St. Nicholas (Nikolai) Name Day in Bulgaria - The Church Visit

Nothing was said this morning as we set off for a walk around Yambol on this Saturday morning on our day off from work. Another weekend in Yambol as guests were still in the Skalitsa village farmhouse.

St. Nicholas (Nikolai) Name Day in Bulgaria - The Church VisitAs we were walking and talking, Galia mentioned that we were to make out way to the main St Nikolai Church. It was 6th December and St Nicholas Day. Every year on this day the church is attended to say a prayer or two. It was noticeable that there were many crowds gathered around the perimeter of the church grounds, as this was a big religious occasion for the Bulgarian people. A few of the older women were donning long black gowns a black round hat box shaped hat held on with a black scarf draped over in and tied under their chins. These women were from the monastery in Kabile a village some 5-6 kiliometres from Yambol, hence the attire.

There were queues everywhere as we waiting patiently to buy candles to light in the church, each one would be dedicated to a person we love. It is tradition that we buy our own candles as the small price of 10 stotinki each for the thinnest candles on offer.

As we entered this magnificent church there was a cloud of smoke hanging over the massive crowds that were jostling around. The powerful smell of burning candles was mixed with a slight aroma of fish providing a most unlikely atmosphere within the pictured and effigy filled walls of this grand St Nikolai church.

There were priest all around, some wearing just a plain black gown and a simple chain and cross, other priests with the highly decorative dress with a full compliment of colours that would outshine any rainbow. We stopped as one of the rainbow priests, all of which have traditional orthodox long beards to have a cross of holy water put on our forehead. We had to pay in the tray that was already brimmed full and littered with small change and notes up to 5 leva. As our change tinkled its way into the tray, we had two wet stokes of a cross wiped on us, along with a little blessing made. We then had to kiss the hand that painted the cross before we moved on.

Big purpose built stands with the glow burning candles stood at eye level in all nooks and crannies of the church. At the high alter there was the longest long queue of the day lined up waiting for blessing to be given from what I gather was a priest of higher ordain giving out communion bread. All around there were many glass-framed pictures of saints they were regularly being kissed as people as they passed them, by thoughts were more on hygiene more than anything else a watching the exchange of saliva every few moments that went by.

The respect given here for the church gives a reassuring and communal ambience. There were Bulgarians here from all levels of society as I saw one the ‘The Riders’ a Hell's Angel type of community, this particular member clad a typical biker headscarf or bandana. He was a big burly guy you wouldn’t want to cross swords with, but within a few moments of his presence in the church he was told off by an older and quite frail Bulgarian to remove his headscarf as a mark of respect in the church. This was observed without any protest of fuss; I was expecting confrontation, nothing of the sort happened.

We set about lighting out own candles, saying a prayer and this was duly done along with thousands of others who did the same thing today. We didn’t wait for communions at the high alter, the waiting time was far too long.

St. Nicholas (Nikolai) Name Day in Bulgaria - The Church VisitThere were lots of gatherings around tables and as we moved in closer they were serving food. On some table there were big metal baking tray with baked fish on a bed of rice. These were being given out to people free in plastic bags. On other table there was another dish called ‘zhito.’ This sweet dish was made up of boiled wheat, crumbled biscuits, walnuts, sugar, lemon rind and cinnamon, this mix was laid in a big pan and topped with icing sugar. We skipped the fish and rice dish handouts and opted for the zhito. These were being given out in little plastic cups; again we had to queue for quite a while to get this before leaving the church.

Once outside the vultures had gathered - Gypsies begging, they know there was to be a big gathering of Bulgarians today and in charitable and uplifting mood so their praying today was a different type, namely preying. This was a good day for business in Bulgaria for both non- working Gypsies and industrious priests.

The tradition of St Nicholas Day celebrations or Nikolai Den is very much alive and kicking here in Bulgaria as we set off back home to cook the traditional fish dish. There will be of course many other side dishes and of course consume the church offering of zhito shared with the whole family that will be there.