by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bulgarians celebrate on 6 May because of... ideology

st george day bulgaria

Bulgarians celebrate St George's Day, or Gergyovden, with enormous enthusiasm, both officially and in private. A bank holiday dedicated to valour, the Bulgarian аrmy and shepherds, 6 May is when some priests bless military banners while others in churches and monasteries consecrate lambs to be slaughtered and eaten communally. The army stages a parade in central Sofia and Bulgarian families gather to feast on lamb and celebrate the name-day of the ubiquitous Georgis and Gerganas among their ranks, all named after St George.

For Bulgarians, Gergyovden is central to national identity, and this is not only because of the connection to the heroic legend of the slaying of the dragon and the bravery of Bulgarian soldiers. St George is also the patron of sheep, livestock and shepherds. In traditional Bulgarian society, which depended heavily on sheep-breeding and exporting meat and wool, this was important. The feast of St George was also seen as the official beginning of spring and the farming year. Young people would pick flowers and green twigs to make a swing and enjoy a day of fun. Even Muslim communities celebrated the day. They call it Hıdırellez, so named after two wandering prophets who, too, are patrons of livestock. In some mixed religion villages, Christians and Muslims still celebrate together.

st george day bulgaria

When the Bulgarian state was restored, in 1878, the importance of St George's Day was enhanced when it was proclaimed the official feast day of bravery, and of the Bulgarian army and its soldiers.

After 1944, Communism changed not only the way Bulgarians celebrated the feast, but also its date and name. To erase all traces of older traditions, particularly religious ones, the Communist authorities imposed secular meanings on feast days. Knowingly or unknowingly, they repeated what early Christians had done in the 4th century when they established themselves: they adopted the dates of older pagan feasts into their own religious calendar to make conversion easier and more palatable. In the 20th century, it was time for old Christian high days to get a Communist makeover. St Trifon's Day, a traditional feast of wine and winemaking, for example, became Vintners Day. St George's Day, understandably, became Shepherds Day. As the Bulgarian army under Communism was subservient to the Soviets in all but name, the connection to St George's Day was severed.

sacrificial lamb

Sacrificial lamb

The Communists also changed the date of Gergyovden. To understand how and why this happened, we need to go back to 1916, when Bulgaria adopted the Gregorian calendar and in a single night went from 31 March to 14 April. This calendar reform resulted in non-moveable religious feasts changing their dates accordingly. For example, St Trifon's Day moved from 1 February to 14 February, St George's Day went from 23 April to 6 May, and Christmas skipped from 25 December to 7 January.

However, in 1967, the Holy Synod, the main governing body of the East Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, decided that non-moveable feasts, such as Christmas, St Trifon's Day and St George's Day, should be celebrated on their traditional dates. This was duly done with Christmas and St Trifon's Day, but St George's Day faced a problem. The Communist authorities worried that if the religious holiday returned to 23 April, most Bulgarians would celebrate their namedays then, rather than on the officially sanctioned date, 6 May. A second centre of power would be created in society and who could say what might happen next...

st george day bulgaria

According to some sources, the director of the Holy Synod publishing house solved the problem in a rather ingenious way. When the new Church calendar was updated and published, he "forgot" to change the date of St George's Day from 6 May to 23 April. Probably fearing repercussions, the Holy Synod decided not to make a fuss about this, and so St George's Day stayed on 6 May.

When Communism collapsed, St George's Day was restored to its former glory. Bulgaria is no longer a major producer and exporter of lamb and most Bulgarians live in cities, so the day now has a stronger association with the army. Probably because of inertia, it was never moved back to 23 April.

All things considered, the Communist authorities should not have worried too much about Bulgarians celebrating an unofficial 23 April Gergyovden rather than the official 6 May one. As practice has shown, this nation is all too happy to celebrate St Trifon's Day twice, on 1 and 14 February, a double excuse for partying. The more occasions to have fun, the better, and what could be better when spring is in full bloom than sitting with friends and family and feasting on lamb, twice? 

st george day bulgaria



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