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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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 tikvenikhere.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
* 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.
* 1/2 cup plain yogurt
* 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
* 1 small clove garlic, grated
* 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
* freshly ground black pepper
* 1 lb (500 g) zucchini
* 1 teaspoon olive oil
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.
* 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.
* 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.
* 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.
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.
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.
NOTE: The following information is not meant to be taken as a cure for any illnesses. If you’re sick, always contact your health-care professional. The information that follows is common folk medicine, which people have used from generation to generation.
In these times when people across the globe are stressed and anxious about the future, it’s important to maintain and strengthen our immune system. Look around your kitchen and you’re certain to find products that are beneficial to your health: fresh vegetables, fruits, spices. The kitchen, the garden, the meadows are gifts that are good for our health.
Every culture and every household have beliefs and recipes passed down from generation to generation. A number of herbs and products in Bulgarian folklore are believed to help us achieve this. Here are some of my favorites, plus a couple of tasty recipes with simple ingredients you can easily find.
Bulgarians honor bees and in the summer, on July 8, pay tribute to their patron, Saint Procipius, or Prokopia the Beekeeper. On this day, early in the morning, people who raise bees go to the hives to remove the first honey of the year. They burn incense, allowing the smoke to enter the hives. The beekeepers bring two pitkas (ritual bread) to the hives – one for God and one for the saint. They take the honey and the bread to the church, where the priest consecrates them with a special prayer. The beekeepers then spread the honey on the bread and give them to neighbors to ensure the health of both the family and the bees, so the bees will produce even more honey. The rest of the consecrated honey is used as a remedy for mumps, measles, and other illnesses throughout the year.
Honey is a delicious immune-stimulator! It’s rich in many vitamins, including B and C, and has iron, calcium, zinc, and more. Honey acts as an antioxidant, much like fruits and vegetables. Using it regularly will stimulate your body’s organs, helping to improve your physical and mental state.
The herb is native to the mountainous regions of Southern Europe, but you can buy it in the spring at Home Depot and other chains or local flower nurseries. The leaves of the lemon balm are well-known in Bulgaria and used in herbal teas. I have a few plants in my garden because its lemon smell keeps away mosquitoes and other insects.
Ever since ancient times, it’s been used to cure diseases resulting from the nervous system. The plant has a calming effect, it stimulates appetite and digestion, and suppresses nausea and vomiting. In folk medicine, the leaves are used to treat high blood pressure, dizziness, headache, vision problems, and tinnitus. Gargling with water infused with lemon balm also gets rid of bad breath.
Yogurt is an integral part of many Bulgarian meals. It’s served for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When I was a child, my grandmother used to make yogurt with jam and call it “ice cream.” It was a much healthier option than regular ice cream.
It’s good for the digestive system, bones, and teeth, but it also helps strengthen the immune system, fighting disease and helping the body resistant to infection.
Walnuts are rich in vitamin B, vitamin E, fiber, magnesium, iron, and mineral salts. They are also high in calories, so limit them to no more than 42 grams a day. Even walnut leaves are a natural remedy, often used in tea to help prevent atherosclerosis, goiter, and skin problems such as eczema.
Nettle is also a gift from nature that appears in the spring. If you pick it yourself, make sure to wear gloves, because nettle is not a friendly plant; it “bites.” My grandmother used to say that if you pick up nettle with your bare hands, it’ll prevent you from getting arthritis, but I never tried this. You don’t have to go and look for it in fields, though, because you can buy dried nettle online or in your local farmer’s market. You can drink it as a tea or add it to soup. I like to add fresh nettle to cream soup.
Combining walnuts with honey creates an elixir that boosts the immune system, and fights colds, exhaustion, and anemia. The elixir is suitable for children, because it naturally increases the body’s defenses.
You’ll need medium-sized jar, about 24 oz. like the ones used to make jam. Cut a handful of nuts into small pieces. Then peel a medium-sized lemon and cut the fruit into small pieces. Add the nuts and lemon to a half jar of natural honey. Stir the mixture well.
Take 2 or 3 tablespoons once a day.
Tip: Don’t throw away a used lemon after the juice has been squeezed out. You can use it to clean your cutting boards. If you add a little baking soda inside the peel, you can use it to clean pots. It works like magic. I even like to massage my hands with lemon peels and yogurt. It makes them soft and cleans the germs naturally.
Here is one of my favorite desserts using yogurt, walnuts, and honey. If you don’t like walnuts you can omit them.
400 g yogurt
4 Tablespoons honey
50 g walnuts (or other nuts)
Divide yogurt into individual bowls, one per person. Pour honey over it. Sprinkle with the chopped nuts.
Tip: You can bake the nuts for about 5 minutes in a preheated 220 degrees C (about 430 F) oven and then crush them and sprinkle them with milk. The dessert works well if you replace plain yogurt with strained yogurt. It’s best to look at the label and make sure it has Lactobacillus bulgaricus bacteria in it. You can substitute honey with liquid chocolate or your favorite sweet.
The following is an excerpt from my memoir, The Wanderer.
According to Orthodox tradition, every spring before Easter, we ask our relatives for forgiveness. We also call our parents and other relatives in Bulgaria and ask their forgiveness. Even if we haven’t hurt or offended them, we use it as a way to get rid of the negative energy in our lives.
It’s important to differentiate between forgiveness and trusting someone again. Can you forgive a person when he hurt you several times? If you do, does it mean you approve of his actions? Are you giving this person permission to hurt you again? Some people don’t change for the better; they become more self-centered.
You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget.
Forgiveness is an important part of our lives. It’s no wonder Bulgarians, like other Orthodox, have a celebration called Proshka, Forgiveness. On the church calendar, this occurs before the Easter fast begins. The idea is to cleanse not only the body, but also the soul.
Although the church and other rituals were strictly forbidden during the Communist era in Bulgaria, my grandmothers honored them rigorously and taught us children to honor them. Before dinner, we had to kiss their hand and ask for forgiveness from them and our parents. It wasn’t just words; it was a serious matter. I saw the respect and dignity on their faces as we paid our respect.
Afterwards, for my cousins and me, the day was like a party. My grandmother made her delicious round bread, cooked fresh eggs, baked banitsa, and had homemade feta cheese and white halva. When she didn’t have white halva, she used Tahan halva, but they both melted in our mouths. We all waited for the dinner to end so we could make a hamkane.
My grandmother tied a red thread to the end of the dough roller, like a wooden rolling pin. To the other end of the thread, she attached a piece of halva, a piece of cheese, or a hard-boiled egg. We children stood in a circle on the floor or around the table with our hands behind us. We eagerly awaited our grandmother to shake the thread and make the halva dance. Like kids in America playing a donut game or apple dunking, each of us struggled to bite into the halva and get it to stay in our mouths. My brother and my cousins always won.
2020 is a leap year, so we get an extra day this February. People around the world have various customs and beliefs about February 29 and even the entire leap year.
February 29 is the feast day of Saint Cassian, also called “Cassian the Unmerciful.” He was a demonic saint, as contrary as those words seem to be. Some tales say that all his life he sits motionless in a chair, with his eyes downcast, weighed down by eyebrows that reach to his knees. Only on February 29 can he raise his eyes and look at the world. But everything that his evil eye gazes as suddenly withers.
One popular Bulgarian legend says he was a rather lazy saint, who wore rich, fancy clothing and surrounded himself with worldly goods. He was rather miffed that Saint Nicholas had TWO feasts a year, while he, Saint Cassian, had ONE only every four years. He complained to God about it. Instead of an answer, the deity sadly shook his head and summoned Saint Nicholas to appear. The saint arrived out of breath and dragging his feet after having spent that day (and many more) battling the seas so he could protect fishermen and sailors. God glanced at Saint Cassian and pointed to the weary Saint Nicholas, saying, “Need I explain it? This is why Saint Nicholas is honored twice a year, and you only once every four year.” Saint Cassian shrugged, understanding, and accepted his fate.
You may be aware that on Leap Day women can propose to men. The History Channel says this tradition started centuries ago among the Irish Catholics, and a saint was involved in its origins:
“According to legend, in 5th century Ireland, St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to propose. St. Patrick at once remedied the situation with a leap-year loophole. He declared 29 February, occurring every four years during a leap year, a day that women could propose to men.”
This tradition holds true in Bulgaria as well. However, if the man accepts, it’s best to wait until the next year to hold the ceremony. Getting married in a leap year will end in disaster or divorce, or at the very least make the new couple miserable and have all sorts of misunderstandings. (That sounds like the theme of a romance novel.) Likewise, don’t get divorced during a leap year; neither of you will find happiness with another partner for the rest of your lives.
It’s also best not to make a career change during a leap year. It will bring you only unhappiness and produce negative emotions in those you work with.
In a leap year, don’t even think about moving. If you build a new house, it’ll have one problem after another, until you’re poverty-stricken. Or the house may even burn down. You yourself are likely to become ill from living in the house. Don’t sell your old property, either, even if you’re not living there. it could be the start of your financial ruin.
If you were born on February 29, you’re considered lucky and chosen by God, ad will be protected from disasters. However, don’t celebrate your birthday on this day. Do it the day before or the day after. It’s fortunate that name-day celebrations are more popular with Bulgarians, so you can celebrate on that day instead. Here’s hoping your name day doesn’t fall on Saint Cassian’s day. Then you’re out of luck.
You can overcome these obstacles, though, if you wear silver for the year. This metal is believed to drive away evil that can befall you in a leap year. And if you want to secure even more luck during the year, go outside without an umbrella during the first rain of the year. The refreshing water will bring you luck, health, and happiness.