04 May 2012

Fiesta de las Cruces

Today is the cross’s birthday – at least that’s how my Peruvian co-worker described it to me yesterday.

I had noticed new cloths on the crosses outside one of Cusco’s inner city churches and fresh green paint being applied to the two wooden crosses at one side of Cusco’s cathedral, so I was fascinated to find out more.

The day, always the 3rd of May, is actually called the Fiesta de las Cruces or Cruz de Mayo, and it’s celebrated in much of Spain and Hispanic America. According to Wikipedia: ‘Religiously, the festival is rooted in the search by the Byzantine Empress Saint Helena for the cross on which Jesus died, but the popular traditions connected to the festival originate from pagan traditions brought to Spain by the Roman Empire.'

‘The legend is that Emperor Constantine I, in the sixth year of his reign, confronted the barbarians on the banks of the Danube, in a battle where victory was believed to be impossible because of the great size of the enemy army. One night, Constantine had a vision of a cross in the sky and, near it, the words "In hoc signo vincis" (With this sign, you shall be victorious). The emperor had a cross made and put at the front of his army, which won an easy victory over the enemy multitude. On returning to the city and learning the significance of the cross, Constantine was baptised as a Christian and gave orders to construct Christian churches. He sent his mother, Saint Helena, to Jerusalem in search of the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus died. Once there, Helena summoned the wisest priests to aid in her attempt to find the cross. On Calvary Hill, traditionally considered the site of Jesus's crucifixion, she found three bloody logs hidden. In order to discover which was the True Cross, she placed the logs one by one over sick people, and even dead people, who were cured or resuscitated at the touch of the True Cross. The veneration of the True Cross, and the use of pieces of the True Cross as relics, began at that time. Santa Helena died praying for all believers in Christ to celebrate the commemoration of the day the Cross was found.’

One of the crosses outside Cusco Cathedral

The second Cusco Cathedral cross

In Cusco, indigenous traditions have been assimilated into the Catholic practices and the Holy Cross has been transformed into a dressed figure that celebrates the Vigil of the Cross. Wealthy locals hold a three-night party for the Cross and its worshippers and loud fireworks are let off as part of the celebration.

On 2 May, the Day of the Descent, the smaller, portable crosses are taken down from their hills and sanctuaries to the houses of mayordomos, the people who are willing and able to pay for the festivities and new 'clothes' for the Cross. The people feast and enjoy live music until the following morning, when the Cross is dressed in new fineries and taken to a special mass.

One of the San Francisco Church crosses
A second cross at the Church
of San Francisco

The large, fixed crosses outside churches have their old fineries removed, are renovated and repainted, then they too are dressed in new cloths and adorned with flowers and ribbons.

The third day, 4 May, is called the kacharpari. On this day, a farewell mass is held, after which the cross is returned to its normal resting place and more feasting and partying takes place. 

The third cross at the Church
of San Francisco

A close-up of the beautiful embroidery

On the way home last night, I noticed one cross, lit up with coloured lights and adorned with lit candles and beautiful flowers. This morning I walked around inner city Cusco to look at all the crosses outside the main churches: the San Blas church, Cusco Catherdral, the Church of San Francisco and the Church of Santo Domingo.

All their crosses has been dressed in new fineries, some richer and more sumptuous than others, and some crosses had been decorated with streamers and paper lanterns. They all looked very beautiful, and I have finally discovered why the crosses are dressed, something I have been wondering about for many months (see my earlier blog on this subject: http://sconzani.blogspot.com/2011/10/cross-dressing.html)

The cross at the Church of Santo Domingo

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