We're in the middle of a rash of special days. April 30 was Children's Day. May 1 was Labor Day and May 3, today, Day of the Holy Cross. May 5 is the well known Battle of Puebla. May 10 is Mothers' Day and May 15 is Teachers' Day as well as the Day of St. Isidore Labrador, the beginning of the planting season. May 16 the sun will be directly overhead central Mexico. But that will be the subject of next weeks’ Digs.
No matter where you are in Mexico, as you read today’s newspaper you most likely hear fireworks (cohetes) that began at midnight and will continue until midnight tonight. In 1960 Pope John XXIII removed Day of the Holy Cross from the Catholic liturgical calendar. It was an unpopular decision, particularly so in Mexico where May 3 is the patron day of stonemasons (albañiles). The Mexican church petitioned the Vatican for dispensation. The church wisely decided to allow only Mexico to continue to celebrate the discovery of Christ’s cross by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. In 326-8 Helena, at nearly 80 years of age, traveled to Jerusalem and Golgotha, taking with her stonemasons to help her search for the cross. Digging at Golgotha she and her stonemasons found the relics of three crosses, one of which she believed to be the Cross of Christ’s crucifixion. Most of that cross is preserved in Rome at St. Peter’s Basilica.
On this day anyone with a construction project anywhere in Mexico is expected to celebrate with their albañiles. If it is a small project then lunch – even if only a chicken from a rotisserie and tortillas-- will be hosted by the contractor or owner. If it is a large construction site, an onsite Mass will be celebrated followed by lunch and perhaps even mariachis. Tequila is considered essential. Regardless of the size of the project, a wooden cross decorated with flowers will be elevated to some part of the building and remain there until completion -- or until replaced by next year's cross.
The Day of the Holy Cross is familiarly known in Mexico as the Day of the Flowery Cross and yesterday and today are big days for flower sellers. Not only are crosses at construction sites decorated with flowers but so are crosses in home altars and church altars as well as the crosses gracing many hills. Yesterday hilltops all over Mexico were devoid of crosses; they had been brought down to nearby churches last week. There they've been painted, repaired, and dressed with new “clothing.” Today they will be blessed and returned to their hilltop where they’ll spend another year under the care of new officers within the cofradia (brotherhood). When back in position you'll see some hilltops with three crosses, just as on Calvary. Others with just have one. Flapping in the wind you'll see the Cross' clothing -- a narrow strip of embroidered cloth looping over each nail giving the cloth the shape of an "M".
Various towns in Mexico have distinctly different traditional celebrations of this day. In Xochitepec, Morelos, the people meet outside the pueblo church at dawn. There the cross is blessed and participants walk together to a high hill on the outskirts of town. An outdoor mass is celebrated before replanting the Holy Cross.
The hills surrounding Chalma are where I've seen the grandest array of crosses on hilltops. Today the atrio of that town's gleaming white church is filled with crosses laid horizontally while busy Augustine priests bless them.
This week I have thought of English expatriate Rosa King and her harrowing escape from Revolutionary Cuernavaca in 1914, depicted in her account Tempest Over Mexico (available online, free). Ms. King describes passing through Chalma -- I'm sure she saw the many crosses on the hilltops.
Mrs. King, like many of the readers of this newspaper, held the citizenship of a country in which she was not born and never lived for extended periods of time and she considered Mexico home. She crossed paths with young British expatriate Margaret Hart (later Margaret Wilkins) in the Cuernavaca home of US Ambassador Morrow, whom they both befriended -- Mrs. King as a respected elder member of the English-speaking community and Margaret as best friend of Ambassador Morrow's younger daughter.
Next Monday, May 9, was to have been the 100th birthday of well-known Margaret Wilkins. I was anticipating that celebration and writing about the Mexico she knew for many of those years. Unfortunately Mrs. Wilkins passed away April 13, three weeks before that monumental date. Margaret, born in Buenos Aires, moved to Mexico City in 1921 at the age of 10. She attended school in Mexico City and then lived in the USA for forty years with her husband Eugene Wilkins whom she met when he was headmaster of the American School in Mexico City. During that time she and her family made frequent trips to visit her mother, Edith Hart, who lived in Cuernavaca. Upon Eugene's retirement, the Wilkins moved to Cuernavaca and built the house where Margaret survived her husband and lived for 40 years until her death last month. From what I have heard about her I know she loved all things Mexican and most likely loved this holiday. Through the years she no doubt provided her albañiles with a number of celebrations of the Flowery Cross. Rest in Peace dear Margaret.