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I had a very unpleasant experience with what was supposed to be a very merry celebration. My family and I went to the baptism of our cousins’ baby twins. Everything was a complete fiasco.

In the Rozhen monastery

Мy four-member family, the mother with the twins, their uncle, and their grandparents, traveled by cars for at least half an hour up a steep and curvy mountain road in 40˚C heat, during which both babies puked. Eventually, we reached a very beautiful monastery with a very pedantic priest. First he scolded my parents, the godfather and godmother for not having had a religious wedding (religious marriages were forbidden during socialism, most Bulgarians in their age group weren’t married in a church).  Then he scolded the mother for not being able to remember whether she was ever baptized or not (again, she was a child during socialism). As a whole, instead of inspiring us to be better Christians, this priest was reprimanding us.

As soon as the ceremony began, the babies started crying as if someone was beating them. They were choking on their tears, they peed themselves out of fear, they kicked and fought back. Everyone laughed at first, but after thirty minutes passed, we all wanted this to end. The mother got furious (or desperate) and rushed out of the church. The evil priest remained unshaken. He didn’t bother to shorten the ceremony, which lasted more than an hour. He had to completely undress the babies, dip them three times in the baptismal font, make them kiss the bible, draw crosses with ointment on each of their limbs, cut a few hairs in the shape of a cross from their heads, and on, and on. Everyone was nervous and distressed.

I usually treat religion with reservation, but this particular occasion deserves a little bit more.

The mother says that she is openly atheist. She didn’t know what the ceremony really was, so she was shocked when the babies started crying like that, when they had to be undressed, and when the priest started washing them with holy water with his hands.  She said the ceremony was torture for her kids who had never cried like that before. She said that she will “try” eastern religions instead.

Why then did she want to baptize the kids at all? Just in case? Or just because she thought it would be very romantic in that marvelous mountain monastery? Why do something that you don’t really believe in? And why bind your children to something that you don’t believe in? At least she could have waited until they are old enough to make their own choice.

In general, few Bulgarians are true believers. Our skepticism for religion is a leftover from the socialist regime (1944-89), which forbade religion, the “opium of the people.”  Today, Bulgarians go to church, but only on major holidays. We observe the Christian Orthodox traditions, but we accept them as family holidays rather than anything spiritual. Or am I wrong?

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The young mother is leaning on the bed over two sleeping angels. The baby twins look like cherubs with their golden hair and rosy cheeks. The old women, who have come to pay praise to the mother and her children, admire the sight for a few minutes… and then spit on the babies: “Пу, пу!  Да те насерат кокошките!”

Don’t worry, it’s not what it seems!

First of all, it is not real spitting and second, it is meant to be against the evil eye.

According to the Bulgarian superstition, the jealous Devil hears all praises and steals or harms the object of admiration. That’s why when a baby is born, or when a child is exceptionally beautiful, we pretend to be spitting on it and say “may the chickens poop on you” out loud, so that we deceive the Devil. The whole thing in Bulgarian sounds like: “Pu, pu! Da te naserat kokoshkite!”

This constant fear that something wonderful might happen to us, but someone might see it, become jealous, and take it away from us is deeply engrained in the Bulgarian mindset. Since childhood, we are taught not to boast too much and not to trumpet abroad our happiness because someone might jinx us.  Being too beautiful, too healthy, too successful, always comes at a price.

Maybe this strange mindset originates from the 500-year period when Bulgarians were under Ottoman yoke. For 25 generations, Bulgarians had to hide their religion and any fortune from the oppressors. The law was such that if a Christian wore beautiful clothes or rode a horse in front of Muslims, those would be taken away from the Christian.

Often, Ottomans stole the beautiful Bulgarian girls they liked and made them wives in their harem.  Once in a few years, Bulgarians had to pay a “blood tax”: the Ottomans collected the strongest and healthiest young Bulgarian boys, took them to the hearth of the empire, converted them to Islam, made them forget their home and parents, and trained them as the most ferocious among the sultan’s soldiers.  Thus, our people came to believe that everything good and beautiful should be kept hidden. This was their survival tactic.

Today, it is cute superstition.

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