Monday, February 21, 2011

Before St. Valentine's Day, there was Trifon Zarezan

Yes, my culture post is late. I had to miss the deadline so that I could get it out of my system. Buckle up, this will be a long one. February the 14th is slotted for love, but before Cupid had a date, we celebrated [still do] Saint Trifon Zarezan, the saint of wine.

From a historical point of view, we did need a saint of wine and patron of wine makers, since viticulture and winemaking developed in the Bulgarian lands since the time of the ancient Thracians. Feasts with wine of the Thracian Kings Sitalk and Sevt impressed ancient Greek writers such as Aristophanes, Xenophon and Demosthenes. In time Ancient Thrace earned the title “Land of good wine.”

Before Christianity, however, we had a Thracian god of wine and fertility Sabazios, who also doubled as Dionysus and was the forerunner of the Christian patron saint of winegrowers St. Trifon. There are ancient myths revolving around Dionysus. Once upon a time, the Thracian king Lycurgus drove away the Dionysus’ merry retinue and the god sent madness the king’s way. The king killed his son, while hallucinating that he was cutting grapevines.

St. Trifon

There’s a less dramatic but similar Christian legend about a saint Trifon. He was punished for mocking the Virgin Mary by having his nose cut off with pruning knives. Therefore, there’s a popular nickname for the saint - Trifon the Chippy one. But regardless of tradition, St. Trifon remains a honored figure.

It’s believed that through his help and blessings vineyards become fertile. Therefore growers ritually seek him and ask him to come in their vineyards, when they gather at the feast of St. Trifon. Then they utter incantations so that so many grapes grow that they litter and hide the saint from the people’s eyes.

St. Trifon is considered the patron of the vineyards and people feast in his honor. The ones who celebrate aren’t only growers, but gardeners and tavern-keepers. Early in the morning, the women knead bread. Moreover, they cook chicken, which is traditionally filled with rice or groats. They boil the chicken whole and then grill it over a burning fire.

The ritualistic bread.

Later, bread, chicken and a wooden vessel of wine are put in a woolen bag. With these bags on their shoulders the men go into the vineyard. They cross themselves, take pruning knives and cuts three sticks from three hubs each. They cross themselves again and then sprinkle the whole vineyard with the fetched vine. This ritual is called “cutting”. Then all come together and choose a “king of the vineyards”. Only then can the feast begin. The king is decked with garlands of vine, one as a crown on his head and one wreath around his shoulders.

The coronation of the king, though I could not find the cart.

He is sat on a cart, which is then pulled by the men and under the sounds of bagpipes, drums and rebecs everyone heads back to the village or town. There, the procession stops at each and every house. The hostess of the house brings out a white cauldron with wine and gives the king to drink first and then allows the other to drink as well.

The remaining wine is thrown on the king, who utters the blessing: “Let the harvest be good! Let it overflow from thresholds!” The king meets the blessing with “Amen.” Once he arrives at his home, the king changes into new clothes and decorated with wreaths, he sits at a along table to meet people from the village.

Celebration is in full swing with men and women dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothing.

I want to note here that in different villages, the rituals’ specifics vary. The “cutting” ritual in particular has different incarnations as to how many sticks from the grapevines are cut, where they are cut from and in what order they are cut from. In some villages, there are races to see who can cut most vines in a given time interval. In some villages, the vine sticks are sprinkled with wine and then given to villagers, when the procession starts. It’s unheard of all men to wear the ritual wreaths, which then are kept throughout the year. Everything done here is to ensure a healthy and plentiful harvest as well as to officially open the new season.

The next two days, known in folklore “trifuntsi”, are venerated for protection from wolves, because February’s the coldest and harshest of months. Women aren’t allowed to use scissors in order to not open the wolf’s mouth. Forbidden are also knitting, spinning and sewing. The ritualistic bread comes once more into play. Women bake and distribute it among neighbors, who put morsels of it in animal milk as protection of livestock and people from wolves.

Besides bread and stuffed chicken on the feast of St. Trifon's Day you could offer roasted nuts from walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts or dried fruit. Nuts can also be candied. To do so, add a little sugar over them and bake them at moderate heat. Dried fruit come sprinkled with powdered sugar and rum. Wine is mandatory.

Usually in small towns and villages the wine’s stored in a cellar or basement. It’s better to remove it before your guests come and sit at the table. “The drink of the gods” is served with a main dish, but you can also serve it with a dessert. People also say that the wine served on this day will be also the wine that the vines will produce this year. Therefore, one must always bring out the best wine for one’s guests.

I hope that you found this enjoyable. Come Friday, I will talk about a female saint as per the request of one Margo Lanagan. Let’s see if I can deliver on time.


Charles Gramlich said...

Seems like a lot of work to go to just to get drunk. :)

Harry Markov said...

We like to party, what can I say. :D But really, way back before history was mean to us, viniculture was a real important part of the economy, so the holiday then served as a tribute to whatever force looked over the vineyards. NOW, the holiday is more dink oriented.

T.S. Bazelli said...

This made me hungry...

Juliette Wade said...

Wonderful post, Harry. This is awesome. I can practically feel stories springing out of it... can you? :)

Harry Markov said...

@ Theresa: I sympathize.

@ Juliette: I'm fascinated with the rituals, but then again fertility does not inspire much within me. I am happy that you do.