This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.
Most days during this grim winter, only a dozen visitors troop 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) north of town to see the famous Hill of Crosses, Kryžių kalnas.
Cars arrived recently with visitors braving the cold and then departed, but not before these visitors remembered the poignant origin of this monument with thoughts and prayers for the people of Ukraine.
A family with an infant dropped by, but the bitter 30-degree weather chased them away. A group of four female university students arrived, took some pictures and quickly left. One couple who lingered the longest was Diana Taujeniene and Raimondas Taujenis — both of Śiauliiai, a city in northern Lithuania where up to 10,000 pilgrims each month visit the Hill of Crosses during the summer.
“I am emotional,” said Taujeniene, wiping a tear away with her black glove. “I am here because of the war in Ukraine.”
Nearby, a Ukrainian flag, with its distinctive blue and yellow bands, fluttered in the wind. It was anchored to a cross, and two smaller flags stood beneath it.
The couple walked through the stands of more than 100,000 crosses doing their best to stay warm as the snow pelted them. “You come here with a problem, but by the time you leave, it’s over,” Taujenis said. “I never go away without feeling better.”
The history of the Hill of Crosses is unclear. Folklore says the first cross was placed on the hill, formerly the home of a wooden castle, to remind others to pray for mercy and health of people. Soon, crosses began appearing to honor soldiers who died in 1831 and 1863 during uprisings against czarist Russia. Russia frowned on the crosses and repeatedly demolished them.
As late as 1961, the Soviets had soldiers burn the wooden crosses. The metal crosses were used for scrap, and the stone and concrete ones were used to build roads. Some were just buried. The people of the area responded by secretly planting new crosses, and over time, the Hill of Crosses survived.
Since 1988, just before Lithuania gained its independence, the area took on global significance. On Sept. 7, 1993, St. John Paul II visited the sacred site and preached a sermon as pope. Perhaps his most famous line from that visit was, “Sons and daughters of your country have been carrying to this hill crosses, akin to that of Golgotha, which saw our Savior’s death.” He went to say that the cross is a symbol of eternal life in God.
Solveiga Tamule has been the manager of the Śiauliai District Tourism and Business Information Center at the Hill of Crosses for nearly seven years. Her center features a gift shop where pilgrims can purchase five-inch crosses with amber flakes for 2 euros. Amber is a resin from the nearby Baltic Sea, and it is used to make jewelry and other objects. People sometimes visit to seek a miracle, she said.
“Once a mother called to say her 8-year-old girl had cancer, and the mother wanted to visit,” Tamule said. That was one of the saddest episodes Tamule could remember, and she never found out what happened to the girl.
As a predominantly Catholic nation, visitors come to the Hill of Crosses with the goal of lighting a candle for a loved one. “No candles,” Tamule said. “Most of the crosses are made of wood.” Sometimes a fire does occur, but so far, the fires have been easy to extinguish. Another tradition is to leave a photograph of a loved one.
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Tamule said no one knows who planted the Ukrainian flag at the base of the hill, but there is evidence that tributes to Ukraine are popular all over Lithuania, with ribbons on statues in Kaunas and backgrounds used as slides in worship services.
Nonetheless, visitors find ways to honor others. This week, a man from Klaipeda left one of the five-inch crosses, a silver crucifix, a heart-shaped stone and some ashes from a young relative.
In addition to crosses, others leave rosary beads, coins with religious motifs, silver framed pictures of saints and cloth bags — but crosses are most common. One 15-inch cross, painted yellow, made a thumping sound as the wind blew this week. A hidden speaker played sacred music in a ghostly whisper.
All the day, visitors arrived by taxi or car, and like Taujeniene and Taujenis, strolled up the hill, often in silence.
“There was a time when the Russians wanted to destroy this place,” Taujeniene said, a tear spilling down her face. “We are here and want to pray.”
Written by Michael Ray Smith. This story originally appeared at Religion Unplugged and is published here with permission.
Michael Ray Smith is a professor of communication at LCC International University. He regularly contributes to Religion Unplugged. His “7 Days to a Byline that Pays” book is used by some universities in their journalism programs.