Sirni Zagovezni in Bulgaria

One of the favourite festivals in Bulgaria is called ‘Sirni Zagovezni’ meaning ‘Shrove Sunday’ or ‘The Great Lent’. This comes around each year falling on a Sunday some seven weeks before Easter.

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I have experienced two seasons of these now. It is a time of celebrating the beginning of spring and a period of fasting, in fact the longest fasting period of the year in Orthodox tradition. This means abstaining from meat, dairy products, (fish once a week is allowed,) no traditional dancing and no marriages to take place until Easter. This fasting does still go on but the food is too good and too tempting here for me to even consider joining this part of the ritual.

Many villages and towns have the traditional ritual of building of large bonfires and this was no exception in Skalitsa. There is either a communal bonfire normally or individual groups made by neighbours on their own. The fires would be built in higher areas with the belief that this would prevent hailstorms striking in the areas they are lit. I live high up on the high ground of the village so just outside my house was a good place for this.

The preparations for this festival are made by hand carving wooden rockets and laying them out to dry for a week or two so they are tinder dry for the day. This was really tough on the hands and my efforts only managed to get three carved. One of these is pictured below. These rockets would be launched after being set alight from the bonfire once fixed onto launching sticks. They ‘take off’ by the rocket is fixed to one stick and beat against another projecting it up to 100 metres in the air and over neighbouring houses. Just as each is launched, a name is shouted out and that rocket subsequently dedicated to that person, family, friend or lover!

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The rockets are collected by young Bulgarian maidens and whoever collects the most will be deemed to be the fairest in the town or village. The young male pilots of the rockets therefore usually aim their rockets at their favoured maiden’s home to make it easier for them to find. This is a tradition where both young and old gather. The bonfire is the place where in the main asking for forgiveness is given from the young to the old; a time to rid everyone of past quarrels. This is traditionally a time for the younger members of the community to respect the elders.
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Jumping over the fire is another part of the ritual usually performed by the younger members of the community, although many older members have been known to have a go and some of them did this cold Sunday evening! It is said that the farthest jump would give that young man a wife in the autumn, but all attempts will give good health to participants for their efforts. I had a go but let others beat me in distance as I didn't want to get married again! When the rockets and jumping have finished, and probably the wine and rakia almost finished having been passed around while in progress, it doesn’t stop there. This after all, is the last day of feasting and dancing prior to the fasting period so it is back home for Bulgarian apple bobbing, wining, dining and dancing until the early hours, for in the morning brings about a focus of the body and mind until Easter. Well to be quite honest it was a good start as I didn't fancy anything to eat in the morning!

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