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St. Nikola, a Bulgarian icon

Today, December 6th, is one of the bigger holidays in Bulgaria: Nikylden, or the Day of St. Nikola Mirlikiiski, or St. Nikola the Miracle-Maker. St. Nikola is the guardian of fishermen, sailors, travelers, tradesmen, and bankers (Who can tell me what the connection between them is ?). Nikola was a historical figure born in 270 BC in Patara (today in Turkey). Legend says he inherited a great fortune from his father but gave it all away to those in need. The saint also performed many miracles that delivered sailors and fishermen safely from sea tempests. According to another legend, he plugged a hole in a ship with a carp fish and thus saved it from sinking!

Nikylden is more than a religious day for the Orthodox Christians; it is also a nameday for all bearers of the name Nikola, Nick, Nikoleta, Kolio, Nikolai, Nicholas, etc; actually, most Bulgarian families celebrate the holiday even if they don’t have a Nick in the family.

Poseidon (Neptune) puts a pagan spin on the celebration of St. Nikola

St. Nikola is also associated with the sea, ocean, rivers, and lakes, and in this sense is similar to the Greek god Poseidon (called Neptune in Roman mythology). Germanic nations also celebrate St. Nicholas’ day, although slightly differently, and even associate this saint with Santa Claus.

In Bulgaria, we eat fish on December 6th – preferably fish with scales like carp or sheat-fish because “naked” fish without scales symbolized poverty. We bake the fish whole and stuff it with walnuts (check out a few typical Bulgarian Nikylden recipes here).

To me and my family, the Nikylden feast is the equivalent of a Thanksgiving Feast because my father is called Nikola and he is a “tradesman”. This means that my house is always full of guests on this day!

Traditionally, you don’t send official invitations for your nameday: you are supposed to prepare a big meal and expect your closest people to show up for dinner by themselves. So you basically never know who is showing up until they do, but you expect your closest relatives, godparents, best man and woman, and good neighbors to pay a visit. They might bring flowers, alcohol, and other presents.  Don’t expect them to leave before 2am.

Stuffed carp - I want to be home right now!

The table is, naturally, very festive! In addition to the stuffed carp, my mother also prepares salmon, shark, scard fish and turbot (eh, probably not all of them every time!). We have a variety of salads and other yummy dishes and lots of wine – Villa Melnik of course!

I’m so angry I missed it again this year, but HAPPY NIKYLDEN, DAD!

The Russian church St. Nicholas the Miracle-Maker in Sofia, Bulgaria

Namedays are very big in Bulgaria, maybe even bigger than birthdays. There are less presents for the person celebrating but more of a communal feel since this day is not a personal celebration, but a celebration of all people who bear the same name, of the saint, and of all the virtues that the saint represents. I love my name, Militza, because it is the name of my great-grandmother and is very rare, but I’ve always been jealous that it is too rare to have a saint or a nameday associated with it! Oh well, I just get to celebrate my birthday and half-birthday!

***

You Might Also Enjoy:

The Newborn Baby and the Naming Dilemma

St. Sophia and Her Daughters: Faith, Hope, and Love

Tsvetnitsa: Name Day for All Flowers

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Today we went to the Preobrazhen monastery near Veliko Turnovo. It is a secluded male Orthodox monastery situated on one side of a deep gorge; on the other side of the abyss, we could see a convent.  Years ago, an earthquake had broken off three huge rocks from the cliffs just above the monastery, but miraculously none of them had damaged the bell tower or the church itself.

The brightly colored paintings on the façade of the cloister represent floral ornaments together with scenes from the Bible. The most famous mural, however, is that of the great Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf, the Wheel of Life.

Wheel of Life, a mural by Zahari Zograf at Preobrazhen Monastery

The composition portrays the months, the seasons, and the cycles of life with its many meanings and symbolical layers. The outer layer shows the material possessions one aims for: the man on top of the wheel is holding a scepter and a bag of golden coins, but drops them as he moves closer to death. The inner layer represents the true virtues that one should aim for in life: to educate oneself and to work hard, so that in the end, one can gladly sit down and enjoy the old age. What do you think the woman in the middle represents? What about the two figures on both sides of the wheels?

The significance of monasteries, I explained to Oriana, is more than religious. During the liberation movement against the Ottoman Empire, these were safety havens where monk-revolutionaries hid the rebels and pointed them to secret passages leading to the mountains. The monks also preserved the Bulgarian literary and cultural heritage and helped spread it during the time when the Ottomans were suppressing it. Lastly, monasteries are holy places with special energy to which even earthquakes bow down.

The Preobrazhen Monastery was built by the great Bulgarian architect Kolio Ficheto

 

The monastery was spared by an earthquake, which caused three huge rocks to fall in the garden, just meters away from this building


On Sunday, I went to a fabulous Bulgarian-English wedding at the St. Nedelya church in Sofia. I want to tell you more about the mother of the bride because she is an exceptional woman!

She is married to an Englishman, and they have lived in London forever, yet their two children (the bride and her brother) were baptized as Orthodox Christians instead of Anglicans like the father.

This Bulgarian woman has taught her children such love and respect for their roots that the bride decided to marry in Sofia, in an Orthodox church, despite the fact that her groom and his family (and her own family on the English side) are Anglican! Thus, the groom, his parents, and all of their British guests, including some guests from Brunei, had come to our St. Nedelya church for the ceremony! To make everything perfect, they baptized their little baby boy as an Orthodox Christian too!

The wedding ceremony in the beautifully painted church was lead by two priests: one to perform the ritual, and one to sing accompanied by the choir. Then, all the guests, mostly British and a few Bulgarians, went out of the church and reentered a few minutes later for the second ceremony, the baby’s baptism. The baby started to laugh as its feet touched the water basin!

Next, we all headed for the Sheraton, Sofia’s oldest and most renowned hotel. The menu was only typical Bulgarian cuisine presented in a gourmet way. The entertainment was splendid too: four dancers in national garments and a folklore singer and bagpiper kept both the foreign and local guests in good spirits all night long. The Brits picked up our rhythms surprisingly fast!

Wearing the crowns during the wedding ceremony in St. Nedelya church in Sofia

This was a wonderful transnational interreligious wedding, and it was all made possible thanks to the vigor of that incredible Bulgarian mother of the bride who not only preserved her national sprit in the foreign land, but also continued it through her children and grandchildren.

***

Read more about traditional Bulgarian wedding rituals 

or about a rather upsetting baptism ceremony in an Orthodox monastery.

***

Gourmet Bulgarian appetizers: lukanka, shopska salad, snezhanka salad, kashkaval, kyopulu, grape leaf sarmi

Traditional breaking of the bread: whoever breaks the bigger part off the bread will be the leader in the home. These are two couples: the newlyweds and the bride's recently married brother and sister-in-law.

I uploaded these videos from the party at the Sheraton Hotel. I think it’s obvious who are the Brits and who the Bulgarians! Enjoy!


Interesting facts you will learn from this video:

  • Sofia (at that time called Serdika) is 1700 years older than Brussels.
  • Emperor Constantine the Great was considering Sofia for the capital of the Byzantine Empire, but eventually chose Constantinople. He said “Serdika is my Rome”.
  • The oldest functioning church in Europe is St. George’s Rotunda (326 AD). It is right next to the Bulgarian presidency.
  • In the 4th century, Serdika was the spiritual capital of the Christian world.
  • The Boyana Church frescoes are considered to be the portents of the European Renaissance.
  • At the age of 28, the Bulgarian architect Petko Momchilov won a competition against Gustave Eiffel.
  • The Square of Tolerance is a unique place in Sofia: within less than 300 meters, you can see temples from the world’s four major religions: a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral, and an orthodox church.
  • More steel was used for the construction of the National Palace of Culture than for the Eiffel Tower. The building was erected for the commemoration of 1300 anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian state.
  • Sofia’s motto is “Grows But Does Not Age.”

Today, September 17, Eastern Orthodox Christians commemorate the day of the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (in Greek, Pistis, Elpis, and Agape; in Bulgarian, Vyara, Nadezhda, and Lyubov).

Sophia was a pious woman who lived in Rome under Emperor Adrian (Hadrian), in the first century AD. She had named her daughters after the main Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love.

When Emperor Adrian found out that the family openly observed Christianity, he ordered them to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. When they refused, the emperor ordered that the young girls, age 12, 10, and 9, be tortured until they rejected Christ.  The girls were killed in the name of their religion and became martyrs. After Sophia buried them, she prayed for three days by their graves and finally died herself, believing she would join them in Heaven.

In our culture, this day is the “name day” of those who bear the names Sofia, Vyara, Nadezhda, or Lyubov, and they receive guests at home.  All Bulgarians celebrate, so that their families are healthy, happy, and filled with love.

Today, we also celebrate the holiday of our capital, Sofia. We have chosen this day to honor our city, although Sofia was not named after the martyr Sophia. In fact, the name of our capital signifies Wisdom. In Greek, Aghia Sophia means the Divine Wisdom of God.

So today, I want to tell my mother, Lyubka, that to me, she signifies All the Love in the World.

Честит празник, мамо!


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?


After taking belly-dancing for  a whole semester, it would be a shame not to tell you about a unique Bulgarian dancing ritual, nestinarstvo.

Nestinarstvo is dancing on living coals with bare feet.

This old ritual dates back to pagan times. It is part of the celebration of the day of Saints Konstantin and Elena (the Roman emperor who proclaimed Christianity to be one of the Empire’s official religions and his mother), June 3rd.

In old times, in the morning of that day, the whole village walks in a procession to the nearby river, where the nestinar dancers with consecrate Konstantin and Elena’s icon. The village sets up a huge fire on the main plaza and celebrates during the whole day. By nightfall, only the living coals remain. Then, the nestinary fall into trance. With the icon in hands, they start dancing barefoot on the hot coals under the rhythm of drums. Sometimes, the nestinari (male) and nestinarki (female) speak like prophets. On the next morning, their feet have no signs of burns.

In Bulgaria, the nestinari ritual is typical only for the region of Strandja mountain. Today, the ceremony is still kept only in one village, Bulgari. In other places it is only a tourist attraction.

Surprisingly, other cultures that are very distant from ours have similar practices: some shamans in North Africa and the Far East also dance on fire.

***

Read about other Bulgarian traditions in my blog.


The Bulgarian alphabet is a Cyrillic alphabet and, since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, the third official alphabet in the European Union. You can find Cyrillic letters on the euro bills side by side with the Latin and the Greek letters.

Cyril and Methodius holding a scroll with the Bulgarian alphabet. A mural by the Bulgarian icon-painter Zahari Zograf

Most Slavic nations use the Cyrillic alphabet: Belarusian, Bulgarian, Russian, Serb, Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Ukrainian. Some non-Slavic nations also use it: Moldovan, Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Mongolian, the people of the Caucasus and Siberia. It is also the official alphabet of the Church Slavonic language of the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Church.

The Cyrillic alphabet is a simplified version of the Glagolitic alphabet. The Glagolitic alphabet was created under the orders of the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church to be spread among the Slavic peoples, as an antidote to the Latin alphabet and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Glagolitic alphabet was created by the scholars Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers born in Thessaloniki. In the 890s, after a few years of persecution from the Germanic clergy and the Pope, the brothers’ disciples found asylum in Bulgaria. They created the Cyrillic alphabet in order to aid their new patron, tzar Boris I, in spreading Christianity among his people. Read more about Boris I, the ruler who Christianized Bulgaria and enlarged it greatly.

Cyrillic script

The literary school of the Bulgarian Empire was very prolific. Volumes and volumes in Old Bulgarian language using the Cyrillic letters were spread across Eastern Europe, thus spreading literacy and knowledge among the Slavic nations.  Today, the Church Slavonic resembles Old Bulgarian, but the Cyrillic alphabet used in different countries has adapted to fit the needs of the ever-changing local spoken languages.

We Bulgarians believe that our language and the Cyrillic alphabet are at least in part our legacy to the world (I have to say in part in order to avoid criticism from overly patriotic Bulgarians as well as criticism from opponents of the historical evidence).

On May 24th, we celebrate the Slavic alphabet!


I’m very homesick right now! My family and my aunt’s family are going to our villa in the quaint village of Kapatovo in the Melnik region for the Easter weekend. The garden must be covered in blue spring flowers. The sun will be warm and the breeze will be cool. Spring is the loveliest season  there!

Although the Orthodox tradition calls for red eggs, we decorate them in every way possible!

According to the tradition, my mother and my aunt will paint the eggs on Saturday. We prepare hard boiled eggs and color them in special paints. We make them red, green, blue, orange, and yellow. We use cotton to make the colors gradate. We also use candle wax to draw on the hot eggs and make beautiful imprints. We paint the outlines of leaves with different shapes on the eggs.

On Sunday, everyone will be “dueling” with the eggs:  One person holds the egg with the sharp end down and hits the other person’s egg, which is with the blunt end up. The egg whose shell breaks loses and is eaten. The egg that wins continues to duel other eggs. In the end, there is one champion egg. (When we were kids, my brother and I once found a duck egg, which was bigger and stronger than any chicken’s egg, so we became the ultimate champions!)

In the Orthodox tradition, the red eggs symbolize Christ’s blood. One red egg has to be put aside and kept for the whole year. During the following Easter, the family would open the egg. If it is rotten, the year’s harvest will be poor. But if the egg is still good (and it usually is!), the year will be good, and the house will be full of happiness and prosperity.

Making the kozunak requires a lot of time and effort. My granmother prepares it with raisins and lokum!

The feast in Kapatovo on Sunday will be delicious: All morning, my mother and aunt will be roasting the lamb. My grandmother will prepare rice with pieces of liver. She will also make the salad: green salad with lettuce, cucumbers, green onions, radishes in thin slices and slices of hardboiled eggs on top, and she will crush the lettuce, which always makes it soft and releases its juice. The green salad is very important: it symbolizes spring and the first fresh vegetables and fruit that have been harvested this year.  Finally, my grandmother will make the kozunak: the traditional Easter sweet bread with walnuts, raisins, marmalade, and lokum.

My father will pour our family wine in everyone’s glasses and all will be merry!

I wish I could be with all of you! I love you and have a wonderful Easter!


Gorgeous traditional Bulgarian head decoration, ornamented with flowers and golden coins

Today is Tsvetnitsa (Цветница, from tsvete = flower)! Today Bulgarians who have the names of flowers celebrate!

Bozhura, Violeta, Dalia, Dafina, Elitsa, Jasmina, Zdravko, Kamelia, Kalina, Liliana, Margarita, Malina, Nevena, Ralitza, Roza, Tsveta, Yavor, Yagoda, happy name day to you all!

Bulgarians are lucky to have not only birthdays, but also name days! A name day is usually the holiday of a saint, and everyone with this name celebrates. For example, Valentin, Valentina, and Valio ought to celebrate on February 14th! They would prepare dinner or at least offer some rakia and salad to every guest that comes to their house. No invitations are necessary because everyone knows the dates of major name days. No presents are expected either, only flowers for the ladies, because all you need on this bright day is good food and good company.

The popular celebration of Tsvetnitsa of course has a religious origin. Tsvetnitsa is a Christian holiday (Palm Sunday in Catholicism) that marks the entry of Jesus in Jerusalem. It is celebrated on the Sunday before Easter. It takes place during Lent but people usually prepare fish.

Another name for Tsvetnitsa is Vrubnitsa (Връбница, from vurba = willow tree). According to the tradition, we bring willow tree branches that were sanctified in the church, twine a wreath from them,  and hang it on the front door of our home. The willow branch symbolizes the palm leaves with which the people of Jerusalem welcomed Jesus and bring health and good luck to the house.

Take a look at this wonderful blog post on Tsvetnitsa-Vrubnitsa from Mystagogy.  And read my other posts on Bulgarian traditions!

What makes you proud of your Name?


If you are in love, celebrate St. Valentine's day. If you are in love with wine, celebrate Trifon Zarezan's Day on Feb 14th (Feb 1st, new style)

You are either very happy or very miserable on Valentine’s Day; there seems to be no middle position.  For most people.

Bulgarians have found a simple solution to this problem of the extreme emotions. We celebrate two holidays on February 14th, St. Valentine’s and St. Trifon Zarezan!

On the day of St. Trifon Zarezan, the guardian of vine-growers, we celebrate our love for wine! According to the old custom, this is the day when you prune the old twigs of the vine, so that it can sprout anew in the spring. This is an old ritual for vitality and fertility. Vine-growers, gardeners, winemakers, tavern-keepers, bartenders, and men called Trifon have a special day.  Together with them, we all feast and drink wine.

Actors dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothing demonstrate how to prune the vines in preparation for the spring

So, if your loved one is with you, celebrate St. Valentine’s! If not, get on some good wine and forget about love!  Different saints for your different desires!

(The Catholic St. Valentine’s Day was not very popular in Eastern Europe before Western pop culture introduced the holiday. Today, shop windows’ decorations, love-themed events, and the general obsession with chocolate, red roses, and pink hearts testify that Bulgarians, as most other peoples, prefer to be drunk on love, not wine.)

You can learn more about the folklore aspect of Trifon Zarezan from this article: http://www.balkanfolk.com/news.php?id=94

Read more about other wonderful Bulgarian traditions, Martenitzi and Kukeri Processions.

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