Exaltation of the Cross, Feast of the

Exaltation of the Cross, Feast of the

Type of Holiday: Religious (Christian)
Date of Observation: September 14; formerly May 3 by Roman Catholics
Where Celebrated: Armenia, Dominican Republic, England, Ethiopia, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, Scotland, Sicily, South America, Spain, Syria, United States, and by Christians all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Elder Tree, Relics
Related Holidays: Maskal


The Exaltation of the Cross is a Christian feast related to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The word Christian refers to a follower of Christ, a title derived from the Greek word meaning Messiah or Anointed One. The Christ of Christianity is Jesus of Nazareth, a man born between 7 and 4 B . C . E . in the region of Palestine. According to Christian teaching, Jesus was killed by Roman authorities using a form of execution called crucifixion (a term meaning he was nailed to a cross and hung from it until he died) in about the year 30 C . E . After his death, he rose back to life. His death and resurrection provide a way by which people can be reconciled with God. In remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection, the cross serves as a fundamental symbol in Christianity.

With nearly two billion believers in countries around the globe, Christianity is the largest of the world's religions. There is no one central authority for all of Christianity. The pope (the bishop of Rome) is the authority for the Roman Catholic Church, but other sects look to other authorities. Orthodox communities look to patriarchs and emphasize doctrinal agreement and traditional practice. Protestant communities focus on individual conscience. The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are often referred to as the Western Church, while the Orthodox churches may also be called the Eastern Church. All three main branches of Christianity acknowledge the authority of Christian scriptures, a compilation of writings assembled into a document called the Bible. Methods of biblical interpretation vary among the different Christian sects.

What is known in the Eastern Church as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is sometimes referred to as the Elevation, Recovery, or Adoration of the Cross. In the West, it is known as Holy Cross Day (Anglican), the Triumph of the cross (Roman Catholic), and sometimes the Invention of the Cross (from the Latin invenire, meaning "to find"). It commemorates three events: the finding of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, the dedication in 335 of the basilica built by Roman Emperor Constantine on the supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion, and the recovery in 629 by Emperor Heraclius of the relic of the cross that had been stolen by the Persians.

According to tradition, the Holy Sepulchre-the tomb where Jesus had been buried after the crucifixion-was later filled in with rubbish, and Emperor Hadrian (76-138 C . E .) built a temple to Venus on the site. Emperor Constantine (288-337 C . E .) wanted to build a Christian church there, and his mother Helena, although she was almost eighty, decided to visit the Holy Land herself and try to find the true cross. After a long search and many setbacks, Helena located three buried crosses. She was able to identify the one on which Christ had been crucified because a sick person touched it and was immediately healed. She brought back the fragments of what she believed was the true cross-although some people claim that over the centuries, enough "wood of the cross" has been found to build an entire ship.

After his mother returned from her successful journey, Constantine built two churches in Jerusalem: one on Mount Calvary, where the crucifixion took place, and the other over the Holy Sepulchre. They were dedicated on September 14, 335 C . E ., the anniversary of the day on which the cross had been found. This September festival was initially confined to Jerusalem, where crowds of pilgrims came year after year to worship the sacred relic. In 614, Jerusalem was occupied by the Persians, and for thirteen years the relic remained in Persia. Christians were so overwhelmed with joy when the sacred relic was brought back to Constantinople in 629 by Emperor Heraclius that special coins were made to commemorate the event. The feast eventually spread through the East before being adopted in the West. Its celebration was widespread after Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem) was built in Rome, where the major portion of the cross was enshrined.

Holy Cross Day is particularly popular in England, perhaps because Helena is believed to have been the daughter of a British king. Many English churches have "Holy Cross" or "Holy Rood" in their names-rood referring to the wood of which the cross was made-and former names for this day include Holy Rood Day, Roodmas (Rood Mass), and Crouchmas (Cross Mass).



The traditional harvest festival of the Incas-the early South American Indians whose empire at one time extended for more than 2,000 miles along the Pacific coast of South America and up into the Andes Mountains-was known as Aymuray. It was a nighttime festival in honor of the long winter nights to come and the life-giving powers sent from heaven to make the earth fertile. Today, in Peru and parts of neighboring countries where about five million descendants of the Incas still live, Aymuray has been replaced by the Christian Feast of the Invention of the Cross. The celebration is a curious mixture of Christian and Incan customs. All night long, bonfires burn along the highways and on mountaintops, where crosses have also been erected. In towns and villages, altars are set up with a lighted cross in the background hung with brightly-colored ornaments and flowers. The next day, crosses are carried in procession to the nearest church, where a Mass is said for them.

There are other links between this Christian feast and more ancient, pagan festivals. For example, in Syria, it is traditional to build fires on rooftops and then leap over the flames on September 14-a typically pagan custom that is probably a survival of an ancient fire festival.

Elder Tree

There have been many theories about the kind of wood from which the cross was made. People in some middle European countries believed that it was made from an elder tree, and this made the tree so repulsive to them that they would rather go without fuel to heat their homes and cook their food than resort to burning elder wood, which was often more plentiful than any other kind.

Another theory was that the cross was made from the wood of an aspen tree, and that the reason the leaves of the aspen appear to be in constant motion is that ever since the crucifixion, the aspen has trembled at the recollection of the role it played in this terrible event. Another explanation is that because the aspen was the only tree that did not tremble on the day that Christ was crucified, it was doomed to quiver forever thereafter.

Still another theory is that the cross was made from the wood of the mistletoe, which used to grow as a tall, sturdy tree but was punished for its part in the crucifixion by being reduced to the stunted, parasitic plant it is today.


In addition to the fragments of wood that St. Helena found, she also discovered the four nails that she believed had been hammered into Jesus' hands and feet, and the small plaque that hung above his body, which bore the sarcastic inscription "INRI" (for Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, Latin for "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews"). Helena left some of the fragments of the cross at Jerusalem, where they were kept in a silver case and venerated every year on September 14. On her way home from Jerusalem, she gave some fragments to the city of Constantinople and then brought the major portion of the cross to Rome, where a basilica was built to enshrine it.

Helena is said to have thrown one of the nails into the Adriatic Sea when her ship was tossed by a storm-an act that brought an immediate halt to the turbulent weather. The other three nails were taken to Rome to Emperor Constantine: Two of them were placed in his crown, and the third was later brought to France by Charlemagne.

Is there any way to authenticate Helena's findings? Most of the relics currently enshrined in churches have been dated back to the fourth century, and the plaque, now preserved in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, would seem to be the most difficult item to fake. But scholars have always admitted it was possible that Helena was somehow tricked, and that what she mistook for the remains of the cross were actually fragments of timber that had been part of a builder's waste pile long ago.


Bellenir, Karen. Religious Holidays and Calendars. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2004. Brewster, H. Pomeroy. Saints and Festivals of the Christian Church. 1904. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Coulson, John, ed. The Saints: A Concise Biographical Dictionary. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1958. Harper, Howard V. Days and Customs of All Faiths. 1957. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Helfman, Elizabeth. Celebrating Nature: Rites and Ceremonies Around the World. New York: Seabury Press, 1969. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Urlin, Ethel L. Festivals, Holy Days, and Saints' Days. 1915. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1992. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia home.it.net.au/~jgrapsas/pages/elevation.htm
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009