Friday, January 6, 2012

[January 6th, Culture of Bulgaria] St. Jordan’s Day, Epiphany, Men’s Water Day

All the names in the title of this post signify the same day, January 6th, which for us Christians is a big holiday. But before I head into the details as to why that is, let me welcome you back to Culture of Bulgaria feature, where I will do my best to introduce you to some of the holiday traditions and beliefs we have accumulated. I intended to begin with New Year’s Eve oddities during celebration of the biggest, international holiday, but right now I’ve the perfect chance to talk about another holiday rooted in Christianity.

I've been thinking about the purpose of all religious holidays in the context of Bulgaria's state and I've made some interesting conclusions, which could be false, but I like to believe that not a single element of one's culture remains fixed and timeless. Every ritual changes and there is nothing more evident than the changes to long lasting religious holidays, which still have their appeal to our society. 
The actual baptism of Christ
As you might have guessed, religious holidays are all about religion. Today is St. Jordan’s Day, though I've to say that this translation is wrong as the name of the holiday is taken from the name of the river Jordan, where Christ has been baptised by John the Baptist. Factually, we're not honoring a saint as we're remembering Christ’s baptism, thus making it the third most important Christian holiday in our calendar. Nevetheless, people with the names Yordan [Bulgarian spelling and pronunciation of Jordan], Yordana, Dana, Dancho, Boyan, Bogdan and Bogdana celebrate. The last three are tied to the aspect of the Epiphany.

The Epiphany aspect deals with the part of the script, where the heavens open during Christ's baptism and the spirit of God appears as a white dove. There is a voice that recognizes Christ as God's true son. This is the true religious importance of the holiday, the power of the act and recognition of the ritual as one sanctioned and approved by God. This moment is the serves as the basis for the belief that on the night before the 6th of January the sky opens directly to the heavens above, where God can hear you. Make a wish and God will grant it to you.

With the fall of strong religious belief, this aspect has fallen into the background. You won't talk with your family about watching the sky at night and the wishes that you made to God. In a certain sense, Bulgarian society has moved on towards unspecified belief and reliance on the multitude of superstitions rather than strict explanations from the Bible. The best example is the ritual to mark the holiday.
The cross has been caught and then passed on the youngest participant, which this year is a nine year old boy.
As with all holy days, Bulgarians have numerous ways to mark the occasion, the most popular still being the “Throwing of the Cross”, which is an all male activity. On this day, after church service, the priest and village [village sounding more authentic] men gather at a large, natural body of water. Then the priest proceeds to throw the cross in the cold water. This is the signal for all the men to jump in and retrieve the cross. The man to retrieve the cross is said to have a happy and healthy year, because he has been blessed. As St. Jordan’s is still widely practiced, the “Throwing of the Cross” is a news-worthy event every year and today was no exception. It’s here that St. Jordan’s day adopts the [horrendous] Men’s Water Day title, which official Bulgarian sites dedicated to our culture has translated it as. Of course every region has its own versions of how the ritual should go.

During breakfast and lunch I followed the news channel’s special segments dedicated to how each city celebrated the holiday, who caught the cross [in Varna, it’s a peer of mine from my university] where and also announcing curious trivia about the holiday. From what I've seen and read, the news are centering on the act of catching the cross as the reason for receiving an astounding health through the whole year. Less emphasis is placed on God's role for making all the bodies of water holy, even though the notion is still present.

Even so the importance of water is great and therefore features in all of the celebrations and rituals. On this day, all natural bodies of water become sacred and their waters obtain healing properties. Sick people bathe in the cold waters to wash away illness, churches change their holy water with fresh one from the closest river or lake for the coming year and families bottle this holy water and keep it in their homes to use, when someone falls ill on bed. And while the churches still follow these rules, individuals are less inclined to bring healing water to their ill family member. My grandmother, who is a practicing Christian, has abandoned this notion as she knows that medicine has covered our bases, when it comes to illness.
The Dancing Chain
This leaves me with the third aspect of the holiday, getting drunk. Before I can proceed with a bit of credibility, I have to bring you to the city of Kalofer. The men dress in old, traditional, period clothes to perform their own version of honoring the day. They form a chain and dance in the freezing water for well over half an hour. The river Tunja explodes in manly laughter and shouts, loud music and merriment, which more or less is an antiquated equivalent of pool parties, if I have ever seen one. This brings me to my point. In order for the men to last in the ice cold waters they have to drink the night before and some of the participants haven't slept a wink in order to pass.

Given how dissatisfied we are as a nation and society with our lot [check European studies, we rank quite high] it's no surprise that we find ways to involve alcoholism in our rituals and holidays as a means to look forward to some fun. What do you think happens, when Yordan comes home from work? Wine happens. That's what.

Anyway, I hope that this was not the 'too long, didn't read' variety of a post. Tell me what you think? Do you have any interesting traditions, where you come from, too?