When my new husband asked if I was coming to see the crosses that night, I was confused. Surely it was the following morning? But no, my husband explained that Fiesta de la Cruz runs for about 24 hours, from the evening of May 2nd when mostly locals admiring the crosses and all day on May 3rd when it's mostly tourists. That year I tried doing it the way the locals do, and it made for a magical night.
At 10:30 pm we took a taxi up La Pavona where the party was in full swing. A salsa band played on the small temporary stage and dancers packed the space in front. The night air was full of happiness and the smell of fried pork. We danced until the smell became irresistible, then bought drinks and fried pork sandwiches from one of the mobile bars. This was definitely better than waiting until the morning. I should have known – the Canarians know how to party.
At midnight we started walking downhill. The new road to San Isidro winds up the steep hill, while the old one goes straight down. I'm sure it used to be a donkey track at one time. And because it's the old road, it's the one with the crosses. Tonight, the traffic is one way, downhill. And since the spring flowers are blooming, the night is perfumed.
For most of the year, they are simple wooden crosses, although some stand in niches. Boy are they different tonight!
Fiesta de la Cruz celebrates the Holy Cross or True Cross. Catholics believe that the Empress Helena, travelled to the Holy Land in A.D. 326–28 where she found the cross used to crucify Jesus on May 3rd. So every year on May 3rd, the people of Santa Cruz de La Palma and the surrounding area celebrate by decorating the roadside crosses. Since this is a Catholic country, there are lots of crosses.
Each one has a banner across the road: ‘Welcome to’ and the name of the cross. Most have bunting or Spanish and Canarian flags flying. As you get closer, there are small branches from the laurel forest lining the sides of the road, so it smells like a forest. Every now and then, somebody sends up a flurry of small, noisy rockets. The neighbours have usually organised a snug little corner for themselves, sitting around a table with blankets on their shoulders and a bottle of wine and something to nibble in front of them, chatting and usually laughing. Sometimes one person has a guitar and they're singing. They seem to be having a great time, which is good because they'll be there in shifts all night.
Of course in the centre there's the cross itself, usually covered in white silk, with a coloured silk ribbon draped over it, and decorated in gold jewellery. No wonder the neighbours stay close all night – those are Granny's earrings and necklaces dangling there. And each cross has a little basket for donations towards next year's cross. (Take plenty of change – they're well worth it.) My boyfriend was right – the crosses look much more atmospheric at night. Partly it's the dramatic lighting, but I think it's mostly the party atmosphere.Each cross has been transformed into a work of art and they're amazingly varied. Traditionally, the cross is surrounded by myriad flowers in a geometrical design. More modern crosses get more adventurous, and the neighbours have often worked on it for months. I've seen a painted, starry background with all the planets of the solar system hanging in space. I've seen detailed replicas of Santa Cruz town hall or Christopher Columbus's ship. I think my all-time favourite was a Japanese garden, complete with a shallow pond with live ducks swimming.
Off to one side you'll generally find the cross the children made. Of course these are much simpler, decorated with pasta and sprayed, or wild flowers. Again, they have a basket for donations, because Palmeran children are just as keen on socially acceptable begging as I used to be.
Another innovation is the mayos. These are life-size rag dolls, something like a guy for bonfire night. You often find a couple of them sitting next to the cross, usually an old couple with blankets over their shoulders, sharing a bottle of wine. Yes, a lot like the real humans a few yards away. Sometimes they're part of the decoration around the cross itself, perhaps in local folk costume milking a goat.
It wasn't such a long walk, but I was carrying my camera bag while my husband lugged the tripod. By the time we got to the bottom of the hill I was shattered, but I had loads of photos and I was very glad I'd made the effort.
Since then, I walk around the crosses at night when I can, although I sometimes I drive around so that I can see more of them. Sometimes I still go on the morning of May 3rd. The lighting is much easier, and I can get a good photo with my compact camera and no tripod. They're still works of art.
There's one particular street in Santa Cruz I almost always visit on May 3rd. There are three crosses, but really I go to see the mayos. They have about a hundred of them altogether along the road which runs from the language school down to the Plaza Alameda, and several make me laugh out loud. Children playing with dolls, women ironing, sewing or collecting the morning bread with curlers in their hair, two men in a dinghy fishing down a manhole. One year they had a whole wedding party: bride and groom, bridesmaids and many guests. Another year they had an entire basketball match. It's amazing to see what they've come up with this year.
May is a great time to visit La Palma because the spring flowers are blooming, but Fiesta de la Cruz makes it unforgettable.