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500-year-old Easter tradition on island of Hvar from home

Following the Cross map

By Miki Bratanić

A unique religious tradition has taken place uninterrupted before Easter for nearly 500 hundred years on the Croatian island of Hvar.

Za Križen (Following the Cross), which has UNESCO protection, has been maintained by believers in the small towns and villages of the central part of the island, from children to the oldest residents, for 500 years. After mass on Maundy Thursday before Easter, six villages on Hvar – Vrboska, Jelsa, Pitve, Vrisnik, Svirče and Vrbanj – send out a group that will proceed through the other villages in a circle, covering twenty-five kilometres in eight hours before returning home. Each party in the procession is led by a cross-bearer who walks barefoot or in socks, never resting.

It is a long-established and inalienable part of Hvar religious and cultural identity, the procession connects the communities of the island to each other and to the world Catholic community.

In the year 1943, when the Italian occupation authority restricted the movement of the population of the island of Hvar and practically reduced the traditional procession ‘Following the Cross’ to the crusader and his immediate entourage. However, even under such conditions, the cross was worn and the cross was walked.

Locals of Vrboska, Jelsa, Pitve, Vrisnik, Svirče and Vrbanj, that is, these six places that take part in the procession, remained in their houses, but it is certain that they, too, in their minds walked with the cross and prayed.

In 1944, the Germans completely banned any gathering, including the procession. It looked like the tradition was about to break. And then islanders in exile in Africa’s El Shatt, in the middle of the desert, improvised the ‘Following the Cross’ procession. They also made crosses and ferals and chandeliers, sang the same songs and prayed the same prayers. The tradition continued.

Following the Cross is a tradition which has been going on for 500 years on Hvar (Photo: E, Mil Mil, under CC)

Who knows how many other such and similar situations have been throughout the half-millennium history of the procession. Human memory does not remember bad things, it is human.

But tradition has always been maintained despite everything.

That is why this tradition should not be seen as just some folklore, because such will and desire of the people to maintain the tradition cannot be driven by mere custom or habit or whim. At the core of this tradition is clearly a strong and deeply rooted faith and the need to face penance, at least on that one night.

This year, we face a new challenge in the form of the coronavirus. Human health is paramount, so it will be necessary to listen to and obey the instructions of health professionals. The civil protection authority has allowed it to go ahead under strict rules this years with a limited number of people taking part. 

The small number of people in the procession will certainly not diminish the meaning of the procession. Maybe this year, more than ever, we will be more focused on prayer. Perhaps even this year, crusaders will have a stronger feeling than ever to carry a cross for others.

One thing for sure, when the cross passes through our places, not only the old and infirm who cannot walk but also the healthy ones will stand and pray at the windows and on the balconies of their houses.

All of them will shine with tears in their eyes and all of them will be equal in desires and the same in prayer. We will all be equally small.

And to the crusaders, let it be a consolation, that even in a hundred years, when the history of the procession is mentioned, their name will be remembered, for they bore the cross in 2020 and that year of the coronavirus.

And this is my personal message to all people:

We will stay home this night, but in thoughts and prayers, we will walk following the cross. We’ll be with our crusaders. And when they return to our churches in the morning, when they raise the holy cross and, according to the old custom, with the sound of scarabs, give a blessing, let them know that we are all kneeling before them. Because we will be with them like never before. Let’s stay home, watch and pray together because prayer does not know the distance.

It doesn’t matter how many people are following the cross, it matters how much the cross is in people. So let’s stay home, open the windows of our soul, and the cross will pass by our house.

More information about Za križen on the following link: http://www.mikibratanic.com/procesija-za-krizen/


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