Blagovets – The Annunciation – 25th March
Bulgarian peasants say “The 25th March is the Blagostina; it is only a little Feast of the Church, but it is a great Feast day for all Nature, for then even the swallows and the bees cease from labour: all Nature reposes and makes ready for the birth of Spring; so it is a great festival, for it is that of the new-born Spring and of Serpents.”
On this day the peasants do nothing – not even going out shooting – and dare not take off their charreks or sandals, for it is the Feast of Serpents, who then come out of their holes, and any one who thus profaned their Sabbath would be sure to be bitten by them in the course of the year. In the evening large bonfires are lit, and the young people dance round one of them to the sound of the bagpipe, whilst the married women spin around a second, and the married men get drunk around a third. Taking into consideration these ceremonies and the belief that the Blagostina is the Feast of reviving Nature consecrated by the repose of all animated beings, and remembering that the great Slavonic Festivals of Paganism corresponded in date with the solstices and equinoxes, we see that it is neither Constantine the Great nor the fried fish of Constantine Palaiologos that the Bulgarians commemorate. but a tradition of Slavonic Pantheism.
So we find thus certain feasts of pagan origin, and accompanied by rites which are certainly not those of the Church; but owing to the great number of ecclesiastical festivals, heathen and Christian anniversaries often coincide in date and produce a singular mixture of observances taken from the old and the new religions.
The Christian feast of the Annunciation, the day when Archangel Gabrielle enunciated to the Virgin Mary she was going to give birth to God’s son, has its traditional interpretation in Bulgarian folklore. The name of the traditional folk feast is Blagovets, which literally translated into English means “the day of gladdening news”. From amongst a variety of spring folk rituals and festivals, spread over the period of March-May, the Annunciation, falling on March 25th, stands closest to the astronomic arrival of spring.
What are the specific characteristics of the Annunciation, or Blagovets in Bulgarian?
The Annunciation is held so highly in popular esteem that it is after called “Half Easter”. Folk belief has it that the true spring rejuvenation sets on the day of the Annunciation. Migratory birds return on that day, bears wake up from their winter slumber, the reptiles emerge from their lairs. The mythical wood-nymphs, who winter at world’s end, come back too. The Bulgarians welcome them – with songs ,exorcisms and rituals. The delight at Nature’s arousal intertwines with fear at re-emerging dangers.
Main rituals on the Annunciation day are related to snakes. Accounting for the contradictory responses which they provoke, rituals tend to be equally contradictory. Some of them laud snakes as the guardians of the home and hence a bowlful of milk would be left for them on the house threshold. And yet a stern ritual ban would be observed to refrain from touching a needle on that particular day in order to preclude being bitten by a snake in summertime. And yet you can come upon a ritual which is meant to chase snakes and lizards away from the home. People literally make a party of noisy clanging, rattling, clanking, jingling of iron objects, all seasoned with relevant exorcisms. This is a ritualised chase, where fire-tongs and pokers are used, as objects associated with the hearth, the symbol of home and family. Thus the ritual goes back to where it originally started, i.e. to the concept of the snake as the home guardian, and in fact the magic circle is closed, as in the image of a snake sinking its teeth into its tail, the symbol of eternal rotation.
In the exorcisms we discover the concept of the link between snake and earth, and from there- with fertility. According to popular belief the “snake” has an intimate knowledge of curative plants and the language of animals. And this knowledge may be imparted to man exactly on Annunciation day. According to folk mythology if a man sews on Annunciation day some basil seeds together with the head of the snake, the germinating plant will transmit healing powers to the person.
They say Blagovets/Annunciation is specifically propitious for sewing and planting. Flowers sewn or planted on Annunciation are said to grow up particularly aromatic, saplings – fruitful, and string beans -the sweetest. There is still another belief and it is that the Annunciation day is particularly decisive where the welfare during the year is concerned. That is why custom has it that on Annunciation day anyone walking out of the house should carry on himself a piece of bread and a coin so that he should be well-fed and well-off during the year. And should that man hear the call of the cuckoo he should rest assured that his hopes will come true.
Cuckoos are the second underlying theme in the festive rituals on the day. This can be heard in maidens’ ritual songs, sung solely on Annunciation. In terms of response, the cuckoo is ,too, welcomed with mixed feelings. The cuckoo warns, according to traditional superstition, that the mythical wood-nymphs and bad fairies have returned to the woods, rivers and meadows. Beautiful or fearsome, these invisible creatures can carry away and take people prisoners, if they dare trespass into their secluded spots or simply walk out in the open during their own mysterious “treacherous”” times – in the middle of the night and just before daybreak. That is why maidens would be forbidden to go out very early in the morning on that day.
However, cuckoos enunciate that spring has arrived – and this is the folk “gladdening news” in the Bulgarian traditional version of the Annunciation.
The Name Day of everyone named Blagovest, Blagovestà, Blagovesta, Blagoy, Blaga, Vangel, Evangelina, Bonka.
Ritual table: fish (baked or boiled), flat cake, onion pastry.
The feast is also known under the name of Blagovshtene, Blagovets, Blagoets – in English: ANNUNCIATION, or LADY DAY. In the traditional conceptions this day is associated with the arrival of the migratory birds and with the final springtime awakening of Nature. After Blagoveshtenie, everyone takes care to come out of one’s house well-fed and with some money in his/her pocket, so that should a cuckoo sing a song to him, he will be well-fed and have money throughout the year. It is believed that if someone should first see a stork that is not flying but is lying or walking, some ill will befall him. When a maiden or an unmarried young man first sees a cuckoo, she/he ties three times an empty cloth, places it on the roof and three days later makes prophesies about the spouse she or he is to get.
On this day, acts are performed associated with the folk etymology of the name of the holiday. Vegetables are planted and fruit trees are grafted so that they might be “sweet”; fruit trees that do not bear fruit are “frightened”; lambs and kids are branded, because it is believed that the marking would then give them less pain. Apiculturists open the beehives and let the bees out to collect sweet honey. The ears of small girls are pierced for earrings. It is believed that on Blagoveshtenie even the strongest poison loses its power.
According to beliefs wood nymphs begin their games on this day. Owing to the belief that snakes and lizards wake up on this day and get out of their dens, rituals are performed of a protective and reptile-repulsive power. Before sunrise, women sweep clean the houses, light a fire at one or at three places or in all corners of the courtyard and place cattle manure in the fires to smoke and drive away the reptiles. Children and grown-ups strike tins and bells and make a round of the courtyard and the house, running. These acts are accompanied by a special incantation: “Run away snakes and lizards, today is Lady Day”, or “Run away, snakes, Lady Day will fall on top of you”, and the like.
Children and young people jump over the lit fire, whereby the young men slightly singe their feet, so that no snakes might bite them during the summer. With the aim of gaining protection again, women do not sew – “so that snakes may not riddle them”; they do not make bread, “for a snake may roll up in it”.
In Western Bulgaria, starting from the morning on Lady Day, maidens make rounds of the village singing special songs for Annunciation. Blagoveshtenie is a major Christian Church holiday, reaffirmed during the 7th century. According to the Holy Script, on that day, nine months before the birth of Jesus Christ, Archangel Gabriel came to the Holy Virgin. He told her that she would become the mother of the Son of God. That sweet news also gave the name of the holiday in Bulgarian – Blagoveshtenie (meaning “Sweet News”).
To meet the summer clean and tidy people sweep their yards and their houses before Blagovetz, and the garbage is always burnt in order to burn the illnesses of the year. On Blagovetz women sow pumpkins so they will become white and mellow, while the silk-worm breeders put silk-worm eggs in their bosoms and watch that the weather on this day is good so that the year will be rich and the silk produced will be good. People open the bee hives and let the bees out to collect sweet honey.
On Blagovetz people meet the storks and the swallows. This is also a festive day for the children who, on seeing a bird, cry merrily at the sky: “Stork, motley and long-legged, bring me health with hellebore!” Maidens for whom it is time to get married, on seeing a swallow, are quick to tie three knots on their kerchiefs and pronounce with hope: “Swallow, my dear sister, give me a sign what man will take me!” They put the kerchief on top of the oven to stay there for three days and three nights, after which they take it in their hands and start divining: If they notice mud on the cloth – the bridegroom will be a builder, if they find a scrap of paper – he will be a teacher… Everybody on this day, before hearing the song of the cuckoo, tries to be well fed, to have money in the pocket and a good feeling at heart, in order to be content, rich and joyful during the year. Blagovetz is also celebrated by the treasure- hunters. It is believed that at places where there is money buried in the ground, late in the night before Blagovetz the coins emanate a blue glow above the earth. That is why from midnight until the first crow of the rooster treasure-hunters visit mounds, dry wells and deserted places, hoping to see the glow which will give them riches.
Youth, flowers, love and a new beginning, this is how we could describe in brief the season of spring. This longingly anticipated and deeply cherished season has been since time immemorial been welcomes with a string of traditional customs and rituals. The practice has been pursued down the ages in the strong belief that by cleansing themselves, their homesteads and farming fields, the Bulgarians would thus open up more room for what is good and which comes with the awakening of nature. Here’s more on traditional folk concepts of spring.
Although the month of March would be considered the most unpredictable month in the year, often bringing on snow drifts and biting colds, our forefathers used to fete its first day as a turning point in the seasonal cycle. They used to believe this was Granny Martha’s day. Women would start bustling about the home even before first daylight; they would then take out all clothes and bed covers to be aired. Traditionally a red-coloured item of clothing was considered a must among the clothes spread out on the fence. They trusted this would entice Martha to bring good weather. Then the first spring bonfire would be stoked to burn to ashes all useless things. Youngsters would then be expected to go merry-making, taking bold leaps over the fire, ritualistically honouring a tradition for health and prosperity.
In certain parts of the country they would fashion, further to the red and white combination of threaded tassels, called martenitsa, tiny swallows, out of the hazel bush. There is a fascinating legend about the swallow, a symbol of spring in Bulgarian folk mythology. In times long past the swallow was a bride, who was so intensely shy, that she never dared utter a word to her mother and father-in- law for the whole of three years. There had been that strictly observed tradition which compelled young brides to manifest their deep respect for the new in-laws by keeping mum for up to 4o days. The bride, we mentioned earlier, paid dearly for her shyness. Misjudging her for a mute the groom’s parents found him another wife. However, before the second bride ever managed to put on the bridal attire, the shy bride spoke up for the first time and then flew off up the chimney. The father-in-law tried to prevent her from doing so, reaching out to catch her dress and eventually found out he had only a measure of braiding left in his hand. This accounts for the swallow’s tail being split in two. Legend has it that after this sad story young brides stopped keeping dumb and mute in front of in-laws and the swallow became the symbol of renewal. Superstition has it that wherever there is a swallow’s nest life is lucky and plentiful.
The Bulgarians would resort to the cleansing power of fire on 25 March, Annunciation day. The church feast of the Annunciation is only but one instance of popular orthodoxy or orthodox paganism. The day, when the Virgin Mary received the glad hews, the Patriarchal community had set aside for chasing awa7y a major evil- reptiles. They would on the day make a round of the village households, rapping, clanking and rattling metal pieces enunciating: “ Go away snakes and lizards, Annunciation is on its way”. The villagers would further stoke up bonfires to symbolically burn what was bad in their hearts and thus cleansed open the way to the new good. The Bulgarians would expect the cuckoo to make its first call on Annunciation day. Some folk songs say that the cuckoo warned of the arrival of bad wood nymphs. Traditionally one is expected to have a piece of bread and a coin on themselves when they hear the first cuckoo call in order to be well-off and well-fed down the year. Fairy tales and legends say that the cuckoo used to be a maiden in her time. She and her brother never stopped fighting and were eventually turned into an owl and a cuckoo, one to be the lord of night, the other the lady of day, seeking to meet each other but failing to do cuckoo.
Students of tradition describe all rituals relative to a new beginning, or a first act, initial magic. Similar rituals abound in the spring cycle. One of them happens to be turning the first sod and first spring ploughing. The lady of the house would consecrate the plough with a fire ritual before her husband set out to plough the fields. Husband and wife would then break a ritual loaf of bread over the furrows, pour some wine and light a candle.
Love and youth are extolled in folk songs through the symbolism of flowers. A curious fact is that in times past the girl would be the first to approach her beloved to present him with a posy of flowers, picked in her own garden. The skill to cultivate flowers was appreciated as much as any other female skill. The symbolic language of herbs and flowers is as plentiful as themselves.
The cuckoo is calling!
Popular tradition prescribes that the cuckoo, the swallow and the stork are the three messenger birds of this nation. According to popular concept they appear on Annunciation day, 25 March, (the Day of the glad news in the layman’s tongue). Different folk myths and superstitions are attached to either bird. And yet the cuckoo seems to have attracted greatest appreciation and has, accordingly, been most extolled in folk songs.
They say the cuckoo can be heard calling only from Annunciation Day down to Enyu’s Day, which falls towards the end of June. Once the cuckoo has called, there’ll be no more snowing, nor winter colds, according to popular experience. Popular belief holds that the cuckoo’s call is the genuine herald of emerging spring. Being a woodland bird, the cuckoo is first and foremost linked to the woods coming into leaf. And yet, the cuckoo is also linked to the new farming season. Popular superstition has it that anyone hearing for the first time in the season a cuckoo calling, they would best be with a full stomach and some money on themselves so that they would enjoy a full and prosperous year.
In past times the cuckoo would be regarded as the harbinger of love. The maidens would hear promises in its calling, promises that they would meet their future husband or that they would get married during the year. That is why the maidens would search out the branch the cuckoo would be perched on. They would break off the small branch or just a twig to take away with them to help everything come true. There is that folk song which speaks about a lad, hearing the cuckoo’s call. His heart flutters in anxiety for he doesn’t know whether the cuckoo would be bringing a piece of glad news or bad news. His mother brings piece to his mind by telling him that he would, before long, be asking for the hand of the prettiest lass in the village. In another song we find the cuckoo “ making common cause” with the honey-voiced nightingale, who tells her everything about the passionate love of two young people. The cuckoo brings the boy’s mother up to date and tips her to begin to put things together for her son’s upcoming marriage. Such love stories coming from a cuckoo sound out of turn for, according to other popular beliefs, the cuckoo is the symbol of the lonely female, unmarried or widowed. This belief springs from the knowledge that cuckoos never build their own nest. They lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and leave them there to be hatched. Folk myths have it that this was a curse from the Mother of God because the cuckoo once woke her sleeping Son.
In times of old a cuckoo’s call would be a sign for the rebels too. Mountain hillsides and woodlands would welcome them from springtime to petering-out autumn. A rebel song tells about a rebel by the name of Stoyan invited by a cuckoo to bring together his rebel mates and unfurl the standard of freedom high up in the mountains. The cuckoo is believed to be capable of healing rebels’ wounds. This could be one way of indicating that the rebel can be very lonely roaming the mountains with no one around to help them if needed. This could be a way of asserting that a cuckoo’s spit could be medicinal and could cure gunshot wounds. One way or other, there is that folk song that claims that a cuckoo brings a bullet out of a rebel’s wound, makes a bandage out of its wings and spits a healing salve into the festering wound. There are such mushrooms in Bulgaria that grow on trees and are called cuckoos. They’re said to be highly curative too. The iris flower is popularly called cuckoo’s tears and is believed to be a most enchanting maiden flower. If a lad takes away a girl’s posy of irises he is bound to fall head over heels in love with the girl.