Although there is little about me that is orthodox, I try to observe and join in with traditional celebrations of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church whenever possible and as long as it doesn’t hurt. On the sixth of January each year, the Bulgarians celebrate Epiphany and I was there to witness it.
Prior to coming here to live, in this respect I was aware only of the Twelfth Night thing; the night before Epiphany and the official end of Christmas. I haven’t read William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night but apparently it’s a comedy. I would assume that it’s about him and Anne Hathaway (who you may have seen previously in more serious roles in Batman films) taking down their Christmas decorations and sticking them back up in the loft in her cottage. So there’s bound to be a ladder involved and comedies with ladders in them are always hilarious. I’ll never understand though why they didn’t get Laurel and Hardy to do it instead of Shakespeare.
In Bulgaria the decorations stay up much longer than just over the festive period. They are there not only to celebrate Christmas but to brighten up people’s homes during the darkest part of our usually cold winters. In fact, on several occasions I’ve noticed them still adorning the walls and ceilings of local bars and restaurants as late in the year as August. When Roy Wood with his band, Wizzard, sang ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’, he should have just gone to the Imperial Café & Bar in Gorna Oryahovitsa and all his dreams would have come true.
Epiphany here is known as St Jordan’s Day (Йордановден, in Bulgarian, and pronounced Yordanov Den) and, according to biblical legend, on this day Jesus Christ was baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. We take it much more seriously, without the involvement of sparkly plastic balls or strings of Chinese-made fairy lights which are unlikely to work again next December so you might as well throw them in the bin as try to pack them away in the cardboard box that you bought them in, which will have no doubt mysteriously shrunk by a couple of centimetres since you unpacked them a month ago.
The River Yantra in the Asenevtsi quarter of Veliko Tarnovo.
The main requirement here is a large body of water; often the sea or a lake but more likely a river and preferably one that is frozen. At a nearby church a liturgy takes place and the priest blesses a holy cross which he then takes to the river and hurls it in. The young men of the congregation then jump into the river to retrieve the cross from its icy depths. The man who finds it can consider himself to be lucky and enjoy good health and happiness for the rest of the year if the pneumonia doesn’t finish him off before the end of the week. Still in the water, the shivering men then gather together and form a Horo, Bulgaria’s traditional dance, which continues until the traditional ambulances arrive.
Kalofer, a historic town in central Bulgaria, is famous for the greatest performances of the ritual and therefore attracts hundreds of people from all around the country. However, the tradition takes place in many other locations including the Asenevtsi quarter of Veliko Tarnovo, about three kilometres from where I live. So I went there to watch what I imagine to be the most painful ‘celebration’ in the world. Wearing my biggest coat, five jumpers and my lifetime’s collection of underwear, I stood by the wooden bridge from which the priest would do the hurling and peered through the blizzard at men running around in just their skiddies to find the holy cross that would bring them good health and happiness. I didn’t join them because I didn’t feel my grasp of the Bulgarian language was yet good enough to express my feelings of joy at being subjected to sub-zero temperatures in the intimate body parts department, and I was pretty sure that I was more likely to find good health and happiness in my jumpers and underwear than in the icy waters of the River Yantra. Others found good health and happiness in the rakia bottle.
At this point I think I should confess to a bit of cheating. First of all, the priest cheated by hurling the holy cross straight at the men in the river so that one of them could make a clean catch and none would have to immerse themselves completely. Secondly, the men didn’t wear the traditional Bulgarian dress or do the traditional dance in the river. The priest and the men were able to get away with all this deceit because they had the sympathy of the local congregation on such a very cold day and they weren’t in Kalofer where the eyes of the whole of Bulgaria would be watching through television cameras. And thirdly, what I have described happened two years ago. I didn’t go to the river today because it was a very mild and sunny day so the suffering of the men wouldn’t have been as entertaining to watch and I would have been far too warm in all my jumpers and underwear. Also, no matter how many jumpers and how much underwear you put on, there is still the risk of this confounded corona thing getting into your body and bones.
Meanwhile in Ireland, the sixth of January is known as Women’s Christmas (Nollaig na mBan, in Irish, pronounced Null-ug na Mon) when women traditionally get a much-needed rest and a chance to celebrate for themselves after catering to everyone during the holiday festivities. To show my appreciation towards my Priyatelka, I bought her a new belt and a new bag, and now her Hoover is working better than ever before. Boom! Boom!
The holy cross has been retrieved and everyone can go home for a nice hot cup of tea and a biscuit.