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May Open-air Services

The May open air services by the roadside or village crosses is a new tradition, but the possibility that it may be indirectly related to the old outdoor singing traditions cannot be excluded.  The age of the May services cannot be determined with any precision, but in all likelihood they started in the second half of the 19th century.

According to the Roman Catholic church calendar, May is the month of Virgin Mary when services and prayers are devoted to her. The May services, celebrating the Virgin, originated in Latgale and Augšzeme as a localization of a tradition widespread in the 19th century Catholic world. They took place in the evening, usually on weekends, as people gathered by outdoor crosses – crucifixes installed by the side of the road, in the center of the village, in the nearby cemetery or church.  Often they were encircled by a low fence, with benches inside. In May, the crosses were lavishly adorned with bouquets of flowers and garlands. Participants, dressed in their Sunday’s best, sat on the benches. The young and those who did not get a seat stood.

The May services are called “dzīduošona pi krusta” and they are held without the presence and guidance of priests. The leader of the service comes from the midst of the participants. Usually it is an older woman who knew the structure of the ritual and the melodies and could start every one at a suitable pitch.

Songs devoted to Mary are at the center of the May service. They tell the story of Mary’s life, suffering, and her sacrifice for humanity. The singers know the melodies by heart, they are inherited by oral tradition, whereas the lyrics come from the prayer books used during the service. The choice and sequence of songs are determined by the experience and local traditions of those gathered. The singing is usually conducted in two voices. The melodies and texts are usually localizations of those common in Central Europe.

An obligatory part of the service is also the Virgin Mary litany (the Loretto litany from the 13th century) and the pulling of “značkas”.  The word značka is of Polish origin and denotes a numbered rectangular piece of paper. Its number indicates the task that the person who has pulled it, for instance, avoiding lying. Should the person transgress, they must immediately say a particular prayer. The značkas are pulled from the leader’s prayer book where they are kept throughout the service.

An another essential element is reading from the Bible. Each particular day has its own designated reading.

The sequence of the above elements may differ from place to place. Even though the services devoted to Virgin Mary are characteristic of the Catholic world, the open-air form both in terms of the form and content is unique.

In the Soviet era, many of the roadside crosses were destroyed and the May service tradition suppressed. It was preserved in the more remote locations. At present, the tradition has been powerfully revived in Latgale and is spreading to other Catholic areas in Latvia, for instance the areas inhabited by the Suiti.

Mārtiņš Boiko

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Mārtiņš Boiko par maija dievkalpojumiem pie brīvdabas krustiem un mirušo ofīciju Latvijas kultūras kanonā, 2008.

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Cybuļskis, Viktors. (1968). Maja mēneša lyugšanu kōrteiba Nautrānu pogostā. No: Acta Latgallica. 2 (131. -133. lpp.). P/S Latgaļu izdevnīceiba.

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Dzeņs, O. (1968). Maja mēneša tradicija Vōrkovas pogostā. No: Acta Latgallica. 2 (128.-130. lpp.). P/S Latgaļu izdevnīceiba.