stories high under the crystal dappled sky.

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