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The Bulgarian Festival Calendar

 

Sirni Zagovezni

Sirnitza, Maslenitza

Celebrated 7 Sundays before Easter.

(The first Sunday before Lent)

     One of the favorite holidays for the Bulgarians in the early spring is Sirni Zagovezni. It is also called Sirnitza, Proshka, Pokladi, Kourkouvnitza, Olalia, etc.

    In the calendar it is always on Sunday – seven weeks before Easter.

    The Sirni Zagovezni week is accompanied by many rituals to secure fertility, prosperity, and health. On Tuesday and Thursday before sunrise, and on Sunday at sunset young and old get together in the square to dance quick horos.
     In this way, through the ritual called “Gora” (forest) people hope to stimulate earth, to make wheat grow high and cotton buds burst. In the evening young people build fires, throw arrows and swirl fiery hoops, with incantations for health, longevity, for relatives and friends, for love: “Olalia, priest’s hat! Here’s, old priest, the arrow, give me the young girl! I’ll give her a white distaff so she gives me a white cradle!” Or: “Hey! The higher the arrow flies the longer my father lives!” Before going home, the young people “take pardon” from the elder folks.

      After that in each house the woman smokes the table with incense, the people in the house "give each other pardon" and the man hangs a red thread from the beam on the ceiling. On it the woman ties, consecutively, a coal, a boiled egg and cheese, and turns it in a circle to the right. The others try to take a bite at the respective symbol. The one who catches the first will care for home, the second one will be lucky throughout the year, the third one will live longest. Then they burn the thread, naming and divining which harvest will be richest.

 

 

    Sirni Zagovezni - Shrove Sunday - was one of the best loved festivals coming at the close of winter. It always fell on the Sunday just seven weeks before Easter, marking the beginning of the Great Lent, the longest period of fasting throughout the year. In its way, the festival also served to mark the beginning of spring.
In olden days, most typical of Sirni Zagovezni was the building of large bonfires in the hills surrounding towns and villages; either one communal bonfire, or each of the individual neighbourhoods made their own. The fires would be built in higher areas, for it was believed that no hailstorm would strike the places lit up by them.

     The Sirni Sunday is rich with rituals. Before lunchtime the newly married go visit their first witnesses and elder relatives - parents, brothers and sisters, friends. They kiss their hand and ask forgiveness, because in the evening when they sit on the table they should have reconciled and taken forgiveness from their relatives. "Forgive me!" - that is what the young people say when they bend to kiss the hand. "May God forgive you, you are forgiven!" - the elder bless. In the evening the whole household gathers around the table, full of fish meals, cheese and eggs pastry, milk and of course white khalva. The youngest members of the family are eager for start of the traditional "hamkane" or "lamkane". They sit on the floor, making a circle. The grandmother ties a piece of the khalva, a piece of cheese or of a boiled egg with a red woollen thread. She ties the other end of the thread to the ceiling beam or to her distaff. Then she swings the khalva around the sitting children who keep their hands behind their backs. Each of the children tries to bite the swinging titbit with its mouth, which turns the ritual into a noisy and funny game. Then the grandmother sets the thread on fire and by the way it burns she predicts if the year to come will be fertile. The ashes from the burnt woollen thread are kept as a remedy. After dinner the men go out into the yard and shoot with rifles announcing the beginning of the Great fast.
    Young and old would gather round the bonfire where they apologized to each other, to forgive and forget the small wrongs and old quarrels in the name of friendliness and understanding. Usually the younger ask the older for forgiveness and are also asked to forgive on the part of their parents, relatives, friends or just the people they live or work with.     The young men would jump over the fire "for health". It was believed that the one who jumped farthest would be the first to get married come autumn.
     In some parts of the country the young men would fling burning wooden arrows (rockets) with special devices made for the purpose. In Strandja the lads carry big wicker baskets with burning straw in them on pikes. That is why the tradition is also known as "Pali kosh" (burn the basket). They have made in advance by themselves special kinds of arrows made of hazel and cornel tees. The arrows are called "chavgi", "chilki", "pernici" or "susamnici". They are shot away with the help of a split hazel tree - "mashalgan". This was done from the surrounding hilltops, for the arrows had to fall exactly in the yards they were directed at.      The preparations for this festival are made by hand carving wooden rockets and laying them out to dry for a week or two so they are tinder dry for the day. This was really tough on the hands. These rockets would be launched after being set alight from the bonfire once fixed onto launching sticks. The "take off part" of the rocket is fixed to one stick and beat against another projecting it up to 100 metres in the air and over neighbouring houses. Just as each is launched, a name is shouted out and that rocket subsequently dedicated to that person, family, friend or lover.
   The rockets are collected by the young Bulgarian maidens and whoever collects the most will be deemed to be the fairest in the town or village. The young male pilots of the rockets therefore usually aim their rockets at their favoured maiden's home to make it easier for them to find.
     The training for this would start on January 18, the Day of Saint Athanasius (Father of Orthodoxy). Each arrow was dedicated to someone, be it father, mother, or sweetheart. It would be mostly to young ladies who waited in the yards with pots full of water at hand, for the arrows were a sign of love. The girl who collected the largest number of arrows was considered to be the most beautiful and desirable young lady in the village.

       In the past a special custom was being performed in the evening. A piece of halvah was tied on a long thread, hanging from the ceiling (a hard-boiled egg or some coal is an alternative). The thread is swayed around in a circle and the participants keep on trying to catch the lump in their mouth.  The Bulgarian villages have preserved the "Kukeri" ritual, in which the masked Kukeri dance in the last days of the winter, just before nature comes back to life. The participants in this ritual are male only, dressed in sheepskin garments and wearing scary masks and chanove (copper bells) on their belts, dancing and singing songs and chants, with the intention to scare away the evil spirits or ghosts which people believed came back to the living ones in winter.

   The Koukeri ritual on Shrove Sunday
    Shrove Sunday (also known as the First Sunday before the Lent) - is the day for forgiveness. According to Bulgarian traditions, family members are giving each other their forgiveness during a family dinner later that day. People use set phrases, such as “Forgive me, mother, ..father, ..” and “Let all be forgiven to you,.. God forgives” to ask and give their pardoning to their close ones. The popular ritual of “hamkane” is performed that night – a peeled boiled egg, a piece of halva or a coal is tied to a piece of thread hanging from a long pole. Then the thread is moved around in large circles and everyone around the feast table (especially the younger kids) is trying to catch it with mouth only (no use of hands is allowed)…

 


        The most typical tradition connected to that day is starting the feast fires. Right from the very dawn, a Koukeri band starts its walk around everybody’s home. By means of various symbolic and ritual-magic actions, they are wishing health, land fertility and prosperity to the hosts.
      At Shrove Sunday, the spirit gets purged by the forgiveness given and asked for, the body gets stronger if the person manages to jump over the fire, and the nature sends away evil forces by the ringing of the Koukeri bells. The dance of those masked men brings blessing and land fertility. A Kouker young woman (also called “bride”) starts ploughing the field and calls fertility, health and good luck to come into people’s houses.

Another version

    According to the official church canon the period of the Easter fast continues for seven weeks. Bulgarians call the first week of the fast "sirnica", "Sirni Pokladi" or "Proshka" (forgiveness), because the Orthodox religion allows the consumption of butter, cheese and eggs. The consumption of meat stops the previous week known as Mesni (meat) Zagovezni.
The Sirni Sunday is rich with rituals. Before lunchtime the newly married go to visit their first witnesses and elder relatives - parents, brothers and sisters, friends. They kiss their hand and ask forgiveness, because in the evening when they sit on the table they should have reconciled and taken forgiveness from their relatives. "Forgive me!" - that is what the young people say when they bend to kiss the hand. "May God forgive you, you are forgiven!" - the elder bless.

     In the evening the whole household gathers around the table, full of fish meals, cheese and eggs pastry, milk and of course white khalva. The youngest members of the family are eager for start of the traditional "hamkane" or "lamkane". They sit on the floor, making a circle. The grandmother ties a piece of the khalva, a piece of cheese or of a boiled egg with a red woollen thread. She ties the other end of the thread to the ceiling beam or to her distaff. Then she swings the khalva around the sitting children who keep their hands behind their backs. Each of the children tries to bite the swinging titbit with its mouth, which turns the ritual into a noisy and funny game. Then the grandmother sets the thread on fire and by the way it burns she predicts if the year to come will be fertile. The ashes from the burnt woollen thread are kept as a remedy. After dinner the men go out into the yard and shoot with rifles announcing the beginning of the Great fast.
        Very important things in the tradition are the putting on of big bonfires and the jumping over them in which the main participants are the bachelors and the elder boys. During the whole "sirna week" they gather branches and corn leaves which they carry to the high places outside the village. They pile the branches and the leaves around a high pike and they put the head of a rooster that has been slaughtered during the Mesni (meat) Zagovezni on top of the pike. The young people from different neighbourhoods compete with each other and try to make the highest piles. In the evening of the Sirna Sunday they set the bonfires on fire and they have different names in the different parts of Bulgaria - "oratnici", "olelii", "kurkovnici", "oidelelii" or "urbalki".
    In Strandja the lads carry big wicker baskets with burning straw in them on pikes. That is why the tradition is also known as "Pali kosh" (burn the basket). They have made in advance by themselves special kinds of arrows made of hazel and cornel tees. The arrows are called "chavgi", "chilki", "pernici" or "susamnici". They are shot away with the help of a split hazel tree - "mashalgan". The arrows are set on fire and directed by the lads to the home of the lass they love. The action is accompanied by phrases that sometimes get a little too cynic: "If you, old man, don't give me the lass I will set your beard on fire!" The bachelors and the boys jump over the fire and play around it until the morning comes. This is done to protect the house from fleas, the summer from rain and for a fertile year. In the evening when the bonfires are burning everyone goes out to the square for the last boys-and-girls horo. To make the hemp and the other crops grow tall the people play the horo wildly and bouncy. Horos are not allowed to play until Easter, during the Great fast.

  Summary

Bulgarians celebrated on Sunday "Sirni Zagovezni", a popular Orthodox Christian holiday, which takes place seven weeks before Easter, and marks the beginning of the longest period of fasting. According to the ancient Christian tradition, on that day people beg each other forgiveness for their wrong-doings during the year. Usually the younger ask the older for forgiveness and are also asked to forgive on the part of their parents, relatives, friends or just the people they live or work with.
     In the past a special custom was being performed in the evening. A piece of halva was tied on a long thread, hanging from the ceiling (a hard-boiled egg or some coal is an alternative). The thread is swayed around in a circle and the participants keep on trying to catch the lump in their mouth.
     The Bulgarian villages have preserved the "Kukeri" ritual, in which the masked Kukeri dance in the last days of the winter, just before nature is reborn. The participants in this ritual are only men, dressed in sheepskin garments and wearing scary masks and chanove (copper bells) attached to their belts, dancing and singing songs, and chants, with the intention to scare away the evil spirits or ghosts which people believed came back to the living ones in winter.
    Contrary to the Orthodox Christian tradition to celebrate Sirni Zagovezni always on Sunday, the Catholic Church celebrates it on Tuesday, 40 days prior to Easter.

 

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