Christian saint unites Bulgarians as few other things do
Small, insignificant, yet packed with tourists in summer but empty in winter, Pomorie changes completely on 6 May. Then, the townsfolk flock to St George's Monastery, on the outskirts of town, to celebrate the feast of its patron saint.
On this day, flowers and greenery, braided into wreaths, adorn the doors and the icons of St George's Monastery. People queue in front of the candelabra and light candles for the health of the living and the salvation of the dead. There are more queues at the table where people scribble on scraps of paper the names of their relatives who should be mentioned in the mass and, in the yard, a line of pilgrims waits for the holy water distributed by one of the monks.
A few metres away the religious feast becomes more... feisty. In huge cauldrons perched over open fires lambs, which have been blessed by the priest and then ritually slaughtered, are being boiled. This is the kurban chorba, a soup prepared and eaten communally on important religious feasts throughout Bulgaria.
Lighting candles is part of the tradition
The St George's Day festivities at the monastery in Pomorie are the norm rather than the exception. Gergyovden, as the feast is known, has been a fixture in the Bulgarian traditional calendar for centuries and has become one of the most popular festivals in Bulgaria.
St George's popularity is only partly based on the heroic legend about the slaughter of the dragon. In the early centuries of Christianity, the saint was welcomed in the Balkans as he was strongly reminiscent of a local deity, the Thracian Rider. The memories for the pagan god gradually faded, but were never completely forgotten. This accounts for the slaughter of the lamb and, until recently, when peasants unwittingly discovered the remains of a Thracian Rider shrine, they would think that the marble plaques depicting heroic-looking horsemen were icons of St George. For this reason, they would build a church over the erstwhile shrine and dedicate it to the saint.
Church-goers getting blessed
St George is also the patron of sheep, livestock and shepherds, and in traditional Bulgarian society, which depended heavily on sheep-breeding and exported meat and wood, this was important. Back in those days, every family was obliged to slaughter a lamb (again, a pagan ritual). The feast of St George was seen, too, as the official beginning of spring and youngsters would pick flowers and green twigs to make a swing and would have a day of fun.
Sacrificial lamb awaits for blessing
In the 1880s, St George's Day enhanced its prestige when it was proclaimed the official feast of bravery, the Bulgarian army and soldiers. This tradition was suppressed during Communism, but after 1989 it was restored and 6 May became an official holiday. In Sofia, it is celebrated with a military parade.
The majority of modern Bulgarians have long lost their connection with farming or the army, but St George's Day is as popular as ever. Indeed, Georgi, or George, is Bulgaria's most popular male name and, along with its derivatives, makes 6 May a day when almost every family celebrates the name day of one or more of its members.
Having some un-Orthodox fun on St George's Day
As a general rule, lamb is eaten and crowds throng the restaurants. Many Bulgarians pay a visit to a church or – even better – to a monastery. With their often spectacular locations, monasteries offer a unique opportunity to combine the sacred and the mundane. After a short visit to the church for some candle-lighting, the pilgrims spend the rest of the day having fun, eating and drinking in the lush greenery in the open air.
St George's Day is not only for Christians. On 6 May, Muslims celebrate Hıdırellez, another spring festival. According to the legend, this is the day when the two wandering prophets, Hızır and Ilyas, met. They too are patrons of livestock and Muslim youngsters spend the feast swinging on cradles. In some mixed religion villages, Christians and Muslims mark 6 May together.
Even the legendary history of St George's Monastery at Pomorie hints at a spirit of unification. According to it, the monastery was established in the 17th Century by an Ottoman lord, Selim Bey, after he discovered on his estate a marble relief of St George and a healing spring. When Selim Bey was cured, he became a Christian, donated all his money and land to the monastery and became its first abbot.
The marble plaque with St George and the healing spring are still at the monastery, although the church was built in 1856 and the clock tower is even later, from 1966.
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.