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Bulgarian traditions and customs related to the celebration of Saints ‎Barbara, Sava and Nicholas

Three holidays at the beginning of December mark the transition from ‎autumn to winter

Reenactment of rites related to Saint Varvara's Day
Photo: Facebook /Burgas History Museum

December 4 is the church holiday of the Holy Great Martyr Barbara, celebrated ‎by both Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Barbara was a girl from a noble family, ‎beheaded for her Christian faith at the beginning of the 4th century. There is a ‎belief that from Varvara to Ignatius the day "rises" like a needle's tip. It also ‎‎"rises" from Ignacius to Vasil (from December 20 to January 1). On Varvara, ‎day and night meet and become equal. The holiday is also called Varvaritsa, ‎Varvarinden or Women's Christmas.‎

In traditional representations, Varvara is the patroness of children's diseases, ‎and above all, smallpox, called by our people by taboo names: grandmother, ‎aunt, sweet and honeyed. An evil, toothless and ugly grandmother - the image ‎of the disease "paints" Varvara's portrait as well. In order to propitiate Baba ‎Sharka (grandma Smallpox) and divert her from the children, the women ‎prepared a ritual stew in which they put various wheat and bean seeds. They ‎call it "varvara". Sweetened with honey, this stew is given to children, and also ‎to neighbors and relatives. There is a belief that throughout the day the children ‎should jump so that Varvara does not find them. ‎


The name Women's Christmas comes from a custom spread mainly in Western ‎Bulgaria. Festively dressed girls and younger girls, with bags slung over their ‎shoulders, go around the houses. ‎Like male carollers, they sing blessing songs, ‎wishing for health and fertility.‎


The next day (December 5), the church honours the memory of Saint Sava - a ‎Serbian cleric, diplomat, fighter for the independence of the Serbian church. In ‎‎1235, he visited the capital Veliko Tarnovo, was greeted with great honours, ‎took part in the Great Epiphany water blessing service. After a very short ‎illness, he left this world and was buried in the "Holy Forty Martyrs" church in ‎the old capital of Bulgaria. Later, his relics left Veliko Tarnovo. ‎

In traditional notions of Bulgarians, Saint Sava is most often a woman, ‎Varvara's sister. Saint Sava reigns over the plague. In some areas of Bulgaria, ‎scissors, needles, knives, etc. are not touched on this day, so as not to anger the ‎sisters. It is also widely believed that Saint Sava is a man who is the patron ‎saint of wolves.‎



In Bulgarian folklore, Saint Nicholas is the brother of Varvara and Sava. The ‎proverb "Varvara cooks, Sava bakes, Nikola meets guests" is very popular, as ‎it unites the three important holidays located at the transition from autumn to ‎winter.‎



Ruler of rivers and seas, of sea storms and gales, Nicholas has the power to ‎start and stop these elements. In folk mythology, he is a winged hero who can ‎fly to a great height and thus observe the sea lions. The church holiday is on ‎December 6. This is one of the few days during Lent where fish is allowed. ‎The ritual dish that is prepared in every house is stuffed carp. Because the saint ‎also rules over fish and sea monsters. Ritual bread covered with special plastic ‎images is also kneaded. People used to exchange gifts on this day - a memory ‎of the Miracle Worker's infinite generosity to the poor and his kindnesses, ‎about which legends are still told today. Saint Nicholas Day is the biggest ‎holiday of the triad, the beginning of the great Christmas-New Year ritual cycle, ‎which ends at the end of January.‎

‎ ‎

Various ritual breads are kneaded for the day of St. Nicholas. Together with the ‎ritual dish of stuffed carp, they are an invariable part of the feast of this much ‎revered saint, ruler of the sea, sea storms and halls. The breads that were ‎prepared for the Nicholas Day table are found in various other customs - for ‎example, Rangelovden (the day of the Archangel Michael), on Christmas Eve, ‎at personal and general sacrifices. 


Very common is the so-called “ribnik” which ‎is a stuffed whole carp wrapped in dough, decorated like ritual bread. In some ‎settlements they made the so-called fish church. The prepared Christmas breads ‎and the tray with the stuffed carp (or ribnik) were taken to the church. The ‎priest would smoke the ritual foods, the people would take them back and the ‎whole family would line up around the table. In some villages, the priests went ‎around the houses and there they performed the consecration of the bread and ‎the fish. This table was not cleared away for a whole day after that. And the ‎house was open to everyone - neighbors, relatives and random travelers. 
The ‎holiday is celebrated with great solemnity to this day, especially in the families where ‎there are Nikola, Nikolay, Nikolina and persons with derivatives of these names who have their ‎name day on December 6.‎

Compiled by Albena Bezovska
Music selection by Albena Bezovska

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