Old traditional festivals tend to disappear or become tourist attractions, losing many of the original features. Meskel celebrations in Ethiopia still maintain most of its original features. Meskel celebrations in Lalibela are one of the most recognized and colorful religious festivals in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
The word «Meskel» actually means «cross» in Amharic and the feast commemorates the discovery by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, of the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
The Meskel celebrations include the burning of a large bonfire, based on the belief that Empress Helena had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she should make a bonfire and the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.
According to local traditions, the Demera procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration.
Charcoal from the remains of the fire is afterwards collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross.