This festival celebrates "The Finding of the True Cross" (the cross upon which Jesus was crucified) by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the 4th Century. When Empress Helena, in her fruitless search for the Holy Sepulchre, lit incense and prayed for help from God, she was compelled to follow the perfumed smoke to a particular place on the ground – digging, she found three crosses, one of which is said to be the True Cross.
The remote Gishen Mariam monastery, in the Welo Regions, was given custodianship of piece of the True Cross. The details of how this fragment arrived there is documented in a religious tome, call the Tefut, written between 1434-1468, during the reign of Zera Yacob.
In Addis Ababa, Meskel Square is the place that Emperor Dawit, received a piece of the True Cross, rather than the usual gold, as a reward for the protecting the then Coptic minorities, so naturally it is at Meskel Square where the ceremony takes place.
Starting in the afternoon, having planted a green tree the night before in the centre of the chosen site, parades of people from every walk of life and from every direction, carry lit torches made of branches tied together, and march to the "Demera", an enormous bonfire on which the lit torches are thrown. The light from the bonfire is symbolic of the Ethiopian legend, whereby all who came close to the piece of the True Cross became naked in its light. As the sun disappears behind the horizon, giving way to night, Meskel becomes an even more spectacular sight with thousands of people, singing, flowers, feasting and the welcoming of friends and strangers alike into their homes to share beer and food until dawn.