SANTA CRUZ XOCHITEPEC — Dozens of men strained and struggled as they hefted a huge cross adorned with colorful ribbons and trudged down a steep hill in a yearly ceremony of the Day of the Cross celebrated in the Mexico City neighborhood of Santa Cruz Xochitepec.

The ceremony on the Cerro de Xochitepec came a day before the formal day on the church calendar, Tuesday, when the cross is the centerpiece of a Mass and a new one is adorned for a return trek up the hill in a week.

The cross has stood sentinel over the city’s south side even as what was once a village was swallowed by metropolis’ urban sprawl. The importance of the huge, fabric-draped cross to locals is reflected in the town’s very name, which means ’Holy Cross of the Flowered Hill.”

In a babel of voices, and after three failed attempts, dozens of local volunteers known as “cargadores,” or carriers, managed to lower the 23-foot (7-meter) tall cross from its perch and carry it all the way down to the local church.

It is a cycle that has been going on for decades and perhaps centuries.

Each year, people across the country carry or adorn crosses along roadsides and on hilltops with fabrics and flowers representing offerings.

But for the devotees in Santa Cruz Xochitepec, theirs is not just another cross. According to one local legend, a convict fleeing pursuers in 1890 found a cross on the hill and believed it spared him from getting caught.

But accounts of a cross being placed here — on a spot where pre-Hispanic deities were once apparently worshipped — date back to the time of the Spanish conquerors.

Many townspeople have carried the 1,100-pound (500-kilogram) cross at one time or another. As the carriers made brief pauses, they sang traditional “ranchera” songs, and a group of mariachis accompanied them down the hill, followed by many of the townsfolk.

While only some bear the weight of the cross, the feat is regarded as a group effort of the entire town.

“I have been carrying the cross for 30 years and I am very proud of carrying the Holy Cross with the whole town.” said René Rosas, a local carrier. “We are tired but this is all about the faith we have in the cross.”