Nick Butcher on Fiestas and Foods of Spain.
 El Día del Trabajo - Las Cruces de Mayo



El día del trabajo

These days, when we take for granted all manner of rights and laws covering our well-being at work, the holiday that is celebrated on the first of May, known in Spain as 'el día del trabajo' - 'Work Day' - serves to remind us that it was not always thus. The marches held on this day are now peaceful enough, but they pay hommage to a struggle that came to a head in protests in Chicago in 1886.

Haymarket Martyrs

At that time, working conditions for manual workers were appalling. Your working day would typically last sixteen hours, your wages would be low, your standard of living likewise. Children worked from the age of six, women would have to do the night shift to augment their husbands' wages. Thousands of workers went on strike at the beginning of May, 1886, and demonstrated for the right to a 48-hour week or an 8-hour day. In circumstances that remain controversial to this day, violence erupted, several people were killed, many were arrested and some were even subsequently executed following farcical trials, becoming known as the Haymarket Martyrs.

The date of May 1st, already a day dedicated to some pagan festivals, later became an emblematic day for the labour movement and a national holiday in some countries. Every year in Spain since 1976 there have been marches organized by the trades unions on this day, the slogan this year being "Por la igualdad, empleo de calidad", ie to achieve equality we need good-quality employment.

Las cruces de mayo

Two days later some parts of Spain, the villages of the Axarquía included, celebrate 'las cruces de mayo', the day of the May Crosses. This is not a holiday, but is popular nonetheless. In several streets around the town neighbours get together to organize the construction of a crucifix covered in flowers. This forms the centrepiece of a sort of shrine that is set up in the street. All manner of everyday utensils will adorn the shrine: cooking pots, embroidered shawls, pestles and mortars, pieces of pottery, and who knows what else.

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.

TrueCrossBut 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.

ExaltationMeanwhile, 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. It 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 ...'. Beware. Should you see on the shrine an apple with a pair of scissors impaled in it, it's there to ward off doubters such as yourself. No buts, please, they are having none of it.

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