May Services at Outdoor Crosses
The tradition for Catholic services to be held at the outdoor crosses in the eastern regions of Latgale and Augšzeme in Latvia in May are considered to be a joint cultural value together with the Office of the Dead (mirušo oficijs – prayers for the dead). These services by roadside outdoor crosses are a most illuminating example of the Latgalian piety, illustrating their joy of singing and a musical symbol of their sense of belonging to Latgale. The origin of this tradition in Latvia has been narrowed down to around the middle of the 18th century. There is also a possibility this tradition has its origins in the ancient traditions of singing outdoors in spring.
In the Roman Catholic church calendar, May is the month of the Holy Virgin Mary, with special services and prayers devoted to her. May services are a ritual honouring and adoration of the Virgin Mary, so the outdoor services in Latgale are a localised version of this well-known Catholic tradition. Held in the evening, mostly following days free of work, the locals gathered around the outdoor crosses. These crucifixes were located either by the roadside, in the town centre or even near town borders, the nearest graveyard, by people’s houses or in the church garden, sometimes surrounded by a low railing, with benches inside the railing. In May the crucifixes were decorated with bunches of flowers and garlands. Those attending the service were seated on benches, dressed up for the occasion, while the younger folk stood behind.
The May services were called simply singing by the cross (dzīduošona pi krusta) and were spontaneous gatherings – without the presence or leadership of the clergy. They were lay-led, officiated primarily by local women who were familiar with the structure of the ritual, knew the melodies and could start the singing in the most appropriate register. In some places the Holy Rosary was recited, others, readings of meditations on the life of the Virgin Mary or a litany was recited together with prayers. In conjunction with these services, another tradition was the drawing of “lots” – little notes with suggestions for daily and monthly devotions to God and the promoting of a more spiritually devoted life.
The central element of the May services are songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary, telling of her life, her suffering and service to humanity. As the songs are an oral tradition they are known off by heart, just like folksong melodies. The text is provided in prayer books and the choice of songs is decided by the participants themselves according to the dictates of local tradition. The honouring of the crucifixes in Latgale takes place throughout the year, however the May services constitute the main event.
During the Soviet era, numerous roadside crosses were destroyed as the Soviets sought to eradicate the May services and only a few roadside crosses remained in some remote areas. Nowadays the tradition is experiencing a rejuvenation and in some places it is presented as an object of sacral tourism.
May singings in Latgale (various places), 2004–2009. A video broadcast by the Balvi District Museum with materials from personal collection of Elvita Ruka and Ruta Cibule and Choir archives of the Latvian Radio. 2014.
Mārtiņš Boiko on May services at outdoor crosses and the Office of the Dead in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Cybuļskis, Viktors. (1968). Maja mēneša lyugšanu kōrteiba Nautrānu pogostā. From: Acta Latgallica. 2 (P. 131-133). P/S Latgaļu izdevnīceiba.
Dzeņs, O. (1968). Maja mēneša tradicija Vōrkovas pogostā. From: Acta Latgallica. 2 (P. 128-130). P/S Latgaļu izdevnīceiba.
Mārtiņš Boiko on May services at outdoor crosses and the Office of the Dead in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.