Spassovden

An excerpt from A Study of Rusalki – Slavic Mermaids of Eastern Europe.

Spassovden (or the Ascension) is a zadushnitsa, one of many days throughout the year associated with the dead, although not specifically those who are “unclean dead” like Rusalki. Women pour wine or water over the graves of relatives, and give food to other people visiting their deceased loved ones.

In Bulgaria, Spassovden happens forty days after Easter. The name comes from the Bulgarian word spassenie (спасение, “salvation”), and so it’s the day of salvation of souls. It’s the last of the seven “Great Thursdays,” the first being Maundy Thursday (three days before Easter).

The official Orthodox holiday relates to the day Christ ascended to heaven after spending his first forty days with the apostles after he had risen from his tomb. In the same way, on Easter, God releases souls of the recent dead, so they can wander for forty days to the places they’ve known in life. Their wandering concludes on Spassovden, and the souls remain on Earth until they return to the other world on Pentecost.

In folklore, souls can appear as flies or bees, visiting flowers on trees, in meadows, and along riverbanks. If you want to hear the dead speak in their graves, all you have to do is put your ear to the ground; you’ll hear them buzzing like bees. They also appear as white butterflies that arise from the water and live only on this day. Windows remain open on Spassovden so these souls aren’t trapped inside homes. Another belief is that if you’re quiet enough when you go to a well early in the morning and peer into the water, instead of seeing your own image, you may see the reflection of a loved one you’re thinking about.

White Butterfly Souls. Illustration by Nelinda. © Bendideia Publishing.

A Day of Bread and Fertility

Spassovden is also a day of bread and fertility. Sveti Spas or St. Spas (the Holy Savior) is the saint associated with this day, although he doesn’t exist as an actual Orthodox saint. He’s a made-up saint to go along with the name of the holiday. On this day, people walk around the fields to ward off drought, praying to the saint, who “unlocks the sky and the Earth to let the rain through so there may be bread throughout the year.”[i]

Ritual traditions forbid both men and women from working on any of the Great Thursdays. If you work in the vineyard, no grapes will grow. If you work in the fields, no grain will ripen. On Spassovden itself, women avoid touching anything green, because it will bring hailstorms in the summer instead of rain. Every drop of rain that falls on this day is considered “a piece of gold,”[ii] because it means the harvest year will be rich and fertile. On the other end of the weather spectrum, to avoid a drought, women are forbidden from doing laundry and hanging clothes outside to dry.

[i] Bezovska, “St. Spas or Ascension Day.”

[ii] Bezovska, “St. Spas or Ascension Day.”

Mothers – Our White Roses

The following is an abridged version of a chapter from The Wanderer – A Tear and a Smile: Reflection of an Immigrant, Ronesa’s memoir about the challenges and joys of being an immigrant, with many reflections on life and customs in Bulgaria.

***

We love mothers. Mother’s Day is the single busiest day for phone calls home to that special lady. Mom is our temple, the first person we met when we arrived in this world. Her love is unconditional all our lives, and she’s ready to give her life for her child.

While I was working on this chapter, another shooting, actually two mass shootings, happened one after another. One in El Paso, Texas, and one in Dayton, Ohio. Why would I even mention these horrible events? While I was watching the news, they were talking about a little two-month-old baby whose mother shielded him, and the gunmen took her life. This is what a mother does: she protects, she loves, and she is ready to die to save her child.

If you ask my children about me, I’m sure they’ll say I’m demanding, powerful, and sometimes mean, or that I expect the impossible from them. When they were growing up, it was hard for me to say “good job” on a school grade just because other moms were saying this to their kids. For me to give them this praise meant what they did had to be excellent, an A or above. I know I’ve been tough, and sometimes expected too much from my daughters. I even have called myself “the dragon mother.”

Even if we planned everything and hoped for success, life is an unpredictable journey. It throws everyone ups and downs: we win, we lose. But mothers are like a safe harbor, a sanctuary we can seek to get support, forgiveness, and courage. When life has been difficult, or if I’ve needed advice, I’ve reached out to my mother many times. She never asks or judges; she just supports me.

A famous Bulgarian song, “Prituri se planinata,” is about two shepherds trapped in a mountain with a storm coming. They ask the mountain to help them. They want to go back to the people waiting for them. One of them desires to return to his mother, the other to his wife, his first and only love. The mountain responds by telling them she will let go only one of them, the one whose mother is waiting for him. A mother, she says, waits and mourns all her life, but a wife will be sad for a while and then find another love. It’s a powerful song, showing again the love of the mother and how it’s portrayed in Bulgarian folklore.

 

Притури се планината

Притури се планината,

Че затрупа два овчеря.

Че затрупа два овчеря,

Два овчеря – два другаря.

 

Първи моли, пусни мене.

Мене чака първо любе.

Втори моли, пусни мене.

Мене чака стара майка.

 

Проговаря планината:

Хей, ви вази два овчеря,

Любе жали ден до пладне,

Майка жали чак до гроба.

 

The mountain has overturned (collapsed) 

The mountain has overturned

And captured two shepherds.

And captured two shepherds.

Two shepherds, two friends.

 

The first one begs: “Let me go!

My first love is waiting for me!”

The second one begs: “Let me go!

My old mother is waiting for me!”

 

The mountain replies:

“Oh, you two shepherds,

A beloved one grieves from morning till noon

but a mother grieves for life!”

 

Being a woman and a mother is even harder when you’re an immigrant. You need to work, take care of the family, and overcome obstacles presented by the new culture. One of the roles of a mother is to introduce her children to family traditions, their roots, but also help them embrace their new culture. It’s hard to do in this high-tech world where lifestyles and communication tools are different from those in your home country.

Even though the social dynamics are different today, we need to preserve our culture, our family rituals, making sure our children know their heritage. Knowing who you are and where you come from helps you build your future and gives you identity. This is why I started writing stories and books inspired by Bulgarian folklore and customs. I wanted my children and other people to learn more about Bulgaria, so they can respect my culture. I think we all need to respect and learn about the people around us, the new people we meet every day. Don’t judge people by their appearance, accent, or color. Take the time to learn about them. Each person has a story, dreams, and ambitions.

In Bulgaria and in Europe, Mother’s Day is on March 8. This is the day when everyone appreciates their mothers and says thank you for their hard work. I still celebrate on March 8 and also on the American Mother’s Day in May. Celebrating in May helped my children feel the same as their classmates. They make me lovely cards, and we go out for lunch.

On Mother’s Day, I get a bouquet of white roses, my favorite flowers, from my husband. A white rose is the flower of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God, our Mystical Rose of Heaven. For me, Mother’s Day isn’t about being one day in the year when you get cards, kisses, and flowers. Every day when you know you’ve raised good children is Mother’s Day. Every day we celebrate the love, the pain, the sleepless nights, the cheers.

We grow, we make friends; we move, we lose many of them. As time passes, it’s more and more difficult to make new friendships. But also with time, we become wiser and gain the ability to appreciate and respect the people around us. We begin to understand that our mother has always been and will always be our best friend in life.

Our mothers are our white roses.