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.