May in Cordoba – Know our traditions
MAY IN CÓRDOBA – FLOWERS ON FLOATS, ON CROSSES AND IN PATIOS
Springtime brings flowers galore to Córdoba, starting with a parade at the beginning of May called La Batalla de las Flores (“the Battle of the Flowers”). This sees a long procession of flower-covered floats, with women dressed in traditional gypsy dresses throwing flowers into the crowd. Next come the two main floral events, starting off with the May Crosses, followed by the Patio Contests , and finally the Spring Feria. All this is accompanied by a host of cultural events – all kinds of music, theatre, flamenco and contemporary dance.
The May Crosses Festival (Cruces de Mayo) is celebrated in many parts of the world, especially in Latin America and Spain. And in Spain, the festival holds special importance in many parts of Andalucia, but especially Córdoba, which has the most famous celebration.
HISTORY OF THE FESTIVAL
The May Crosses Festival celebrated in Andalucia is probably one of the most interesting festivals, not only today, but in historical terms. As legend has it, St Constantine’s mother, the much-venerated St Helen, is the founder of this festival, which shows special respect for the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.
As the story goes, in the fourth century AD, St Helen went to Jerusalem in search of the cross, after her son Constantine dreamed of a cross that would help him win a battle he was losing at the time. He ordered his troops to build him a large cross, which they then carried into battle and conquered their enemy. This inspired a family conversion to Christianity and a search for the real cross, led by St Helen. She found three crosses, and to establish which one was authentic, she carried out tests to see which could perform miracles. Only one of them did, healing the sick and even bringing the dead back to life. St Helen then became a champion for the cross, urging people to continue worshipping even after her death.
And so this veneration of the cross is the motive for the May Crosses Festivals that are celebrated in so many countries.
WHEN DOES THE FESTIVAL HAPPEN AND WHAT IS IT?
The May Crosses festival in Córdoba lasts four days, always at the end of April/beginning of May. It is actually more than a festival – it is also a contest, with 40 or so Catholic hermandades (brotherhoods) and neighbourhood associations competing for prizes for the best-decorated cross from the Ayuntamiento (town hall). The competition began in 1953, but the tradition of decorating the crosses dates back to the 18th century. The preparations take place secretly in the preceding months, with all the women and children from each street or neighbourhood joining in with the decorating of their cross, singing or dancing as they work. In older times it was an excuse for young single people to meet.
The competitors are arranged into three districts: the artistic-historic area, the modern areas and the recintos cerrados (patios). The crosses are judged according to four criteria: the decoration of the cross itself, the floral variety used, the lighting, and use of existing environmental elements (trees, walls etc), with representatives from each hermandad and neighbourhood acting as judges to vote on the best-dressed cross. Cash prizes of around 1,000 euros are awarded for first, second and third place in each district, while each participating group receives a 750 euro grant.
WHAT DO THE CROSSES LOOK LIKE?
The crosses are about three metres high, decorated with flowers, usually in red or white (occasionally green and/or yellow), and sometimes with more foliage emerging from the upper part of the cross, including its three points, or patterns imposed on the base colour. The effect is further enhanced by more flowers (often pink and white) in pots in a carefully arranged pattern to complement the cross, hanging on the wall behind it, placed at its foot, or going up the steps on which it sits. At night, the crosses are lit dramatically from below. Those set against white walls, such as Plaza de Capuchinos and Plaza de la Corredera, are particularly striking; others have white backgrounds erected to create a similar effect.
WHAT ELSE CAN I EXPECT TO FIND?
In spite of the religious origins of this festival, don’t expect anything short of the traditional Spanish fiesta when you visit Córdoba at this time of year. Each Catholic brotherhood or neighbourhood association sets up a bar next to its cross to serve drinks (try the fino sherry) and tapas (local speciality, salmorejo, is a delicious, creamier version of gazpacho) to the partygoers – and let’s not forget the music. In addition to the Sevillanas played during the day, with many local women dancing in their gypsy dresses, there are live performances by rock bands at night, which is also one of the best times to take a walk round the city, view the crosses lit up and soak up in the festive atmosphere.
The crosses are installed at 9pm on the first day of the festival, and remain in place until 4pm on the final day. Music is generally played from 12 midday-5pm and from 8pm-2am (the volume is turned down at 12 midnight, out of consideration for the neighbours).
Tourist offices in Córdoba will provide May Crosses Festival maps featuring large cross icons to show visitors where participating neighbourhoods are. Three of the traditionally most popular are San Basilio, San Agustín and San Andrés. While the Córdoba crosses are the most well known in Andalucia, there are also May Crosses traditions in most provincial capitals and many villages as well.