Friday, 3 May 2013

Cruz de Mayo origins lost in time

Ine of many in Granada
SPAIN Celebrations to honour the Holy Cross (Santa Cruz) have such a long history that its origins are uncertain. In its religious, that is Christian beginnings, it is said that the day celebrates Saint Helen's finding the Cross on which Christ was crucified. But the popular feast day comes down to us from the Romans. Liturgical books contain two feast days accorded to the Cross: the Invention of the Cross (May 3) on one hand, and on the other, the Exaltation (September 14), which commemorates the Basilicas of Jerusalem. The latter is of Eastern Christian origins and was not accepte by Rome until the end of the 7th century. May 3rd, as held in Spain, even appears in ancient calendars of the Mozarab era, in relation to Saint Helena. But history, myth and legend are inextricably mixed.>>>
Historical origins
It is said that during the sixth year of the reign of Constantine (306 to 337 AD), the emperor was faced with a much larger Barbarian army across the Danube. The odds were against Rome.

In the middle of the night Constantine has a vision in the sky: Christ's Cross appears to him under the words 'In hoc signo vincis' (With this sign you wil win). The emperor ordered a large cross to be built and carried into battle at the head of his troops, and the day was won.

This, it is also said, was the final, full conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity, a religion his mother had turned to many years before. Constantine soon sent his mother, Helena, to Jerusalem to find the original, true Cross. She allegedly succeeded.

Having consulted the wisest priests, Helena (later named a Saint), she went to where Christ was supposedly crucified, where she did manage to find three pieces of bloodstained wood hidden away.

Saint Helena then had to find out which of the three pieces were the ones on which Jesus died. To do so, she lay several sick people, and even some dead bodies, on the wood. The right piece was identified when the sick were cured and the dead brought to life.

This is where veneration of the Holy Cross is born.

Or so it is said.

But, although Constantine is credited with the creation of the Christian Church as it is today (approximately), and considered a prototype of a Christian prince, there are references to the Holy Cross much earlier than that.

May Day (May 1), or the celebrations of Spring, go back to pagan times, with references to Druids and other organized religions. It is believed there is a connection with the Christian celebration of the Cross, which would hardly be surprising given the ability with which Christianity 'absorbed' so many pagan celebrations and religions, incorporating them symbiotically into its own liturgy.

Roman laws of 7th century mention a festivity involving a cross, and comparing it with some of the major religious holidays of the time, but before the conversion and even the proclamation of Constantine as Emperor.

The oldest known official mention of a special festivity in honour of the Holy Cross is in the Leccionario de Silos, where it appears as 'dies Sanctae Crucis', or Holy Cross day. And there are references of pieces of the 'real' Cross in texts from the first half of the 7th century, which place the relics at churches in Mérida and Guadix.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross
However, the cult of the Cross (there are several 'cults' within the Roman Catholic Church, such as that of Mary, of Jesus, etc.) as a generalised thing in Spain, goes even further back: the Second Council of Barcelona was held in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in 599, which implies previous avocation.

Another story has the 'real' Cross stolen, and later recovered by the Emperor Heraclius in 614. It is told that when the Emperor went to Jerusalem to restore it to its rightful place, he was dressed in very luxurious robes and ornaments - so much so that he could hardly walk.

Heraclius was advised by the Archbishop of Jerusalem to remove most of the clothing as it was not in accordance with the humility of Christ. This might well have something to do with the fact that crosses throughout Spain and other Roman Catholic countries, appear much adorned on May 3.

In order to avoid the possibility of the Cross being stolen again, it was divided into several pieces: one was taken to Rome, another to Constantinople, another remained in Jerusalem and another reduced to splinters and distributed throughout churches in the Christian world. They were, and are, addressed as the Veracruz - the True Cross.

(Prospero needs to add something: one of the few possessions he still has that belonged to his father, who died in 1958 and was also named Alberto, is a Rosary that contains a tiny splinter supposedly of that mentioned above. Opening the silver cross at the end of the Rosary would mean exposing it to the elements, which would very likely turn it to dust. Having seen it in his father's presence, the cross has not been opened since then. Alberto's father was a religious man, of a very religious family, who fell foul of the Church and was excommunicated by his own brother, a Jesuit priest, when he married Alberto's mother, who was not at all religious but very spiritual. The Rosary came from an order of Trappist monks in France. Alberto Junior was born in a cabbage patch.)

The present day
There are hardly any references to the origins of the present popular Holy Cross celebrations, which is what this article is supposed to be about.

The first testimony we can find of celebrations approximately as they are today in Spain, only go back to 18th century, though this does not mean that they were not held before that.

The maximum splendour of the celebrations came about in the 18th and 19th centuries, coinciding with a surge of the Holy Cross 'cult'. However, they declined at the beginning of the 20th, but remain popular in certain places, such as Granada.

Popular celebrations were held widely across the country, with specific variations from one place to another, though with elements in common.

Sevillanas by the Cross
As might be expected, the centre of attention is the Cross itself, either life-sized or smaller, which is adorned. A fiesta is often carried out in its present form, with games, and songs and dancing. In Andalucía, the most popular dance around the Cross is the sevillana.

Sometimes there is a procession, and sometimes, it is evidently pagan in origin.

Many of the processions are headed by young girls dresed in white, with flower garlands in their hair. In some places, they are called 'las mayas' - a clear reference to the month that has long been seen as one of abundance, and fertility. This is more usual in Italy, though.

An Italian writer of the 16th century, Polydoro Virgilio, relates this tradition with Roman celebrations in honour of the goddess Flora, which in turn are related to those for the Greek goddess Eyrisione, who was in charge of the harvest.

19th century, Venezuela
In some places, including South America, what remains of the festivity has a long tree trunk, or pole, placed in the main square, and decorated with 'flowers, ribbons, branches and fruit', according to writer and historian Basilio Sebastián de Castellanos, around which the young people of the village dance and sing. Maypole dancing, anyone? (NOT to be confused with pole dancing, or dancing Poles.)

At a local level, though, nothing quite as splendid as this is likely to take place. Instead, you may see little 'altars' either indoors or outdoors, or maybe even in a public place, with crosses, possibly covered with flowers, silk mantillas (shawls) and Rosaries as well as other elements of decoration. 

Just thought you'd like to know.

(See also, last year's What's a Cruz de Mayo, and why?)

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