Author: Лена Кирилова

The circle of life

Family customs and rituals

"You are born once and you get married once" – the saying has it. Our ancestors believed that good fortune comes only if you get married and create a strong and solid family. In the traditional society the greatest joy are the children. They come to the world because of the love of the young, with the hope that the family will get bigger, and the kind will be continued, while motherhood strengthens the married woman's position as a full member of the village society. "A house without children should be burned down" – says a popular wisdom, and despite all the difficulties and hardships, the Bulgarian strove to raise large offspring. And although in the patriarchal family there was a preference for the male child, the mother with the same love raised all her children, trying to protect them from evil spirits and misfortunes, to give them the inherited morality and to teach them the unwritten rules of life.

The birth of a child filled life with a string of hopes, but also with concerns about evil spirits and diseases that may come upon the child. This is why during the pregnancy the woman strictly followed certain traditional bans, she carried out ancient magic rituals so that the children are born healthy and beautiful. She was not supposed to walk over a rope, step on spilled water, steal or eat in secret and as a precaution against the evil eye and misfortunes, she had to wear different charm objects like garlic, a blue bead and more. The birth was usually kept secret, and the midwife back then was called "grandmother" and was considered an appointee of the Mother of God. In her honour in January people celebrate the holiday Grandmother's Day (Midwife's day).

Customs and rituals associated with the child aimed at providing their normal growth and prosperity. For protection on the cap of the baby were sewn different "charms" – traditional amulets made of red thread, a blue bead, a clove of garlic, a silver coin and a cross. For health and in honour of the Mother of God – the patron and protector, people prepared and distributed the so called Virgin Mary's round bread. It is believed that in the third night after the child's birth three fairies come and predict his or her fate. In order for them to be benevolent in their predictions, people left a special table for them and the child was dressed in a shirt of his or her parents.

The Holy Christening is the first sacrament that provides people with a guardian angel, affiliates them to Christianity, to their family and origin. The Christian ritual is only part of the whole set of rituals called christening. Particularly important is the choice of a godfather, who is considered as the spiritual mentor of the child and the choice is hereditary with the Bulgarians. Traditionally, he passes the baby to the mother over the doorstep, saying "I took him a Jew, give him back a Christian.”

When the child makes his first steps, a round bread is rolled before him so that he may grow up nimblе and lively. Typically the ritual "proshtapulnik" /making the first steps/ marks the occasion when the baby makes his/her first steps, as well as the day when the little one will choose his/her future profession. The mother kneads fresh round bread, decorated with a relief imprint of the child's foot. On the table, in front of which is laid a long white cloth, different objects are arranged, symbolizing different professions. According to the traditional concepts the first item that the child takes will determine his/her future profession.

People say that the long path starts with the first, small steps ... Step by step, year after year ... From the birth and the first steps to the desire to raise good brood who will work hard, build their own home and make a family ...

The most exciting holiday in everyone's life is the wedding. The preparation for this important day starts very early – with the first embroidered stitches on the future wedding gifts, with the first stolen maiden bunch of flowers, with the first water that the lads symbolically drink, with the first decorated distaff given as a gift. The mothers look carefully at the local dances at gatherings to choose the most eminent maid for their sons. If they like a girl, the boy's parents send matchmakers in the girl's home. The matchmakers are greeted warmly, they rake up the fire in the fireplace because "like the fire burns, the love of the young man to the girl is burning" and then they allegorically explain the reason of their visit – they look for a female for their falcon, or a lost heifer, etc. Usually the hosts also responsd allegorically and evasive – the girl is small, she has no dowry etc., and often return the matchmakers several times for prestige. If they reach a consensus, the both houses start the preparations for the engagement, which is usually a small and a big one. The small engagement gives voice to the mutual agreement of the two families to become related. The fiancee is already "done" with the maiden life, she walks around dressed up in the gifts she received, and her behavior in the period up to the wedding is strictly defined and limited by tradition. The songs that are sung at gatherings in her home express both the joy of the upcoming marriage and the sadness of parting with the maidenly life.

On the day of engagement the relatives on the boy's part, dressed in festive outfits, with bunches of flowers and bags of gifts go to the family of the girl. The gifts for the girl are a string of gold coins, metal jewelry, wine vessel with wine, sprinkled with gold-leaf "Golden" bunch of flowers with a ring attached to it. The rich table, the blessings and the toasts for the future family, many songs and dances create a specific festive atmosphere. The period from engagement to the wedding can be from a few weeks to a year. The actual wedding starts with the sowing, kneading of bread and the preparation of the ritual objects – the wedding banner, the wedding tree, the wedding wreaths.

The banner is at the head of the entire wedding procession. For the making of the banner a rod from a fruit tree is chopped off with a single chop, a scarlet belt, a white cloth or a towel is sewn to it, it is decorated with greenery, there is a string of popcorn on a red thread, and on top of it is placed an apple, painted with a gold-leaf – symbol of love, liveliness and fertility. The girls sing:
„A bright sun has risen,
It was not a bright sun,
It was a red banner”...
The wedding banner is hung in a high place – on the eaves or a tree, so that everyone sees that the wedding has started. There is a special stick prepared for the best man, made of a fruit tree, and decorated with a green apple, popcorn and dried fruits, which is fixed upon several bagels. It is a symbol of the best man and his honorable role in the wedding. During these preparations the bride takes out and arranges to display her entire trousseau, all her needlework and the things she has weaved and prepared alone and which she will take in her future family home. The whole village gathers to see and appreciate her craftsmanship and skills. Widespread are the symbolic rituals of farewell to bachelorhood and girlhood – the plaiting of the bride's hair and the shaving of the groom. When all the invited wedding guests gather, the wedding procession, led by the best man and the brother of the groom, goes to take the bride. On the way, the music, songs, dances and jokes do not stop. All the wishes and whims of the best man are fulfilled. The front door of the bride's house is usually closed and the young man has to pay "ransom" and take down the hung high bachelorette banner. Overcoming more obstacles, the groom's brother enters the room where the bride is kept, already in her wedding gown. Three times the bride takes off and drops to the ground the veil with which the maid of honor covers her head and face. Traditional element of festive clothing are the two shirts – the first one is white, symbol of innocence and purity, and the second one is embroidered with love by the girl, who has weaved in all her thrills, hopes and dreams. One of the ornaments is left unfinished, as the saying has it: "too much beauty attracts the evil eye." The red veil and silver jewellery keep the bride from evil.
Before being taken out, the bride says goodbye to her parents, and the maid of honour throws wheat and small coins over her – for health and fertility. On the way to the church the wedding procession is careful not meet another wedding – this is assumed to be a bad omen. After the wedding the whole procession heads to the home of the groom. The mother-in-law welcomes them with bread, salt, wooden wine vessel with wine, a bowl of honey. The bride enters the house and walks on a white cloth, she carries a lit candle and smears the door with honey – so that her life may be bright and sweet. The well laden table and gifts await all the guests. The songs, dances, the traditional horo dances and fun do not stop until late at night. Early in the morning is the ritual bringing of water by the bride and the taking down of her veil. Veiled by the maid of honour as a married woman, the bride symbolically acquires another social status. The first Saturday after the wedding the newlyweds visit the girl's parents (called "povratki" in Bulg.) and on the following Saturday – they visit the boy's parents (called "ritanitsa"). With these customs after the wedding the whole holiday cycle finishes, with which the validation in a ritual and normative way of a new family in the kinship group and the society is performed.
 wedding photo from 1906         wedding photo from 1925

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