Bulgarian Easter Traditions

Easter for many of you was this past Sunday, but for the Orthodox, it will be on May 2 this year. In recognition of this holy day, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my book, The Wanderer, my memoir about my experiences of being an immigrant, and how our customs and traditions influence our lives. At the end, I’ve also included a traditional Easter recipe: Lamb with Dock. Enjoy!

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Since the majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, many of us celebrate Easter twice—once on our own holiday, and again to honor friends and new relatives with different backgrounds, or just to make our children part of the surrounding culture.

Easter holidays in Bulgaria start with Lazarov Day (Lazar’s or Lazarus’ Day) and Tsvetnica (Flower Day) and culminate on Easter. This year Tsvetnitsa is on April 25. These are the best spring holidays when nature wakes and everything comes back to life. People open windows, clean their houses, and go to church every Sunday. When I was a student, we were forbidden to attend church. Back in the Communist era, we were told we had to forget religion and traditions so as not to undermine the authority of the Party. Even so, we hid and walked to attend the service secretly, so we weren’t expelled from school. The world is small, as we like to say, and one year, I stood side by side with my French teacher in church. She looked away from me with candles in her hands and pretended she didn’t see me. I did the same. We both knew we needed to keep the secret.

egg_knocking_colorIn Sofia, the measures were quite strict, but in small villages and towns people were able to celebrate and attend church more easily. In the years when I studied in Sandanski, a small town in southern Bulgaria, a friend invited me to the holiday in one of the neighboring villages so that I wouldn’t be alone at the boarding school. The alley was pretty: white houses stained with colored rugs, and yards arranged with flowers and greenery. The church stood at the entrance to the village on a small hill with a view to the nearby Struma River. After the liturgy, young and old went out and, instead of the traditional “knocking” of their colored eggs (that is, tapping them end to end), they began to throw them over the church roof. Then they went outside the church yard, set food on picnic tables, and the fun began. The people of southern Bulgaria were warm and hospitable, and I always felt at home during my school years. It eased my nostalgia.

Bulgaria is a small country, but every region, village, and town has its own rituals and beliefs. It was interesting to observe traditions by visiting families and places that were new for me. I think we all need to be open to new experiences and appreciate the beliefs of others. Each ritual or custom has a reason behind why it’s performed.

Some of these traditions are regarding eggs, one of the most common foods at Easter, for Bulgarians and other nations as well. From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of birth, resurrection, and eternal life—life and death—with a belief that the world was born from the golden egg, that is, the sun. The parts of the egg represent the four elements. The shell is symbolic of earth: the membrane represents air, the liquid is water, and the yellow yoke is the sun and thereby fire.

The time to celebrate in secrecy eventually passed, and after the change of government in October 1989, democracy brought back freedom. Everyone then had the right to practice their religion. Easter and all other holidays are impeccable for Bulgarians not only today, but also in the past.

When I was a child, from time to time I stayed with my grandparents in a village in northern Bulgaria. Easter in my memories was about colors and flowers. I remember Lazar’s Day and the lazarki, a group of cheerful girls who walked from door to door to sing for the prosperity and health of the occupants. The girls carried baskets and dressed in traditional costumes, wearing wreaths made from flowers. At the time, I badly wanted to join them, but I was too young. When they arrived at our house, Baba went to the cellar and brought eggs, honey, and walnuts as gifts for the girls.

On Tsvetnica, the next day, we went to church to pray. For us, it was a double holiday because my grandmother’s name was Tsvetana (which means “flower”), so we also celebrated her name day. On Flower Day she made me a wreath from willow branches and flowers so I would be slender and playful like the tree. After church, people came over to celebrate her name day. The feast was not as it is now. Back then, the doors were open for all guests—those expected and unexpected alike. They came in happy, bringing gifts and wishing her good health. Baba gave them red wine and home-baked bread and other meals she had prepared for her special day. Since it was Lent, people fasted and kept other prohibitions.

My grandmother used natural dye to color the eggs: beets for the red, onion pills for the orange, and gold from the seeds of the dill. She also used these natural colors to dye wool and cotton. She told us we needed to color the eggs before sunset on Maudy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). If we couldn’t color them on that day, we had to dye them without telling anyone. The reason for this was that we had to make sure the devil didn’t discover us dyeing eggs on Friday or Saturday. If he did, he’d destroy the healing and protective powers those special eggs held.

I still generally dye the eggs on Thursday and always make a red egg special for God. Traditionally, this is the first red egg. It has magical, healing power; on Easter morning, I rub the egg against my children’s cheeks and make a cross on their foreheads for health. We keep this red egg set aside for a whole year. Sometimes our kitten forgets it’s a holy egg and breaks it early. When the kitten doesn’t break it, we don’t throw last year’s egg away. Instead, we bury it in the garden for fertility.

The culmination of the Easter festivities happens on Sunday. In Bulgaria, we went to church and on the way back visited the graves of our closest relatives to give them food, eggs, and wine.

Now and in the past all our Easter festivities are filled with light and love. Nature wakes up, and everyone is looking forward to the coming summer and long, sunny days. People are craving light, joy, and love.

A major part of the festivity is the meal. In addition to the traditional bread called kozunak and the colorful eggs, Bulgarian cook lamb.

lamb-with-dock

Lamb with Dock

Lamb with dock or spinach is one of my favorite meals during this season. This delicious dish is suitable for Easter and to welcome Spring.

I’m not a gardener, but I have few spices (mint, parsley, fresh garlic) in my garden that are a traditional part of Bulgarian cuisine. Dock is one of these plants, but you can substitute fresh spinach or even kale if you like to experiment. There’s nothing complicated in preparing lamb with dock.

Dock – commonly known as broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, butter dock, kettle dock, curly dock, and smair dock – is a species of flowering plant in a buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It’s native to Europe but is also available in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.

Since ancient times, dock has been known as a medicinal plant and used in traditional remedies. It possesses various antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, homeopathy and laxative properties which have beneficial effects to maintain one’s overall health.

To prepare lamb with dock, you need:

2.2  pounds boneless, trimmed, lamb shoulder, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 midsize onion or a green fresh onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1  1/2 Tablespoons sweet paprika
2 cups water
25 grams butter, cubed
1  1/2 cups from the water where the meat was boiled
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
1 bunch of dock or replace with spinach, trimmed and roughly chopped
Salt & pepper

  1. I always precook my meat. Start with making portions of the meat, put in a pot and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Boil the meat for about 1 hour on medium heat.
  2. Sprinkle diced lamb with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place a large pot or casserole dish over medium-high heat and drizzle in half the olive oil. Add half the lamb and cook for 4–5 minutes until meat is golden. Transfer browned lamb to a plate, and repeat with remaining lamb and oil.
  3. In the same pot add more oil, then add the onion and garlic and cook a further 3–4 mins, until the onion begins to soften. Once the onion has softened, add the rinsed rice.
  4. Transfer browned lamb to the pan and mix and stir paprika through it. Add water (from the water that the lamb was boiled in) and bring to a boil.
  5. Add the chopped dock or spinach and mix thoroughly.
  6. Place the pan in the oven (non preheat) on 375 F (no need to cover) and bake for 1 hour, until rice is cooked and lamb is very tender.

Enjoy this delicious spring meal made with gift a from nature.

Baba Yaga, Demon or Goddess?

In Bulgaria, March is a time for supernatural creatures to return to the human world from their winter residence in Dragon Village (Zmeykovo). Baba Yaga is one of the most well-known of these figures in Slavic folklore. “Baba” is a word that means “old woman” or “grandmother,” while “Yaga” comes from a word that possibly means “ill-tempered” or “quarrelsome,” as well as being derived from numerous other words, such as “illness,” “horror,” and “torment,” to name a few.

And she was indeed an ill-tempered old woman, and ugly, ugly, ugly. She has a crooked nose and iron teeth. The witch is skinny, with bones poking out.

If you haven’t heard about her, she’s a witch with a proclivity for eating children who wander onto her property. She lived in a hut that stands stilt-like on one or two chicken feet, and a fence of the bones of her victims surrounds her property. The witch doesn’t fly on a broom. Instead, you’ll see her in her mortar, using a pestle to guide her through the air.

Her hut, too, is a wonder to behold. It hops about, spinning, screeching, and moaning. When Baba Yaga wants it to stand still, she recites a special incantation.

Baba Yaga and Chicken Hut

While doing research on dragons, I discovered Baba Yaga has been compared to Hala, called a storm demon in some locations. Wherever she travels, she stirs up the wind.

But, Baba Yaga was also once a goddess of birth and death, the guardian of the fountains of life and death. Like nature, she is wild and untamable. She is the image of the matron of the family, one who no longer has to care for her own children. These women were knowledgeable in folk healing, and were thought to possess the power of life and death.

Baba Yaga can determine a person’s fate and represents the darker side of this wisdom. If her guest performs special tasks, without complaining, the witch will give the person magical gifts to help them as they tackle other adventures. If they complain, or ask too many questions, their fate is to end up in the witch’s oven. Even though she is known for her wisdom, she ages one year for each question she’s asked, so, yes, that can certainly put a damper on her willingness to help.

As time went on, she eventually became the hideous creature whose main desire was to devour children, rather than help bring them into this world.

Baba Yaga is one of our favorite characters in our Dragon Village middle-grade fantasy series. We’ve also collected so much more information about this fascinating personality that we’ll share in a future book about Folklore Witches in our Spirits & Creatures series. For now, though, we’ll leave you with some artists renditions of this famous witch: https://www.picuki.com/profile/bulgarianfolktales.

Dragons, Wine, and Love

Did you know that people once believed (and may still believe) that comets streaking across the sky were dragons? It could be a dragon hurrying to visit his beloved. He flies down through the fireplace chimney before he changes into human form to meet her. Since February is the month for love, if you see a comet in the sky, maybe it’s a dragon heading to visit his loved one.

You may wonder what connects dragons, wine, and love. The answer lies within the traits of the dragon zmey. Belief in the zmey was, and perhaps still is in some areas, the most widespread across Eastern Europe.

Zmey's Bride in Cave illustration

In appearance, the zmey can be your typical dragon, or a beastly combination of man and snake. But, he’s also a shape-shifter and so he may appear in a variety of forms: animal, human, and natural phenomenon, among the most common. He may also become an eagle, especially when he’s battling storm-bringing dragons (like the hala or the lamia). One form he takes I found rather amusing was that he could become a “shiny white chicken” strutting around the yard. He can also change into different types of vegetation and inanimate objects. That’s to say, he could be just about anywhere!

Most often, however, you’ll see the zmey as a handsome youth. His hypnotizing eyes, a body that may glow, and small wings beneath his arms distinguish him from other men. He’s also highly intelligent, has super strength, and many other abilities. He’s like the Superman of mythical creatures.

Although we portray him as a unique character in our Dragon Village stories (more of those coming soon), in most countries, the zmey is a species of dragon: male, mostly benevolent (depending on the location), and the wielder of multiple roles: he controls the weather, protects his chosen village, but most importantly, he’s a passionate lover.

The zmey has a discerning palate. His drink preference is wine, but it must be squeezed from the largest, ripest, sweetest, and blackest grapes. He likes it formally presented to him wrapped in a towel. To go along with that, you must serve him the best white bread, made from only the purest grains, which have been sifted with the smallest sieve.

Not only is he a connoisseur of wine and bread, he’s particular about his choice of females. Even though the zmey can select a bride from among female dragons of his species, he finds it difficult to suppress his cravings for human girls. The zmey’s chosen bride is often the most beautiful girl, the first to begin dancing the horo (circle dance) at village gatherings. She’s not only beautiful, she’s also personable, outgoing, and hardworking.

Zmey stealing girl illustration

Don’t go and hide your daughters! You’re safe at the moment, because it’s only during the warmest months that he steals girls from their families, especially on Eniovden, the summer solstice (June 24), and during the harvest on Georgiovden, St. George’s Day (May 6), when girls have gathered in the field. He likes it when they’re all together. It makes it easier for him to decide which one he likes the best. He may not always kidnap her. He may first woe her with promises of wealth.

When the dragon has found the girl of his dreams, he may not win her over right away. He’ll often visit her at her home to persuade her to go away with him. I’ve often wondered if he brings her roses in his nightly visits. Perhaps not, since he himself can turn into flowers.

Once he has his intended bride, be prepared for a spectacular wedding, with as much pomp and circumstance as a royal wedding. Unfortunately, only the bride-to-be can see the arriving procession. Whirlwinds. Fire. Thunder. White horses. Golden chariots. The groom tells the girl to be ready for the wedding party. Washed, clothed in ornamented wedding attire, hair braided according to customs, she waits in the yard for him to come in the night to whisk her away. With tears in her eyes, she turns and says a final “goodbye” to her mother, for she may never see her again.

Zmey wedding illustration

The zmey and his love have a darker side. Once he loves a girl, she has little choice in avoiding his attention. People believe she can’t escape her fate. The zmey is an obsessive, controlling, jealous lover. He possesses the girl’s consciousness until he’s all she can think about.

There’s a Bulgarian saying that describes this: It’s as if dragons love her. She hides, withers, loses weight, and fades.

Held captive by his love, the girl pines away, avoiding social gatherings, especially the dances she once loved so much. She’s quiet, sad, and depressed; she often cries or mumbles; and she suffers from hallucinations. Her skin becomes dry, pale or colorless, and withered. She has sunken cheeks and watery eyes. Once loved by a zmey, the girl will never find satisfaction with a human lover—if the zmey even allows her to find one.

A Study of Dragons thumbnailAs you see, the zmey is an interesting, multi-layered creature. You can learn so much more about him and other dragons in our book A Study of Dragons of Eastern Europe: https://books2read.com/dragons-aveela.

 

Dragon Tales thumbnailYou can also discover some dragon fairy tales in our book Dragon Tales from Eastern Europe:  https://books2read.com/dragon-tales. Both are available wherever you buy ebooks and print books.

Kukeri to Chase away Corona

The world’s gone crazy, it seems. These days, it’ll be a difficult task to repair the rift that divides our land. In times of old, people would call on the kukeri (or survakari) to chase away the evil spirits causing such discord. We’ve written about this group in the past on our blog, but this seems an appropriate time to resurrect the topic.

Kukeri
Bulgarian Kukeri. Masked men, who chase away evil spirits away, during the Bulgarian custom “Surva.”

Kukeri are fascinating, so much so that we’ve included them in our fiction and non-fiction books alike. But what are these beings? Are they human or creature?

In today’s culture, they’re merely men (with women becoming more involved as the years go by). In the past, however, they were something more. The participants had magical powers. They were Thracian warriors who dressed in animal skins in order to battle with evil spirits. If the kukeri won the contest, they’d frighten away the evil ones and capture their power. This power and right to perform the rituals were passed down from father to son in many villages.

The celebration occurs at different times in various parts of Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. It’s both a winter and a springtime festival to restore order and prosperity in the land. The kukeri celebration is one of the oldest surviving traditions that can be traced back to Dionysian rites, symbolizing life, death, and rebirth. Men initiated rituals when spirits threatened the Sun’s rebirth during the winter solstice.

Kukeri

The kukeri continued the practices into the spring, before the sowing of the harvest, when the earth was awakening after a long winter. The kukeri performed rituals to renew nature’s strength. They’d harness nature’s reviving energy so fields could become fertile. The men would demonstrate their own ability to produce offspring. The belief was that only men, who carried the seed of life in their bodies, had the ability to rouse and nurture the female Mother Earth.

Today, the celebration is mostly for fun. It’s festive, noisy, and somewhat frightful. The kukeri dress in furry costumes like wild animals and wear colorful, wooden masks with scary faces, mostly of rams, goats, or bulls. The participants parade through the village; they jump and yell, perform skits about plowing and sowing seeds, and pantomime political and other popular figures. As they move in special rhythmic steps, giant bells around their waists clang loudly.

You can see some of the various costumes the kukeri wear across Bulgaria in this short video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWIK0SfT4Mw.

Can their bells still work their charms in this day and age? A group in Bulgaria recently performed the dance to chase away the corona virus. You can read the full article here: https://bnr.bg/en/post/101404060/survakari-will-chase-away-the-coronavirus-in-villages-near-bulgarias-pernik.

A World Filled with Beauty and Love – The Art of Plamen Dinkov

St. Demetrius

Today, October 26, is St. Demetrius’ Day. This saint was often said to be the twin of St. George, the mighty dragon slayer. He’s the protector of winter and cold, and the patron saint of soldiers and the crusades. His holiday marks the end of the farming season. Our guest today, Plamen Dinkov, carves images of this saint, along with many other holy images.

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Did you know trees have souls and hearts? If you doubt it, take a look at Plamen Dinkov’s art to verify it for yourself. With his talented hands, he turns every piece of wood into a fairy tale, a prayer, a confession of love. His works help me dive into a world without pain and anger, where beauty and harmony reign.

His masterpieces are born from the roots, Bulgarian folklore, the traditional Bulgarian school of woodcarving. In his work, you’ll find scenes from Orthodox churches, icons, St. George and his fight with the dragon, and many other legends and magical tales. Bulgarian mythology is an endless topic of inspiration for artists and writers alike.

I asked Plamen to write something about himself to help me present it to my fans. I share his words and creative path and help you know him better. 

“I was born in 1957 in Blagoevgrad, and I spent my childhood and school years in Vratsa, where my love for art and woodcarving was born for the first time. I live and work in Sofia. Initially, I was also involved in metal plastics and artistic processing of metal in the Association of Masters of Folk and Artistic Crafts, but slowly woodcarving pushed everything aside. For 40 years I have been doing what I love the most. I learned everything in carving on my own, without any help. I even made my first tools myself. It was not easy, I had to discover the intricacies of the craft on the go, but it brought me great satisfaction and maybe gave me the opportunity to build my own style … The artist works for the audience, but the great thrill, love, intoxication for me is before, in the sleepless nights when the next work is born in your mind and in the days when it slowly comes out of your hands. My art has been bought and is available all over the world – Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Germany, Russia, America, etc. I am proud, of course, of my woodcarving crosses purchased and donated during the visits of Pope John Paul II and King Juan Carlos of Spain to Bulgaria in 2002 and 2003. Most of my works, though, are here in Bulgaria, in private collections and homes. I have notebooks and notebooks full of ideas for new things. There are a lot of ideas – there is so little time. If God said so, I would fulfill as many of them as I could … Finally, a question that a person often asks himself: Was he happy? Yes, I am a happy, extremely happy person! I do what I love and live in my world full of beauty and love!”

To follow Plamen Dinkov, you can like his FB page:

https://facebook.com/PLAMEN-DINKOV-WOODCARVING-345970847843/

Or his website: http://dinkovwoodcarving.com

 

Here Be Dragons

No one has been able to “prove” the existence of dragons, but in the hearts and minds of the people, they did exist at one time. I’d like to share with you excerpts from the Dragon book that will be available soon. We’re aiming for November 2020.

People believe dragons have created various structures. Some of the most common are dolmens, chambers formed by large stone blocks. These chambers are found throughout Europe in mountainous regions, with sheer cliffs that hide a cave. Some date back 7,000 years, while most are thought to be from the early Neolithic age (around 4000–3000 BC). In folk belief, they’re called dragon houses, and are said to be proof dragons existed, although archaeologists say they are likely to have been burial chambers.

Source: Photo by Stankow, 13 September 2013. Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/legalcode

 

Other dragon tales tell how geographical sites came into being: rivers, lakes, mountains, and more. Springs at the bottom of a cave or a rock are often said to be tears of a kidnapped girl. Here are a few places people once believed dragons created.

  • Great Stones of Khlyabovo Ridge: A long time ago in Khlyabovo, Bulgaria, a dragon protected the villagers. In return, the people provided him with animals from their flocks. Some men rebelled, saying they would no longer feed the dragon. And so, the dragon abducted and ate villagers. One boy, Katos, fought with the dragon all day, finally wounding it. When the dragon fell from the sky, it petrified and formed huge stones. Even today, local people say they see flames, the fire of the dragon, coming out of the rocks.
  • Serpent’s Wall or Dragon’s Rampart: According to folklore, long, tall embankments in parts of Ukraine came into being when a hero tricked a dragon into dividing the land between them. The hero harnessed a plow to the dragon, and the dragon pulled and pulled, mile after mile, deeper and deeper, creating the ever-growing embankments. The hero didn’t cease urging the dragon onward until the creature died of exhaustion. A more historical purpose of the embankments was as a defense mechanism against invaders, with the dragons being symbolic of foreigners.
  • Balaur Hill: This hill, named after a Romanian dragon, arose when a gigantic balaur fell from the sky and died. A single rib measured 22 inches (56 centimeters) in width. His body slowly rotted over a long period of time, forming a great mound.
  • Margarets Hill and Latin Well: A Bulgarian story talks about how a Latin man and his daughter Margarita cultivated a vineyard on a hill, which was near a well that dragons and fairies came out of. Near the well, the father built a cellar to store his wine. A young man courted Margarita in the vineyard, but one day a whirlwind arose and a black cloud covered the hill. The young man, who was a zmey, embraced her and flew into the cloud and headed toward the well. As the cloud descended, lightning crackled, and the two young people sank into the well, never to be seen again. The hill and well were named after the girl and her father. Even today, people will tell you, if you part the bushes and grass on the hill you can see the ruins of the basement by the well. At night, no one goes near, because it’s still a zmey’s haunt.

The story below relates how a hot spring gained its name.

Many, many years ago, an old zmey ruled the forests between Struma and Mesta [rivers in Southwest Bulgaria]. He had two sons, and they were zmeys, which he sent here and there for work.

“And what was the work of the zmeys, Grandpa Marin?” the curious asks.

“Their job,” he explains, “was to arrange the clouds, to spread rain, hail, thunder, and lightning.”

Once the smaller zmey was flying over the village of Mosomishte. It was Easter, so all the people were at the horo, and among them was the priest’s daughter, the beautiful maiden Toplitsa. The zmey saw her from the clouds, liked her, and then came down and grabbed her from the horo before anyone knew what was happening. The poor father asked and searched everywhere, but didn’t find any trace of her. A long time passed and her parents stopped thinking about her.

One summer day, the priest climbed St. George’s Rock to gather wood for fire. It felt like something was pulling him higher and higher, until suddenly he saw his daughter, all in golden clothes and adorned with coins. They hugged each other in tears and the girl said that the young zmey had grabbed her, but her father got angry and drove them away from Alibotush mountain, where his palace was. Now the two lived on St. George’s Rock. The zmey’s bride was afraid that her husband would meet the uninvited guest, so she quickly sent her father away, but she wanted to give him a farewell gift. She filled up a sack of coins, but since she had already learned some zmey magic, she made the gold light as a feather so that it would not weigh on her father on the way.

She told him to open it when he got home. They said goodbye and Grandpa Priest left with the sack on his shoulder, but something kept irritating him to see what was inside. In the end he couldn’t stand it, he opened it and what did he see? The sack was full of onion peels! He got angry, poured out the peels, then took the sack and went home without wood. He decided to shake the sack one more time and what did he see? One coin was stuck inside.

The priest told everything to his wife and she scolded him and ordered him to go back immediately and to bring the onion peels, which were enchanted coins. The priest hurried, climbed back, but it was too late. Right in place of the peels, a large river of hot water gushed out and dragged everything down. When the priest shook the sack, his daughter saw him from the rock and got very scared that the zmey would see and get angry. She began to pray to God for help, and he heard her prayers and made the hot water gush out and take away the onion peels. Since then, they named the river Toplitsa after the priest’s daughter.

According to the legend, its warm water gradually cools and when it becomes really cold, the river will dry up.

Source: PIC. “ЛЕГЕНДИТЕ СА ЖИВИ! Николина от село Пирин била последната любов на Змея Горяни.” (“LEGENDS ARE ALIVE! Nikolina from the village of Pirin was the last love of Snake Goryani.”) May 9, 2017. https://pik.bg/легендите-са-живи-николина-от-село-пирин-била-последната-любов-на-змея-горянин-news655961.html.

 

Another interesting tale I discovered while doing research is not from Eastern Europe, but it has many of the same types of characteristics as those stories.

In his “League of the Ho-de’-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois,” originally published in 1851, Lewis Henry Morgan (1954: 149 ff.) described a Seneca legend about the “homed serpent.” He-no, an assistant of the Great Spirit responsible for the formation of clouds and rain, and a keeper of the thunderbolts, was a guarantor of fertility. In one account he made his abode in a cave behind Niagara Falls. A young woman at a village at the mouth of Cayuga creek above the falls was betrothed to a disagreeable old man, and to escape her fate she put herself in a bark canoe and released herself on the current to plunge to her death and freedom. On her descent over the falls, however, she was caught by He-no, taken to his cavernous home and married to one of his helpers.

Before this event the people of her village has been plagued by a mysterious pestilence, and He-no now revealed to her the cause: a gigantic water serpent dwelt under her village on Cayuga Creek, poisoning the waters and feeding on the bodies of the dead buried there. He told her to advise her people to move to a new location, which they did.

The serpent, losing its source of sustenance, emerged from the earth to find the cause, and entered the lake to follow the people to their new home. While swimming in the channel of Buffalo Creek, the monster was spotted by He-no, who struck it with a thunderbolt. As Morgan (1954: 160) puts it: “The Senecas yet point to a place in the creek where the banks are semicircular on either side, as the spot where the serpent, after he was struck, turning to escape into the deep waters of the lake, shoved out the banks on either side. . . . The huge body of the serpent floated down the stream, and lodged upon the verge of the cataract, stretching nearly across the river. A part of the body arched backwards near the northern shore in a semicircle. The raging waters thus dammed up by the body broke through the rocks behind; and thus the whole verge of the fall upon which the body rested was precipitated with it into the abyss beneath. In this manner, says the legend, was formed the Horse-Shoe fall.”

Source: Blust, Robert. “The Origin of Dragons.” Anthropos 95, no. 2 (2000): 519-36. Accessed September 20, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40465957.

 

Hope and Miracles

September is here. We’ve had many sunny days this summer where I live in Virginia, but now the sunrise is coming a little later each day, and the nights are getting cooler. I find myself thinking about what changes autumn will bring in this unusual year. I want summer to go on a little bit longer, so I can savor the sun, the sand, and the sea. I want to linger in that lazy feeling of endless summer.

My grandmother used to say that when there is an “R” in the name of the month, it means that it is one of the cold months. We will have to wait until May to enjoy the warm rays of the sun. Maybe this is normally true, but this September has been like a summer month, with temperatures 20 degrees above normal.

On September 14, Bulgarians and other Orthodox Christians celebrate the Day of the Cross. On this day, a special festive table is arranged and a strict fast is observed. The apples have ripened, the grapes are plump and sweet, and the harvest has begun. However, it is forbidden to eat red foods such as apples, peppers, tomatoes, and others as an expression of respect for the cross on which Jesus shed His blood to save mankind.

The oldest woman in the house prepares ritual bread, called Cross Pitka (round homemade bread) for the holiday. She shapes a large cross on the bread before she bakes it. Its ingredients include half a kilogram of flour, half a teaspoon of honey, half a teaspoon of baking soda, half a tablespoon of vinegar, and water for kneading. According to tradition, you have to sift the flour three times before kneading the dough. The ritual bread is broken when the whole family gathers around the table. The bread will rise only a little while it’s baking, so you should eat it while it’s warm. Once it cools, it’ll become hard.

The Day of the Cross is considered the day on which autumn begins. Therefore, typical autumn foods like grapes (any but red ones) and tikvenik (a pumpkin banitsa) must be present at the table. (You can find a recipe and more info about tikvenik here.)

After families pluck the first grapes of the season, they bring them to the church, so the priest can consecrate the fruit. It’s also customary on this day for people to give each other grapes, so the next year will be bountiful.

On the Day of the Cross, thousands of pilgrims go to churches, monasteries, and other holy places to pray for health, forgiveness, and miraculous cures. One of these places of hope is the Cross Forest, located in the beautiful area in the Middle Rhodope Mountains. This was the birth place of Orpheus, the famous musician from ancient mythology. One of the most magical places in Bulgaria, Cross Forest gives you a sense you’re touching the mystery of nature.

The Forest of the Cross is said to be filled with unexplained, extraordinary power that can cure any sickness. The magical powers are at their peak on the evening of September 13, the night before the Day of the Cross. People believe the heavens will open, and Jesus will descend to Earth to grant the wishes and cure the illnesses of those who offer prayers with true faith. Many stories tell how people with cancer and other incurable diseases miraculously found a cure. They say the water cures skin diseases and helps women conceive.

Unfortunately, I’ve never visited the place myself, but my grandmother told me many interesting stories. According to legends, part of the cross on which Jesus was crucified is hidden in this place, but no one knows its exact location. Monks hid it after Turks attacked and burned the monastery.

People also believe the extraordinary healing energy of Cross Forest comes from an ancient sanctuary to Dionysius, which is said to be hidden somewhere in the forest. But the Rhodope Mountains keep their secrets.

Miracles happen there, but people must have faith. Magic or not, in these challenging days, we all need to find our own Cross Forest. We need strong faith and believe in something to keep us going, so we can stay positive as we search for cures, happiness, and personal fulfillment.

Pick up a copy of The Wanderer – A Tear and A Smile: Reflections of an Immigrant for more insight into Bulgarian faith.

Thunder and Lightning, Very, Very Frightening

When I was younger, I loved to sit on the porch during a summer thunderstorm, hearing the rain pound on the roof and watch the lightning spit across the sky. This was especially enjoyable right after a steamy day, as the rain brought with it a cool breeze.

Long ago in Bulgaria, thunder and lightning once were thought to represent dragons fighting in the sky. Zmey (the good male dragon) would fight against Hala or Lamia (both bad female dragons). Lamia would stop the water from flowing and bring drought, while Hala would bring hail that destroyed the crops. She was also known to steal the fertility of the land. She’d carry it from one place to another in her huge ears. Wherever she dropped her stolen goods, the land would prosper.

The lightning was the Zmey’s fiery arrows, and the thunder was him crashing against his enemies. Often, his weapons fell to the ground, embedding deep into the soil and turning to stone. Anyone who found one of these magical arrows would grind it into power and add water to it to cure wounds.

Example of a stone-age arrowhead, which was believed to be a dragon’s weapon.
$1LENCE D00600D at English Wikipedia

Among other Slavic nations, thunder and lightning were thought to be caused by the god Perun. Under Christianity, Perun became St. Iliya (St. Elijah), the thunder-wielder, whose saint day is celebrated August 2. Thunder was caused by his chariot wheels rolling across the sky as he battled demons and dragons. St. Iliya was even known to elicit the help of good Zmeys to fight against destructive dragons.

The old people say that thunder is a sign that there will be a bountiful harvest in the Fall. Since there are no thunderstorms in winter, St. Elijah makes sinners build cities out of snow.

Elijah Taken Up in a Chariot of Fire

People believed the saint ruled over the summer clouds. As he flew over the sky, he collected them and locked them in the Black Sea. When the soil needed nourishment, he unlocked the clouds, sending dew and gentle rains across the land. At times, however, the saint became ill and was unable to perform his duties. The land suffered drought until he was well enough to once again bring the life-saving rain.

Thunderstorms, however, brought devastating rains. A couple of ways people tried to stop a thunderstorm from happening would be to light an Easter candle and kneel before it, or stick an axe handle in the middle of the yard and pour a handful of salt over it.

More information about dragons and dragon slayers will be available in our book about dragons, available around November 2020.

Summer Fun – A Tradition and Recipes

In the northern hemisphere, July means summer, beach, happiness, sun, school vacation, and travel. Also in July there’s a unique, modern Bulgarian tradition unknown to the rest of the world. It’s called July Morning.

People from all over the country travel to the Black Sea on June 30 and meet the first rays of sunshine on the morning of July 1. They sing, dance, talk, and share thoughts. It’s like a festival filled with love and friendship. They believe the sun rays purify and recharge them with new energy. The holiday is not pagan or religious. It’s just fun!

July Morning painting by Nelinda
July Morning – by Nelinda

Many beliefs exist about why and how this tradition began.

One version is that it stared from a pure love story.  In Varna, on the evening of June 30, 1984, a boy and a girl holding hands were walking on the city streets lost in love. They missed the last bus to their village. The lovers decided to wait together for the first bus in the morning. However, it was dangerous to remain in the Varna Sea Garden. A policeman rode along the pathways on a motorcycle, always on the lookout for stragglers. And he had a vicious police dog. The young people decided to leave the garden and hide at Varna’s pier. There they meet other young people who sang and danced all night. Together, they all greeted the sunrise. Since then, it’s become a tradition.

Another version, which became almost legendary in Bulgaria, is that in 1985, soldier Stoyan Georgiev – Tyanata promised himself on the night of June 30 that he would never meet the sunrise alone again. The following year, 1986, he made arrangements with some Varna friends to meet in a meadow in the Sea Garden to watch the sun rise. The following year, they met at the pier. And so the tradition continued.

In another, much simpler version, five young, progressive, free-spirited people, with long hair and denim jackets, gathered spontaneously at the pier in Varna in 1986. Maybe for the simple reason that there were no nightclubs at the time. They unintentionally began the tradition of July Morning.

This modern-day ritual is also associated with a song by a British rock band, Uriah Heep, called “July Morning,” which has became its symbol. You can listen to the song here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qVobQTaoV7s.

Gradually, “July Morning” became the first unofficial social festival in Bulgaria – a place where you can meet new people, talk about everything you can think of, do literary readings, and sing and dance.

I always was told that July Morning was a movement that started in Varna in 1986 to protest the communist government. According to participants, it symbolizes dissatisfaction and the desire for personal freedom. Maybe this is true, because censorship was prevalent during communism, and it was forbidden to listen to Western or American music, have long hair, wear short skirts or jeans, and drink Coca-Cola.

No matter what the story, welcoming the sunrise is seen as a new and better beginning.

According to the Nova Varna newspaper, even this year, hundreds of people have welcomed the first rays of the sun on Kamen Bryag, where the ritual has been held for years. People don’t go anymore to the pier of Varna for the simple reason that it’s too commercialized and has lost its look and romance since 1986.

Happy summer and don’t forget to look at the sun and say hello. July has 31 days so there are still many days to wake up early meet the sunrise and bathe in its rays and rejuvenate.

Summer Fun Recipes

During these hot summer days, many people eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and fewer heavy meals. Bulgarian cuisine is not any different. Some of my favorites summer dishes are made with yogurt.

Did you know Bulgarians created yogurt? Truly, they did. Way back in the time of the Thracians. I kid you not. You can find more than three hundred varieties in the country, and many popular dishes are made with yogurt. The good bacteria in the yogurt is called Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

Yogurt is a favorite ingredient in summer drinks, cold soups, salads, desserts, and main dishes. Another main ingredient in almost all of them is garlic.

Here are some of my favorites.

Airan (Айран) –  a refreshing drink

Mix yogurt into a glass of water. Add a little salt and stir well to obtain a consistent mixture. I add one or two ice cubes. It refreshes, saturates, and hydrates.

Tarator (Таратор) – cold cucumber soup

This will help you cool down in the hot summer.

Ingredients:

* cucumbers – 1 larger European or 2 medium sized

* yogurt – 32 oz (2 lb)

* walnuts – 1 handful crushed (optional)

* garlic – 2 to 3 cloves or to taste

* water – 2-3 cups

* fresh dill – to taste

* olive oil or regular – 3 to 4 tbsp.

* salt to taste

* black pepper – freshly ground to taste

* white pepper – 3 pinches

Peel the cucumbers, leaving only thin slices of the dark green part, which will give a more pleasant look to the tarator. Grate it or cut it into small cubes. I prefer to grate, because it tastes better.

Beat 2 cups of yogurt well and pour them into a saucepan. Add enough cold water to get the tarator to the density you want. Add cucumbers, as well as grated or finely chopped garlic, some crushed walnuts, finely chopped dill, black and white pepper to taste. Finally, mix with olive oil / other oil and salt to taste. Put in the refrigerator to chill. If you don’t have time, put an ice cube in each bowl. I like to serve in bowls and garnish with crushed walnuts and a sprig of dill and serve.

Snow White Salad – (Snejanka) a delicious milk salad

During the summer or even in the winter, my kids like this salad. I use the same products that are described for Tarator, but I don’t add water. If you have time, you can let the yogurt drain to make it thicker. Mix all products and serve cold like a salad. Add some pita bread and you have a dinner or lunch. It can be used as a side dish for BBQ meat or gyros.

Zucchini with Yogurt – A simple, but yummy salad

Here is another salad you can make easy with fried zucchini.

Ingredients:

* 1/2 cup plain yogurt

* 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill

* 1 small clove garlic, grated

* 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

* salt

* freshly ground black pepper

*  1 lb (500 g) zucchini

* 1 teaspoon olive oil

Zucchini with Yogurt

Cook under broiler.

Prepare Dill Mixture

* In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt, dill, garlic, and lemon juice. If necessary add a few drops of water to make the mixture of pourable consistency.

* Season to taste with salt and a pinch of black pepper.

* Set aside.

Prepare Zucchini

* Trim the ends off the zucchini and cut it into thin slices or strips (circles or long strips).

* Toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

* Place the zucchini in an oven-proof skillet or pan and broil, flipping occasionally, about 10 minutes until slightly charred and tender, but not mushy.

Final Steps: Remove from broiler. Serve zucchini warm or chilled, covered or dipped in the yogurt-dill sauce.

Alternatives: If you want a richer taste, coat the zucchini with flour. Place the pieces (circles or strips) into a frying pan with about a half inch of heated oil. Fry the zucchini pieces until they are golden brown and crispy. In the summer, you can use a grill instead.

Eggs over yogurt – a light and quick dinner

After a busy day, you can prepare a quick Bulgarian dinner.

Ingredients:

* eggs – 2 to 3.

* yogurt – 4 to 5 Tablespoons

* red pepper – 1/2 k. (spicy or sweet)

* salt to taste

* oil – for frying

* chopped garlic

* small spoonful of butter to add some twist; we love butter!

In heated but not hot oil, add each of the eggs. Fry them like you do sunny side up. I do mine medium, to make sure they’re soft. On a plate on which you’ll serve the eggs, pour the yogurt, salt to taste, and garlic. Remove the fired eggs from the oil with a slotted spoon or spatula and place on the yogurt. Sprinkle them with paprika and pour a teaspoon or two of melted butter on them. Serve with toast and green garlic or onion.

Yogurt with honey and walnuts – a tasty dessert

Last, but not the least, it’s time for dessert. If you don’t like honey, you can replace it with strawberries. It’s a delicious dessert that’s healthy and easy to make. Your kids will love this no-bake treat that’s full of protein.

Tip: When buying yogurt, make sure the Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria is listed in the ingredients.

Ingredients:

* 1/2 cup yogurt

* 1 Tablespoon crushed walnuts

* cinnamon to taste

* 1 Tablespoon honey, more or less, to taste.

Spoon the yogurt into a small dessert dish. Sprinkle crushed walnuts on top. You can toast the walnuts lightly in a hot skillet if you’d like, to bring out more of their natural flavor. I like to put them in water, then rinse and sprinkle them with brown sugar. Next, put them on a paper towel and bake them for one minute in a microwave. Once they’re cold, sprinkle the nuts over the yogurt. Then top it with cinnamon and drizzle with honey. Serve and enjoy! And don’t forget to make a tea with a spoonful of honey.

 

For more traditional Bulgarian recipes, get a copy of our cookbook, Mediterranean and Bulgarian Cuisine: 12 Easy Traditional Favorites.

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.