Fishermen, sailors celebrate their patron saint like nowhere else in Bulgaria
In Western Europe, the 6th of December, or St Nicholas Day, is a time where the first whiff of Christmas gets felt. After all, the saint with his white beard and penchant for bringing gifts to good children is the draft of the modern Santa Claus.
In Bulgaria, St Nicholas Day is equally important although in a different manner. Seen as the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, merchants and bankers, the saint is celebrated by many people who carry the different iterations of the name Nicholas and their families. A particular food is also associated with this day.
The blessing of the fishermen, sailors and their ships is the centrepiece of the feast of St Nicholas in Sozopol
Ironically, the traditional meal for the feast of sea-related St Nicholas is... carp, a freshwater fish. The so-called Nikuldenski sharan, or St Nicholas Day carp, is a culinary monstrosity of carp stuffed with walnuts, wrapped in dough and then baked in an oven. Some Bulgarians admit that they cannot stand it and prefer to celebrate with salmon, bream or mackerel, depending on their budget. Yet, many others swear they have been waiting for a whole year for it.
For a particular group of Bulgarians, however, St Nicholas Day means a lot more more than getting stuffed with stuffed carp. The fishermen of Sozopol, the town at the Black Sea coast, are all too aware on how dependent their livelihood is on the unpredictable and often treacherous sea. For them, St Nicholas Day is the time of the year when they can pray for luck and commemorate all their friends and relatives who have perished at sea.
A signal marks the time wreaths commemorating dead sailors should be tossed at sea
Sozopol's fishermen are a breed of their own. They are famed for being slightly tipsy from early in the morning, eager to tell anecdotes and voice their opinions on politics. They are generous and boastful and, if they like you, will share their meal, their rakiya and their life stories with you.
You rarely see them in summer, when they take to sea before dawn and drink aniseed liquor under the awnings of clandestine taverns known only to the locals. In winter, however, Sozopol is theirs, and the day when they are most visible, friendly and, of course, tipsy is 6 December, the feast of St Nicholas.
In Sozopol, which has relied on fishing and seafaring since its foundation by Greek colonists in the 7th century BC, St Nicholas's Day is a serious affair.
Fishing has been crucial for the livelihood of generations of Sozopol inhabitants
On the morning of 6 December, Sozopol's townsfolk attend Mass in St George's Church, in the old town. The priest blesses wreaths and bunches of flowers dedicated to those who were lost at sea. Then he leads a solemn procession, with the icon of St Nicholas carried by respected citizens, all the way to the harbour. There, the priest blesses the fishermen and the sailors, and all boats, ships and yachts moored in the bay. The flowers are distributed among the boat captains, who then sail out to sea and, at a signal, toss the wreaths away on the waves, a dedication to ll those who lost their lives.
Once this is done, the 6th of December turns on a more festive mode. The seamen come back ashore, where there is drink and of course plenty of fish. They spend the hours until dark feasting, telling stories, remembering dead friends and complaining about the fate of fishermen who are so dependent on the capricious sea.
Visiting Sozopol on the 6 December will provide an opportunity to partake of all of this as the party is open for everyone and everyone is very welcome. Being able to walk the empty streets of the Old Town and take in all that is extremely touristy in high season is a huge bonus.