A child is born – Bulgarian folklore rituals performed at childbirth

“Man is born once, gets married once and dies once", a Bulgarian saying goes. The delineation of these three crucial moments in life has given birth to a series of rituals that accompany them. In general, all these rituals have a protective nature, and are called upon to protect people from harm.

It was once believed that the life of the newborn was predetermined at the very birth by the so-called weird sisters – these are mythical creatures in Bulgarian folklore, and also in the folklore of many other nations. They are three sisters different in age and character and residing at the end of the world, where the palace of the Sun is found, Bulgarians used to believe. When a person was born, they arrived to the house through the chimney and hid behind the door. These wise women were invisible and their predictions could be heard only by the child's mother or the midwife who was the main figure in childbirth in the past.According to folk beliefs, these wise women were messengers of God, yet he had no authority over them, nor could He change the fate predetermined by them. Once spoken by the wise women, the fate determined for the earthly time of a newborn remained sealed forever on its forehead. Written with invisible characters, it determined the length of life, profession, family circle, etc. During the first night after the child was born, the wise women were anticipated with great awe. Obligatory rituals were performed near the bed of the young mother to predispose the three sisters.

The father of the newborn was also supposed to perform certain rituals after his child was born. The man went into the woods and left three ring-shaped buns under a tree for the three wise women. Later, a rich table was laden in the house, close to the mother and child. The fire in the hearth was kept burning the whole night, and the room had to be clean and tidy as the wise women approved of order and cleanliness.

A ritual bathing was then performed. The midwife bathed the baby in water in which coins and chicken feathers were placed, objects once believed to bring health upon touching. After the ritual bathing, the midwife dressed the child in a shirt that belonged to its father and put it back into the cradle. Objects believed to have a protective power were placed nearby. Among them were coins, a sickle, a broom, a ploughshare, and harnesses that were part of the weaving loom.Around the wrist of the baby and the mother, a red thread or a martenitsa were tied to keep them from evil. This is practiced to this very day, with red threads being tied around the writsts of babies and even grown-ups. Usually, the dangerous period for the newborn period ended with the church baptism.

In some areas of Bulgaria, it was customary to place different objects around the head of the newborn that would predict its future occupation, another ritual preserved to this day and enjoying a huge popularity. Paper and a pencil would predetrmine a future teaching profession; sewing scissors and a measuring tape – the occupation of a tailor; a bundle of goods and money – the trade of the merchant.
In the past, there was always a round bread and a pot of honey near the newbord – as legend had it, the weird sisters loved sweets. After a sweet meal, they were expected to become more cheerful and as a result, more favorable to the child. In some folk tales, there are stories of how the three women take their spindles and begin to spin. The eldest of them, described as the most wicked and vicious, cut a stretch of yarn with a scissors and its length defined how long the child would live. The eldest sister told the greatest misfortunes. Sometimes the younger sisters, who were kinder and more generous, tried to undo her bad prophecies, adding wonderful talents and abilities to the newborn.

The Bulgarian folk calendar has a special day dedicated to midwives, which is part of the winter festive cycle. Called the Midwives' Day, it is marked on January 8 and also January 21 in certain towns and villages sthat stick to the old calendar. It is a day still observed across the country and popular among modern Bulgarians. Early in the morning, the women with children under the age of three used to go to the home of the midwife, bringing a towel, a soap, a bunch of flowers and money. In turn, the midwife visited the homes of all married women whose children had cried for the first time in her hands, and she brought a bunch of geranium tied with red thread, honey, oil, millet and red wool. At lunch, a rich table was laden at her house where only women were allowed to sit. The only men present at the festivity were the musicians. Yet, they were not allowed to speak – they could only play and sing. Then comes the round dance played again only by women. This is the only day of the year when women have the right to make fun of them and play funny trick on them. The day ended with a ritual bathing of the midwife. Usually, the men used to solemnly carry her to the river and immerse her in the water. Then, they kissed her hand and gave her money, new clothes, and other objects.

Translated by Rossitsa Petcova

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