Cruces De Mayo – May Crosses

Meaning of the Cruces De Mayo – May Crosses

This fascinating and colourful fiesta is as much a demonstration of pagan tradition as it is of Christian faith and its origins are rooted in a confusion of legend and folklore.  It is close to, but separate from Dia de Trabajo, or May 1st Day of the Worker.

As a representation of the Cross of Christ, its religious significance is obvious and the fiesta is intended to be a time of prayer and religious devotion. But for many the cross was also a symbol of the meeting of the four elements as well as the union of male and female.

The point of intersection represents the essence of creation, matter, the world and universe – all of life itself. Its the celebration of this life, reborn with the spring solstice, that brings natural jubilation to the celebrations in the form of floral offerings and decorations, music and dance.

This fiesta is very popular throughout Andalucía and Almuñécar is no different. Traditionally, the crosses were only displayed in the houses of nobles and gentry but now anybody who wants can set up a cross in his living room or patio. Often neighbours get together to decorate a street corner or plaza. And, of course, the children make their own crosses too.  Here in Almunecar there is an annual Cruces de Mayo competition.

Cruces de Mayo

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Flowers, shawls, mantillas, assorted household objects, musical instruments or even agricultural implements may be used to create a tableaux or shrine  surrounding an ornamental cross, usually made almost entirely of flowers.

These elements of the everyday surrounding the cross are perhaps an unconscious evocation of the connection between Christ’s suffering and sacrifice and that of people everywhere on a daily basis. Fragrant herbs will be strewn upon the ground, typical music will play, people will dance, typical dishes will be made and handed out to passers by. These dishes will include some made from local cane honey, such as a sticky toffee called ‘arropía’, gooey balls of syrupy popcorn called ‘melcocha’ or ‘mercocha’, and toffee-covered ‘nísperos’ or locquats, the orange-coloured fruit that you see on many trees at this time of year. Prizes are awarded for the best crosses, but people often leave a donation on the dish provided as a sign of appreciation.

Cruces de Mayo II

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Why “Crosses” of May?

But why is the Cross celebrated on this day? The story goes back to the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great, in the 4th century. He attributed his victory in a battle with the Barbarians to a cross. In gratitude, he sent his mother, later to become Saint Helena, on a mission to do good works in the Holy Land. She busied herself founding churches and while doing so discovered, beneath a temple to Venus, the site of the Holy Sepulchre, the cave where Christ was entombed after the cruxifixion. Inside were three crosses, obviously those of Christ and the two robbers. But which was Christ’s?

Someone had the bright idea of trying their curative powers on a mortally sick woman.

Sure enough, one of the crosses cured her, so it was obviously the right one. It was then decided to distribute fragments of the Cross far and wide, so they could be displayed at as many places of worship as possible. This led some, like the spoilsport French Protestant John Calvin, to doubt that all the relics of the Cross were genuine. He opined that if all the supposed bits of the Cross were put back together again, it would “be comparable in bulk to a battleship”, a claim rebutted in some detail by another Frenchman, Rohault de Fleury, in 1870. He drew up a catalogue of all known fragments of the Cross and concluded that the total fell well short of the amount required to make a full-size cross. The Church simply argued that, having been touched by the blood of Christ, the wood of the Cross had acquired a kind of material indestructibility, and could thus be divided up indefinitely.

Meanwhile, the largest known relic of the Cross is said to reside in northern Spain, in the mountains of Asturias, at the monastery church of Santo Toribio de Liébana, near the town of Potes and is an important place of pilgrimage.

Two feast days were originally celebrated in connection with the Cross. One was peculiar to the French Gallican branch of the Church. It was introduced in the 7th century and was held on the 3rd May. It was called the ‘Feast of the Invention of the Cross’, invention meaning ‘finding’ or ‘coming upon’ in this instance. It is known also as ‘Crouchmas’ in English.

The other was the ‘Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross’ which commemorated both the discovery of the Holy Sepulchre and the recovery and restoration to Jerusalem in 630 by the Emperor Heraclius of a sizeable chunk of the Cross which had been stolen by the Persians. This feast took place on the 13th and 14th of September, and was one of the most solemn feasts in the calendar. It is still celebrated by some parts of the Church.

The 3rd May, however, was removed from the Catholic Church’s calendar by Pope John XX111 in 1960 as part of a policy to abolish or move feasts that fell between Easter and Pentecost.

This has not affected its popularity here; on the contrary, there seem to be more and more May Crosses every year.
You may find this fanciful or consider it yet another feast based on the flimsiest of evidence.
You may even feel the need as you look upon a May Cross to give voice to your doubts and say, ‘Very nice, but …’.

And the apple with a pair of scissors impaled in it?
It’s there to ward off doubters …

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