Meskel is a yearly religious Ethiopian holiday in commemorating the discovery of the true cross by Queen Eleni (Queen Helena) in the 14th century. The actual Meskel holiday occurs on September 27 GC or September 28 in leap years. The Ge’ez word Meskel literally means Cross in which the celebration day named after.
Although there are many factors that make Meskel celebration one of the most anticipated Ethiopian Holidays, but the very fact that Meskel is the first religious Ethiopian holiday to be celebrated right after the Enkutatash Celebration during the first Month of Ethiopian New Year which is Meskerem – a brightly colorful month of transition from winter to spring – makes it even more awaited.
Worldwide the festival is known as Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and legend has it that, Queen Helena had a revelation in a dream in which she was told that she shall make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross upon which Christ was crucified is buried. Accordingly and after adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and return to the ground exactly to the spot where the cross had been buried.
In order to symbolize this particular legend eloquently, a colorful and huge Demera procession takes place in late afternoon right before the celebration day (September 26) at the city center of many major Ethiopian cities around the country. Demera is a huge bonfire built by bunch of dried sticks bundled up together and finish off with a distinctive and Ethiopian touch by putting a cross sign at the top tied with yellow daises which locally known as Meskel flower as it blooms during this time of year here in Ethiopia.
The different kinds of artistically expressive images and costumes, the gospel singers with their huge drums, priests with their huge crosses and colorful robes, a lot of people who came to attend the event many in traditional clothing makes it all one of a- must-see Ethiopian festivals. Before closing off the Demera procession in the early evening, the Demera is lit after it is blessed by the priest which is one of the mesmerizing scenes that belongs to Meskel celebration only.
Smaller Demera are also built at the villages or individual households to be lit with the family, neighbors and loved ones and afterwards getting all ready for the Meskel Holiday (September 27) by preparing traditional Ethiopian Holiday cuisines.
In spite of the religious aspect of Meskel celebration, it is also celebrated culturally with many distinctive and eloquent details in most of the south and south western Ethiopian villages of the Gurage Zone by its people known as Gurage.
The warm Gurage people are famously known as one of the conscientious and business people of Ethiopia. From shoe shining business to owning little Suk (kiosks) which fondly known as ye Gurage Suk and situated at every Addis Ababa’s neighborhoods is mostly run by the enthusiast Gurage people who mainly comes from the beautifully lush South and South-Western Gurage Zone villages of the country.
It is during Meskel celebration that these diligent people usually go back to their village to enjoy their yearlong fruit of labor with family, relatives, friends and neighbors the best way they know how. Since receiving the priceless blessings from the elders of the household or village is something that the Gurage people value the most in spite of the fruit of their labor, this once in a year Meskel celebration means going back to their amazingly green and loving village (Home).
From all the eloquent details that make this culturally unique Meskel celebration of the Gurage people, for today I would like to give homage to the renowned and exotic Gurage people’s delicious traditional holiday cuisine – Kitfo – because when it comes to Meskel Holiday, Kitfo is the first thought that appear into many Ethiopian minds including mine.
Kitfo is an herbaceous and spicy freshly ground beef generously smeared with the aromatic Niter Qibe (Ethiopian spied butter) and mixed with Mitmita (a blend of chili spices and salt) that just melt in your mouth.
Since Kitfo is one of the regional delights, it can also be enjoyed here in Addis Ababa at Kitfo Bet (Kitfo Eateries) which are specialized in preparing this particular exotic Gurage’s dish and for first time visitors there are Kifto Bet that goes with the distinctively electrifying Gurage traditional song and dance…Perfect!
At these particular eateries, there are three different kinds of Kitfo to be enjoyed depending on your choice … Tire Kitfo is the one with the raw meat coated with Niter Qibe and Mitmita spice mix, Leb leb is the one which slightly cooked meat and Geba Yale is the one with well cooked meat of course all generously smeared with Niter Qibe and a touch of Mitmita spice mix.
It is not only the glistening tender meat that makes Kitfo look appealing but it is the fact that Kitfo is served in a clay vessel with the distinctive touch of Koba (false banana leaf) – which is one of the eloquent pieces of this astonishingly rich Gurage culinary tradition. Koba (False Babana leaf) is used as a cooking parchment and even as a plate to eat Kitfo and other traditional cuisines.
The two main side dishes of Kitfo are Aybe (salty or even spiced cottage cheese), Gomen Kitfo (finely minced Collard Greens cooked with Niter Kibe coated with Mitmita spice mix). Traditionally Kitfo is eaten with Kocho (fermented starch bread made from Enset’s or falls banana plant leaf covers and grated root) though it is also served with the omnipresent staple of Ethiopia – Injera.
Within the distinctive and mesmerizing Gurage culinary tradition, there are other exotic dishes obtained from Enset plant although Kocho is at the spot light for today as it goes with one of Meskel celebration’s main dish – Kitfo.
For passionate culture explorers, there is no place like Gurage Zone villages situated in south and south – western Ethiopia to witness and capture the unique essence of Meskel Holiday as it is celebrated by the locals along with its distinctively unique and mesmerizing details.