The festival of Meskel is second in importance only to Timkat and has been celebrated in the country for over 1,600 years. The word actually means “cross” and the feast commemorates the discovery of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The original event took place on 19 March, AD 326, but the feast is now celebrated on 27 September.
Many of the rites observed throughout the festival are said to be directly connected to the legend of Empress Helena. On the eve of Maskel tall branches are tied together and yellow daisies, popularly called meskel flowers, are placed at the top. During the night these branches are gathered together in front of the compound gates and ignited. This symbolises the actions of the Empress whom, when no one would show her the Holy Sepulchre, lit incense and prayed for help. Where the smoke drifted she dug and found three crosses. To one of them, the True Cross, many miracles were attributed.