In Bulgaria name days are more important than birthdays, since they define the lifecycle of the entire nation
Anyone spending even a short time in Bulgaria will notice that sometimes the locals start acting strangely. They queue to buy carp. They slaughter lambs. They jump naked into rivers in the coldest of winters. They make queer concoctions. They begin hitting the booze at noon on a workday. And they don't worry about getting fired, because their bosses are drinking along.
Don't be alarmed. It's just Bulgarians celebrating their name days. Of course, birthdays are popular in Bulgaria – but they can't compare to name days. Everyone named after a saint celebrates on that saint's feast day by treating their friends and family. Although the church approves this honouring of the saints, religion is not at the heart of the Bulgarians' name day fever. The simple explanation is that birthdays are a relatively new borrowing from the West, whereas for centuries the name day was a Bulgarian's only personal celebration. This Christian tradition is so firmly rooted in Bulgarian history that even 45 years of Communism could not stamp it out.
A glance at the liturgical calendar reveals a terrifyingly complicated series of name days following closely after each other. Most of them are in the chilly months of December and January. The winter festivities kick off on 6 December, Nikulden, or St Nicholas' Day. Almost every family has a Nikolay, Nikola, Nikoleta or Nikolina, so after the fall of Communism in 1989 the Christian custom of eating fish on this day was very quickly revived. Few Bulgarians, however, bother cooking the traditional fi sh pie of carp stuffed with walnuts, which is then wrapped in pastry and baked in the oven. After 9 December (when it's Ani's turn) and the 20th, when Ognyan and Ignat buy the rounds, Badni vecher, or Christmas Eve, arrives – the name day for Evgeni, Evgeniya, Biser, Bistra and Bozhana.
On Christmas Day itself, feel free to follow the Bulgarian adage Na imen den ne se kani, or name days need no invitations, and make yourself at home at any Mladen, Radomir, Radoslav, Radostin, Hristo or Hristina's celebration dinner. On 27 December, any remaining party-crashing pangs of conscience can go right out of the window: St Stephen's Day is not only for Stefan, but also for Ventsislav, Ventsislava, Stanimir, Stoil, Stanka, Stoyan and Tanya. 1 January is a particularly demanding day. No matter how torturous your New Year's hangover may be, find some aspirin and the strength to call on your friends named Vasil, Vasilka, Veselin, and Veselina to wish them a happy St Basil's Day. And just when you are about to recover, there's St Jordan's Day and St John's Day on 6 and 7 January. Since so many Bulgarians are named Yordan, Ivan, or various derivatives, these days are unoffi cial national holidays.
For the Western churches, 6 January is known as Epiphany, the day when the Magi paid homage to the baby Jesus. For Eastern Orthodox believers, however, Epiphany is the day when St John baptised the adult Jesus in the River Jordan. On this day the clergy throw a cross into icy waters, usually a river or a lake, to bless it and naked men jump after it. The reason for what in effect is a polar swim? They believe that whoever retrieves the cross will be healthy in the coming year.
On 7 January, St John's Day honours not only St John the Baptist himself, but also everyone named Ivan, Ivanka, Vanya, Yoan, Yovko, Zhan or Zhana.
After a 10 day break, the feasts of St Anthony and St Atanas arrive on 17 and 18 January. In the past, Bulgarians believed that St Atanas drove away the cold and brought summer to their lands. Throwing off his fur cloak and donning a silk tunic, the saint jumped on his horse and raced up the mountain shouting: “Winter be gone!”
But before you can enjoy your well-deserved respite, you have to survive the celebration of St Trifon Zarezan. Few Bulgarians are called Trifon, but the Orthodox Church celebrates that saint, who reportedly healed an anti-Christian Roman emperor's daughter, on 1 February. The real holiday of Trifon Zarezan, however, comes a fortnight later. Trifon is considered the patron saint of wine-makers and publicans, and understandably the entire country pays respect to him on 14 February.
Sometimes vineyard owners perform a ritual cutting of the vines, then drink themselves silly with its produce. The tradition is a leftover from the ancient Thracians, who honoured the god Dionysus in this way, but some will propound another story: St Trifon injured his nose while he was cutting the vines. Hence the name “Zarezan” – “cut”. Confusingly, St Trifon Zarezan coincides with Valentine's Day. You can tell pro-Western Bulgarians by their carrying around pink balloons on that day while more traditional folk will simply drink wine.
March is bookended by notable name days, with Marta on the 1st and Blagoveshtenie, or the Annunciation, on the 25th, celebrated by all the Blagovests. While April may appear to be thankfully free of feast days, don't be fooled: the movable name days, whose dates are determined by Easter, usually take place during this time. For the Eastern Orthodox Church, in 2008 the holiday falls on 27 April. Because of this, St Theodor's Day, the name day for all Todors and Todorkas, will be on 15 March and is known as Konski Velikden, or Horse Easter, as villages traditionally celebrate with horse races called kushii.
The Saturday one week before Easter – 19 April in 2008 – is St Lazarus' day. On the following day, known as Tsvetnitsa, or Palm Sunday, almost all of Bulgaria celebrates, since everybody knows somebody named after a plant or flower. The most notable names from the enormous list include Tsvetelina, Zdravka, Yasen, Varban, Yavor, Temenuzhka, and Lily. But just to make sure you don't miss anybody, best to call any Bulgarian friend you may be in doubt about to offer him the traditional name day greeting: ”Da ti e zhivo i zdravo imeto!”, or “May your name live on!”
In terms of popularity, Palm Sunday's nearest name day rival is St. George's Day on 6 May. Bulgarians consider him the patron saint of livestock, shepherds, and the army. Like Trifon Zarezan, St George is the Christian incarnation of a pagan deity, so his celebrations have a clearly pagan flavour. On his day believers are required to eat lamb, so villagers slaughter the animals in their own yards, sometimes having had them blessed in the local church.
11 May, celebrated by people named Kiril and Metodiy, is much more subdued. Not surprising, since these scholarly saints invented the Bulgarian alphabet. This holiday has only been observed since the middle of the 19th Century when Bulgarians adopted Kiril and Metodiy as a symbol of their struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The feast of Saints Konstantin (also known as Kostadin) and Elena falls on 21 May, and the next big holiday is Enyovden, or Midsummer's Day, on 24 June. Bulgarians believe that on this shortest night of the year medicinal herbs are particularly strong and the drinks are on the shrinking group of those named Enyo, Yanko and Yanka. 29 June is a notable double celebration of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as all those who share their names.
July is a bit of a dry spell for name days. Ilinden, or St Elijah's Day, on 20 July is the most popular one, with no thanks to all our friends named Iliya, but rather in honour of the Ilindensko vastanie, or the Ilinden Uprising, in 1903. Bulgarians living in Thrace rose up against their Ottomans rulers – only to be brutally suppressed 10 days later.
15 August celebrates the Uspenie Bogorodichno, or the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, when all those named Maria are obliged to buy rounds “for their health”. The next notable name day is feted primarily in Sofia. While the capital is technically an inanimate object, it nevertheless has its name day on 17 September, the feast of the martyr Sofia and her three daughters Vyara, Nadezhda, and Lyubov, also known as Faith, Hope, and Love.
One month later on 14 October, it is Petko, Pencho, Paraskeva and Petkana's turn to treat. Although everyone calls it Petkovden, or Petko's Day, it is offi cially called the Feast of the Venerable Paraskeva-Petka of Tarnovo. Autumn's most eagerly awaited name day, however, is Dimitrovden, or St Dimitar's Day, on 26 October. In the past, Bulgarians offi cially fi nished their work in the fi elds on this date. While Dimitars and Dimitrinas may not be as numerous as Ivans and Georges, they still manage to pack Bulgaria's restaurants to the rafters with their celebrations.
After this feast day, preparations gradually begin for the coming winter and its plethora of name days. November has only two of note: Archangel's Day on 8 November, when Mihail, Rangel, Angel, and Radko have their moment of glory, followed by St Andre's Day on the 30th.
Confused still? Don't forget that when in Rome, do as the Romans do. If you don't mind acting a little strange yourself, go ahead and join in the Bulgarians' historic name day cycle.
KNOW YOUR NAME DAY
Confusingly, some name days are celebrated twice, according to both the new and the old church calendars (Gregorian vs Julian), and yet others will have several days in any given year. Anyone called Gergana can celebrate on Palm Sunday and then again on St George's Day. Some name days have fixed dates, some don't. If you want to be very precise, and pleasantly surprise your Bulgarian friends, go to a church and buy a copy of the current year's tsurkovno kalendarche.
If you leave the city and head for a nearby monastery on any major holiday, you'll see a bonfire blazing in a meadow. Peeping through the crowd, you can catch a glimpse of a huge kettle boiling away on the open fire. This is the kurban. Borrowed from Arabic, the word means an animal sacrifice that is then cooked and eaten by the community. Bulgarians make sacrificial offerings on St George's Day and Easter, as well as for family celebrations or to honour their patron saint when they have survived a near-death experience. The sacrificial victims (usually lambs, calves, chickens, or fish) can be roasted on a skewer or made into a tasty soup known as kurban-chorba. No one is allowed to have a taste, however, until the priest has blessed it.
A RECIPE FOR RIBNIK
If you're in the mood for a culinary adventure, give ribnik, or fish pie, a try on St Nicholas' Day. You'll need a 1.5 kg carp, 100 g onions, 250 g walnuts, 400 g flour, 200 ml oil, and a bunch of fresh parsley. Mix the flour with cool water and a pinch of salt. Knead the mixture into a dough, and then roll out to a thick sheet. Chop the onion into thin slices and sauté in oil until soft. Remove from the heat and combine with the finely minced parsley, coarsely chopped walnuts, ground black pepper, and salt to taste. Clean and wash the carp, salt it and fill it with the onion and walnut stuffing. Sew the fish up and wrap it in the pastry. Place in a greased dish and bake in a medium-hot oven until the pastry turns golden brown. Serve immediately.