From the pen of Turlough Ó Maoláin ...

The Chronicles of Bulgaria

The Merry Moth of December


I think that in a previous life I may have been a moth. Although I’ve never eaten a woolly jumper or bashed my brains out on a car windscreen, I can’t help but wonder about my past. I’m confident in saying that I’m not prone to spending days or weeks curled up in a pupa waiting for my body to undergo an incredible cellular transformation, but still I wonder. Something similar to this has occasionally happened to me when I have been away on holiday and my succumbing to temptation has dashed any hope of continuing my normally healthy eating, drinking and exercise regime, but not to such an extent that I have become unrecognisable. I haven’t got six legs and, as far as I can remember, I’ve never had the sixteen which I would have had back in the days when I was a caterpillar … which I wasn’t.

What has aroused my suspicion in this respect is that I seem to have an obsession with light. Despite my intense dislike of televisions (the devil’s own route to brainwashing) and gambling machines (rich men’s piggy banks), I find it difficult to avert my gaze from them should I find them in my proximity. It doesn’t matter if I’m unable to hear any sound coming from them (in fact I prefer it that way) but I find the light that these things emit to be quite mesmerising. Similarly, I can watch a lit candle or the dancing flames of a log fire until they die out and I can browse for hours in the lamps and light fittings department of any half decent DIY shop. I love light and I love flickering things.

It may seem strange then that one of my favourite days of the year is the one on which we have the least amount of daylight. On this day it is very dark. Horrendously dark! As dark as a badger’s dark bits! In fact, it’s so dark that I can’t get through it without wearing a coalminer’s helmet with the big lamp attached and a series of mirrors strategically placed about my person to keep me illuminated. As a backup to that, I put on my sexy glow-in-the-dark underwear and on my limbs I smear puree of slug and snail bought fresh from the delicatessen counter in our local supermarket. According to the work of scientists involved in major studies of bioluminescence and the sales patter of lovely Desislava who works on the checkout at Lidl, this is the favoured food of glow worms and consequently they just can’t resist clinging on to me. I’m sure that any readers who are familiar with the habits of glow worms will back me up in this respect. So when I don this attire, no glitter ball worth its salt is safe, moles find the need to wear sunglasses and lighthouse keepers across the land have expressed a fear that I may be putting them out of work. It’s a lot of trouble to go to but this, I find, is better than being kept in the dark.

This black day is scientifically known as the winter solstice, in folklore terms as Yule and locally wherever I have lived as if-that-peculiar-man-comes-near-me-I’ll-set-the-dog-on-him day.

So lock up your sprigs of mistletoe because that day is today! You probably shouldn’t need to worry too much about my odd behaviour because I live in Bulgaria which is probably a long way from where you live and as you read this you’re probably thinking that I’ve already been taken into police custody as a consequence of my own unique way of surviving the blackness / rejoicing the end of the year’s crone phase. I pity those men in black (the Bulgarian term for boys in blue) who have such difficulty putting the handcuffs on me when they have all that slippery extract of gastropod to contend with but, give them their due, they seem to manage every year. It has become a bit of a Balkan tradition.


The merry moth of December ... in August.

The merry moth of December ... in August.


At this stage of my tale I suspect you have calculated that I am making most of this up. It should be obvious really as Wi-Fi, like a laundry service and a morning newspaper, is not generally available in police station cells in former Soviet Bloc countries. I wouldn’t be able to post this on a website if I was chained to a wall in a dismal dungeon or in an interrogation room with electrodes attached to my glittering baubles and the music of the CD Now That’s What Galls Me At Christmas torturing my troubled mind.

One of the few real facts contained in my text is that, in my part of the world, this year’s winter solstice takes place today at 5:59 pm. But how do they know that? How can they be so accurate? Do they have some sort of astral timetable? Could it be early or late or even, heaven help us, cancelled because of leaves on the sun’s path across the southern sky? Could it be that we wait six months for a solstice and then, like Leeds buses, two solstices come along together but they’re just not telling us? Have I created a new conspiracy theory or can we believe the scholars and the mathematicians? I think I’ll take their word for it because I love a winter solstice almost as much as I love a Leeds bus and I’ve no way of proving them wrong.

Freed from the shackles that one would normally associate with the celebration of the bleak midwinter (Marks and Spencer have yet to set foot in Bulgaria and George Michael could never master our language), to entertain ourselves this afternoon, Priyatelka and I burnt a Yule log. I last burnt one about thirty years ago, in the oven when I was trying to make one of those Swiss roll cake sort of Yule logs with a plastic robin on top but got distracted by the Postman Pat Christmas Special that my kids were watching on telly and I left it too long in the oven. That Mrs Goggins who ran the village post office in Greendale was always such a tease, but even more so around this time of year when, despite the skills of the animators, she appeared to have had the bottle of Bailey’s to her animated lips and become quite flirty, which made it essential viewing for middle aged fathers such as myself. The charred remains of my cake went in the bin and I never did get to use that plastic robin which I had bought in Leeds market. On reflection I’m glad of that because, in my opinion, a plastic robin is the epitome of crass consumerism thrust upon us at a time when we should all be concentrating on bringing joy and peace to the world and remembering that the use of any plastic at all usually ends up with a turtle or a dolphin being harmed which really spoils the magic of Christmas.

Today the Yule log that Priyatelka and I burnt in our wild garden was a real wooden Yule log that we’d cut down ourselves from an already dead tree with our festive chainsaw. In Bulgaria this specially selected piece of wood is called a budnik (бъдник) and the burning of it is supposed to take place inside the house, but we had recently hoovered and didn’t want to make a mess. It has become a Bulgarian tradition to hoover the house every December whether it needs it or not. Also, it is an even more traditional Bulgarian tradition that the eldest son of the family goes into the forest in his best clothes to cut the log, but my son was unable to do this due to global pandemic-based restrictions on travel between the city of Manchester and the village of Malki Chiflik, his reluctance to get his best clothes dirty and his total lack of experience in the practice of lumber jacking. Despite this, we stuck to the ritual as closely as possible by sitting by the fire until the embers had lost their glow, eating delicious homemade blackcurrant cheesecake as worshippers of the sun and planets had done on this day for thousands of years before us, and remarking upon the fact that this would be the last time for a long time that we’d be able to complain that the nights were really drawing in.

A year ago we found this day of celebration edging towards stressful; the joy impaired slightly by the fact that an American Evangelical Christian pastor and the worldly wise worldwide web / tabloid press had been citing forecasts made by ancient Mayan astronomers, suggesting that a series of cataclysmic events would bring about the end of the world. To be on the safe side we got up extra early that morning to put the bins out and to go and do our shopping. By the time our chores were done and we had sat down for an afternoon cup of tea and scone (a mince pie would have been nice but they have yet to be introduced to Bulgaria … come back Walter Raleigh, you were always good at that sort of thing) nothing apocalyptic had happened. Perhaps it had only been a small apocalypse and we had missed it while we were queueing at Desislava’s till to pay for our seasonal delicacies and extract of gastropod. Another possibility is that we missed it because after the fireside cheesecake we fell asleep like all good lardy people do when their bellies are full. The weather had been a bit grey here during the days leading up to the calamitous event so, because of a combination of that and us not really caring, we certainly missed the alignment of the planets Jupiter and Saturn which apparently would signal the total obliteration of the world and its entire contents that evening. Apparently those planets came closer together than they had done since the Middle Ages, which must have been a bit scary for anybody living on Jupiter or Saturn. I expect they too were victims of the anticipated doom and the disruption that it would bring to their Christmas arrangements. Here on Earth, we gave out little disappointed sighs and hoped that we would get a nicer day for it the next time it happened.

I absolutely love the winter solstice. Priyatelka loves it too because there are fewer hours in which she has to tolerate me in my state of deep winter gloom. But it also means that we have reached the shortest day of the year. It won’t get any darker than this and slowly but surely, and without the need for an app on our mobile phones or fear of it falling victim to Covid restrictions, the light and warmth will return to the earth and to our lives.

Soon we will see many encouraging signs that the infant year is upon us. The first fragile snowdrops will begin to poke their tiny heads out into the world as furry little creatures in forest and field, wood and glade, will start to make babies, keeping us awake at night with all those screechy noises they make whilst in the throes of passion. People who have their birthdays in January will start telling us what they want as presents in the hope that they get something better than what we gave them for Christmas. In most major retail outlets advent calendars stuffed with stale chocolate will be on sale for less than half of their original price side by side with expensive Easter eggs. Leeds United will get knocked out of the FA Cup and there might still be a crack of light in the western sky as the classified football results are read out late on a Saturday afternoon. All such heart-warming occurrences to signify that we’re gradually emerging from what always seems like a long, dark tunnel. We’re waxing down our surfboards. We can’t wait for June.

Apart from our long hot Balkan summers, for me, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. In this connection I raise my glass of something fiery and Bulgarian and say Nazdrave! (Наздраве!) to wish warmth, health and happiness to all who read this … and also to those who don’t read this, but they will never know.

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