“He sends a cross, but He also sends the strength to bear it.” - Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy
Tomorrow, September 14, is Holy Rood (=cross) Day. This is officially known as the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. There are a number of associations of various events to this day, some of them relating to the “True Cross” on which Christ was crucified, others relating to historical or apocryphal events surrounding the Christian symbol of the Cross or by association Christianity itself.
In the Greek Orthodox faith the celebration of this day is particularly splendid and solemn, and has references to the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Just before a battle on this day in 312 AD, the emperor reportedly saw the sign of a luminous cross up in the sky with the words Εν Τούτω Νίκα (En toúto níka – “By this sign you shall conquer”). He ordered the sign of the cross to be emblazoned on his battle banners and went ahead to win the battle. Constantine then stopped the persecution of the Christians and his mother, the Christian empress Helena (Flavia Julia Helena) went on to discover the cross upon which Christ was crucified on the hill of Calvary, in Jerusalem. She demolished a Roman temple of Venus there, and built the Church of Resurrection at the site, where the remains of the True Cross were raised in 335 AD. The Orthodox Feast Day commemorates this first Exaltation of the True Cross.
The cross was afterwards (614 AD) carried away by Chosroes, king of Persia, but recovered by the Emperor Heraclius, and replaced amidst circumstances of great pomp and expressions of the highest devotion. The Catholic Church feast commemorates the restoration of the True Cross to Calvary in 629 AD, after the victory of Emperor Heraclius over the Persians.
Many churches in Britain were dedicated to the Holy Rood. One at Edinburgh became the nucleus of the palace of the Scottish kings. Holyrood Day was one of much sacred observance all through the Middle Ages. The same feeling led to a custom of framing, between the nave and choir of churches, what was called a rood-screen or rood-loft, presenting centrally a large crucifix, with images of the Holy Virgin and St. John on each side. A winding stair led up to it, and the epistle and gospel were often read from it.
Pieces of the wood derived from the True Cross have been traditionally kept in many churches and places of worship as holy relics in precious reliquaries, as the one illustrated above. In 1561 John Calvin wrote ironically in a tract that “…if all the pieces of the True Cross were gathered together, they would load a large ship, and would take 300 men, not one, to carry it.”
Some historians consider the feast of Holyrood a christianisation of the ancient Eleusinian feast of Demeter (part of the Greater Eleusinian Mysteries). Holy Rood Day was also called Day of the Holy Nut or the Devil’s Nutting Day. This was to mark the beginning of the nutting season when nuts began to be collected from the trees. Hazelnuts (filberts or cobnuts) collected on this day were thought to have powerful properties, but the proviso was that the nuts had to be fully ripe. Double nuts (two on one stalk) were thought to be particularly magical and could be used to cure toothache, rheumatism and witchcraft of all sorts. The hazelnut tree (Corylus maxima and C. avellena) was thought to be a powerful and magical tree and divining rods made from its wood were considered to be the most efficacious.