As far as I can figure, there are two main reasons for festivals in Ethiopia. The first is to celebrate or commemorate death, as in a religious figures death, enemies and martyrs. The second, but unquestionably linked to the first, is religion.
Meskel is the celebration of the cross in Christianity. They set up a huge brush cross on the top of a hill near the town, and set it alight at a designated time (after the sun has set – which adds to the drama). We helped celebrate the burning of the cross by picking our way precariously over loose ground and past prickly pear and innumerable other spiky plants to the hills summit with half the towns’ residents.
Awaiting us on top were large piles of carefully bunched twigs each about 2 meters in length. Some were already carrying around a bunch of these twigs, to be used as torches to light their way back down the hill after sunset. At the peak of the hill stood a raised cross made from the same twigs, standing about 5 meters tall, with the sun already on its descent, streaks of orange and pink already setting the scene alight.
Guards with sticks beat back the general fray, away from the piles of twigs. Then like a canon the people shot forward and the twigs started flying through the air, people racing after them. From a safe distance on our apartment balcony we witnessed the burning of the cross and the golden trail leading down the hillside for the city, and the ensuing parties.
I really enjoyed the experience. It was fun trekking up the hill with the locals and taking in what is obviously an enjoyable time for everyone, religious event or not.