Ethiopians from around the Bay Area came to Medhane Alem church in Oakland on Sunday to celebrate Meskel, an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian holiday that commemorates the finding of the True Cross by Saint Helena. During the late afternoon celebration, crowds gathered in the soft glow of the afternoon sun to eat injera (an Ethiopian flatbread), recite prayers, and dance around a replica of the True Cross, which was lit on fire soon after sunset.
The holiday dates back to the fourth century AD, when Saint Helena is believed to have used the smoke from a bonfire to find the True Cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.
Today, the holiday is as much an occasion for the Ethiopian diaspora to celebrate their roots as it is a community event to raise funds for traditional religious institutions like the Medhane Alem church, and an occasion to spend time with friends and family.
Meskel is the first major holiday of the Ethiopian calendar. People dress in white because the color is believed to be pure, signaling a fresh start to the new year.