As a whole the Roma calendar holidays coincide with the calendar holidays of the surrounding population in the country transformed through the specific elements of Roma worldview. So although many of the holidays might be found among the majority population (especially in the countries where Roma have been living for centuries and have participated in the formation of the modern nations, like Bulgaria and Romania) each of the holidays receives specific Roma meaning: it is related to a Roma legend, elements of the ritual are changed as a result of their reflection through Roma spirit, etc.
The biggest calendar holidays of Balkan Roma and especially Bulgarian Roma are St. George’s Day (Erdelez), Easter (Patragi) and St. Basil’s Day (Bango Vassilii). They are celebrated by all Roma communities, including Horahane Roma. They celebrate also many other Christian holidays – Christmas, St. Ivan’s Day, Shrovetide, St. Todor’s Day, Virgin Mary’s Day, Petlyovden, etc., and Horahane Roma celebrate also the two Muslim Bayrams – Ramazan Bayram and Kurban Bayram.
St. Basil’s Day (Bango Vassilii): St. Basil’s Day or Bango Vassilii (literally “The limp Basil”) are celebrated by all Roma groups in Bulgaria. It is known in the country as “The Roma New Year”. The Kaldarashi and Rudari celebrate it simpler, while for the Yerlii and especially the Burgudžii and the Roma musicians it appears to be the main holiday comparable only to St. George’s Day.
Exactly the Burgudžii and the Roma musicians celebrate Bango Vassilii for three days, even a slight difference is made between St. Basil’s Day and Bango Vassilii – on 13th January and on 14th January is St. Basil’s Day, and on 15th January is Bango Vassilii. This differentiation is not made by the Kaldarashi, Rudari and the rest of the Yerlii (for example Horahane Roma) in Central Bulgaria, who call all three days “Bango Vassilii”. We also have to note that the night on 13th January to 14th January very often play the role Christmas Eve.
The celebration of Bango Vassilii (St. Basil’s Day) is related to several Roma legends, which we can divide into two types. In the first type Bango Vassili is St. Basil – defender and protector of Roma . He restored the bridge which the Roma passed on, after it was destroyed by the Devil or God and he saved the drowning Roma . In the second type of legends Bango Vassili is a “historical” personality – a limping shepherd, who saved a drowning Roma child or gave shelter to a Roma running away from his enemies. In an indirect way the celebration of St. Basil’s Day is related to the legend of the flock of geese which save the Roma from Egyptian army by taking them over the Red sea. (Yosif Nunev: 2000, 107)
The following moments can be marked in the celebration of St. Basil’s Day (for convenience we will use St. Basil’s Day and Bango Vassilii as the synonyms they are in fact):
Preparation for the holiday: It can start even a week before 13th January. St. Basil’s Day is celebrated with poultry meat – geese (duck) for the Horohane Roma and some Kaldarashi or rooster (hen) for the Burgudžii, the Roma musicians and some Kaldarashi. Very rarely (the Burgudžii) slaughter a lamb or even a pig for Bango Vassilii, but this is done only by these families which during the year have a daughter-in-law or their first grandchild.
The preparation starts with buying a goose or rooster, in case the family does not breed such. The animal has to be bought 12th Jan. latest and it has to stay the night at home “so that the luck doesn’t run away”. In the morning of 13th Jan. the goose or the rooster are butchered and about 2 p.m. the real preparation starts. The main task is the preparation of the table and the implementation of the survaknitsa (decorated cornel-twig). The cornel-twig looks different in the different Romani groups. The common element is that the twig is from cornel-tree, but their decoration is different – popcorn, pepper, candies (Horohane-Roma) or just the “simple” decoration of old golden coins and red thread for the Burgudžii. Roma-musician families do not decorate the cornel-twig.
Dinner: Bango Vassilii is predominantly a family feast. In all Romani groups the dinner in the evening of January 13th plays a very important role and it bears rich symbolism. An obligatory element for all Romani groups is that the door is tightly closed when the dinner starts until midnight, none of the family is allowed to go out (even in the yard!), and no other people are allowed to go into the house. This is one of the rare occasions when Roma implicitly refuse their traditional hospitality.
For different groups and villages dinner starts at different time – usually between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. In the past (for some groups even nowadays) it was obligatory that the dinner of 13th January is arranged on a special round table– siniya. The cooked dishes are put on the siniya: a boiled rooster or goose, sarmi (usually with fortune slips – cornel buds), banitsa with fortune slips, richly decorated round bread (also quite often with fortune slips) or ritual bread-kulak, wine, Rakia, etc.
The Burgudžii put as well a handful of raw wheat (from the wheat boiled for St. Nicholas’ Day and Christmas) and a handful of raw rice (from the rice which the rooster was boiled with). The Roma musicians’ families obligatory prepare the so-called “Gypsy meal” (with dry gumbo and dry tomato). It is a tradition (or rather was a tradition) for the Burgudžii and the Roma musicians’ families to place all family treasures on the table: gold, old golden coins, jewellery… Other Burgudžii groups had the tradition to take the treasures out and bless them by leaving them for everybody to see them. Anecdote stories for thefts of gold, left out by Burgudžii on Vasilitsa are still told among different Romani groups.
The dinner usually starts with incensing and blessing the table. The person who is doing the incensing (usually the woman) says a prayer for luck, fertility and happiness. After this the family members forgive each other by kissing each other’s hands. After the forgiveness the eldest people (the grandmother and grandfather) take the richly decorate round bread (or the kulak) and break it into two to “see who will have more luck during the year and who will provide the household living”.
Then the mother breaks the bread into pieces for all the children or each child breaks as bigger piece as possible. The first mouthpiece of the bread shall not be eaten – is wrapped and placed under the pillow. It is believed that the dream at this night will show what will happen during the coming year.
For the different Romani groups there are differences in some of the customs related to the dinner. For example the funny “stealing of the duck” for some Roma is a custom, where everybody tries to steal the boiled duck unnoticed by the others to be “the luckiest and healthiest”. Other Romani groups arrange kulaks one upon another and somebody from the family hides behind them, and they wish Bango Vassili to bring more kulaks during the next year, and so on. Almost all groups do not to clean the table for the whole night. It is believed to bring fertility.
Welcoming Bango Vassili and the New Year: the welcoming of Bango Vassili and therefore the New Year occupies an important place in the celebration. It is done in two ways: by survakane and when the family head pretends to be Bango Vassili or his messenger. While the first tradition is popular among all Roma (which is a reflection of the Bulgarian tradition “survakarstvo“), the second one is practiced only by Burgudžii and some Horohane Roma groups (i.e. these groups who celebrate Bango Vassili more solemnly) and it is always in combination with the first one.
St. Basil’s Day and the New Year come at midnight. The survakane starts from this moment on. At the very night the Kaldarashi tap with the decorated cornel-twigs mainly the backs of the family members, while in other Romani groups the children may go around the neighbouring houses (after midnight the doors of the houses are open for visitors). The survakari people wish health, fertility and luck. Their words are usually short and simple, for instance: “Surva, surva this year, be sound and healthy for the next year”. Often the ritual of survaki is in Bulgarian language, but there are also different survakari sayings in Romani, the Roma who speak Turkish say them in Turkish language, and the Romanian speaking ones – in Romanian. Just like the Bulgarian tradition, the people who do the survaki are given dry fruit, candies, money.
The Yerlii, as mentioned above, celebrate Bango Vassilii for three days without cleaning the table. On the third day they make the so-called “crooked banitsa” for the horses and the donkeys not to become lame.
PETLYOVDEN (ROOSTER’S DAY) (BASHNUVDEN, IHTIMYA): Ihtimya or Bashnuvden (Petlyovden) is celebrated by the Roma musiciams (called also Drundars), who are a particular, well preserved group Horohane Roma. Their descent is from the region of Kotel, but large groups of musicians in the past moved to the north of Stara Planina – to Zlataritsa and Lyaskovets, the villages around Omurtag, as well as some villages near Shumen (Ivansky, Salmanovo, etc.).
There are at least two things worth mentioning about these Roma musicians. First, the dialect they speak is quite different from the dialect of the other Yerlii. Therefore many scholars of Romani studies speak about “Drandari dialect”. Second, the historical character Mustafa Shibiloglu, who was immortalized by Yordan Yovkov in his short story “Shibil”, was a musician from Gradetz. Nowadays musicians have mythologized Shibil and present him as their king. (Kolev, Krumova, Yordanov: 2001, 179-181)
Although they are “Turkish gypsies”, large number of the Roma musicians are not Muslims any more and they have completely lost the memory of celebrating Islamic holidays – for example the ones living in Zlataritsa and Lyaskovets. Other groups of musicians have also given up Muslim religion and have converted to Christianity, but still celebrate the Bayrams, together with Christian holidays. During the last years a great number of the Roma musicians have been attracted by the Church of the Pentecost and as a whole they abandon the celebration of the traditional holidays, but still keep the memory about them.
Ihtimya is celebrated on 2nd February. It is connected with several similar legends, according to which during the Ottoman rule, the Ottoman troops started to kill all boys (Romani or non-Turkish) and to leave a bloody mark on the doors of the houses they had already been. A Romani woman (Ephtimiya or Ihtimya) butchered a rooster and marked her door with its blood. When the Ottoman solders passed by, they thought they had already taken the boy from this house and in this way the boy was saved. As one can see, the legend is an exact analogue of the Bulgarian parable about Petlyovden, the only difference is that the major personage here is a Romani woman. (By the way this is also not obligatory. Some of the nowadays musicians believe that the woman who butchered the rooster was a Bulgarian and they do not deny that the celebration of Ihtimya by Roma is an echo and reflection of the Bulgarian celebration of Petlyovden).
Ihtimya is celebrated as the Boy’s Day. The feast is completely deprived of any religious decoration, and if there is any, it is hidden and implicit. The core of the feast is the butchering of a rooster for the health of the boy in the house.
A separate rooster is butchered for each boy in the house. It is important that the rooster is butchered by a person who is not part of the household – a relative or a friend. A dot is made on the boy’s forehead with the rooster’s blood – it is believed that this brings health. Some of the musician households hang the head of the rooster on the door, “to remind that the rooster has saved the Romani people” and the internal organs are thrown into the river or are dug into the ground “for dogs and cats not to take them away”.
The meat of the rooster is to be eaten only on 2nd February. Therefore households with many boys (i.e. where more than one rooster is butchered) have big celebrations or the meat is gifted to neighbours and relatives. The Ihtimya celebration of the birth of the first grandson during the year is especially solemn. Then the whole rooster, still raw is gifted to the people from the neighbourhood. Although Bashnuvden is the day of the boys, the girls are also included, but in a more modest way.
The feast Ihtimya is also interesting as it clearly demonstrates one aspect in the relation between Romani and Bulgarian traditions – that sometimes Roma preserve customs, which the surrounding ethnoses have already lost. The connection between the celebration of the Bulgarian Petlyovden and the Romani Ihtimya is more than obvious – they are celebrated on one and the same day (2nd February), the legends are almost the same (there is difference only in the ethnical identity of the woman who butchered the rooster – respectively Bulgarian or Romani), the ritual is also almost one and the same. But the Bulgarian ethnos does not celebrate Petlyovden since long time ago, while Roma musician households celebrate it even nowadays.
EASTER (PATRAGI): Easter (Patragi) is celebrated by almost all Roma in Bulgaria, including Horahane Roma. The only exception are the Muslim Roma , who have strong preferred Turkish self-consciousness and due to their desire completely to identify themselves with the surrounding Turkish population, they have abandoned celebration of almost all Romani holidays. The Kaldarashi have the most exuberant celebration of Easter, although it is not the biggest holiday for them – it gives way to St. George’s Day.
The celebration of Easter by Kaldarashi, Rudari and Dasikane Roma is related to their Christian religion and for them Patragi is really the Resurrection of Christ. The religious recognition of the feast does not exist for Muslim Roma – it is mainly celebrated just as “the day of the red eggs”. During our field research we did not come across any specific Romani legends about Easter (like the legend about the restoration of the bridge by St. Basil, the legend about the salvation of Roma by St. George, etc.).
Several elements can be distinguished in the celebration of Easter. Unlike St. Basil’s Day, where the elements of the feast are more or less common for all Romani groups, they significantly differ here.
Preparation for the holiday: colouring of the eggs. Just like the Bulgarian tradition the eggs are coloured on Thursday or Saturday. The preferred colour is red. For the Burgudžii group the number of the eggs has to end on 1 – they can be 21, 31, 41, etc. They have also preserved the custom that the family members colour their faces with the first coloured egg (which is obligatory red) – it is believed to bring health. This egg is left aside and it shall not be eaten- it stays till St. George’s Day. Some Kaldarashi have preserved a similar custom.
Fetching water: Long before sunrise, while still dusky outside, the youngest daughter-in-law or daughter goes to fetch water from the village water fountain. She carries a small cauldron with cranesbill and a red egg. Before filling in water, she greets with the holiday, and then prays for health and fertility. When she goes home, she wakes up her parents or parents-in-law and sprinkles them with the water for health.
This custom is preserved mainly by Kaldarashi Roma.
Taking of “furrow”. This extremely interesting custom is connected with meeting Easter’s sunrise. It is preserved in one way or another by all Kaldarashi Roma. The essence of the custom is fetching a wheat turf from a nearby field into the house. The wheat turf is called “furrow”. This is a square with length of the sides around 50 cm (the length is not obligatory) and it consists of wheat stalks, their roots and soil. It is taken from the nearest wheat field or from just a field or a meadow (if there is no wheat field nearby). The turf has to be taken early in the morning on Easter’s day, at sunrise. In the group of the Grebenari the turf is taken by the youngest daughter-in-law, in the group of the Bakardzhii this is done by the man who is the head of the family.
A red egg, money, a bottle of wine and an iron spoon are placed on the furrow (the spoon – with one end on the doorstep of the house, the other – on the furrow). Exactly at sunrise the eldest man in the family gives Eucharist: each member of theg family steps on the spoon (“to be healthy like the iron during this year”), drinks a gulp of wine, takes the Eucharist from the eldest man, crosses himself/herself and says: “Christ has risen!”
The ritual with the furrow is performed for health and fertility. It symbolizes spring regeneration of nature by combining fresh green stalks of wheat and the red egg and the red wine – the blood of the resurrecting Christ.
The feast itself. Easter is probably the only feast when going to church is obligatory (at least for Kaldarashi Roma ) and this is the essence of the feast. Other Romani groups in Bulgaria celebrate the feast within their families. Visiting relatives and friends and exchanging eggs is another important element of Easter. On Easter the table shall be rich, with poultry meat (usually turkey) and ritual bread “kulak“.
As we mentioned above for Kaldarashi Roma Easter is markedly religious holiday. This is less applicable for other Christian Roma groups in Bulgaria (Rudari and Dasikane Roma) and is not valid for Muslim Roma , where the religious layer of Easter celebration is missing for obvious reasons. But the holiday is connected with the joy of the coming spring and the hope for fruitfulness and fertility; it is yet another way to ask for them.
ST. GEORGE’S DAY (ERDELEZ):
St. George’s Day is the biggest feast for Roma in Bulgaria. It is celebrated by all Romani groups (with the only exception of Horаhane Roma with strong Turkish self-consciousness, who have celebrated it until recently) and for all of them St. George’s Day is the major holiday, including Muslim Roma.
Usually the Kaldarashi and Rudari Roma call the feast “St. George” or “St. George’s Day”, the Yerlii call it “Herdelez”, “Hadarlez” or “Erdelez.” It is celebrated for three days. For some Roma these days are 4th, 5th and 6th May; for other the dates are 5th, 6th and 7th May; for others – 6th, 7th and 8th May.
The celebration of St. George’s Day is related to the belief that St. George is Roma ’ savior (just like St. Basil) and to the legend that the dragon of an evil king started to eat Romani people, but St. George killed him. Moreover Erdelez was celebrated also as the beginning of spring, of real warm weather, therefore, the whole ritual is full of spring symbolic. The celebration of St. George’s Day is different not only among various Romani groups, but it also varies among representatives of one and the same group living on different places. Despite the differences, several common elements are not difficult to be pointed out:
Preparation for the holiday: the most important element in the preparation is buying the lamb. The common belief is that the lamb for the offering has to spend the night in the house; therefore, it is bought on 4th or 5th May the latest. Some groups start the celebrations with the lamb entering the house. Then the gates are decorated with blossoming branches – usually pear-tree or willow and a wreath and a candle are put on the lamb’s head, then the incense “for health” is done. Other Romani groups also practice the decorating of their houses with blossoming branches on 5th May, but they do the placing of the wreath with the candle and the incensing in the morning of 6th May.
The Burgudjii start the preparation since Easter with the colouring of the first egg and the preparation of the special St. George’s Day’s candle. As already mentioned above, the first red Easter egg is preserved and on St. George’s Day it is placed in the mouth of the roasted lamb. At the same time a special candle with a red thread is made on the Passionate Sunday (before the Resurrection). It is lighted for a while on the Easter’s eve and then put aside. Its next lighting is in the evening of 5th May and it is let to burn out completely on 6th May before the lamb is slaughtered.
Many Roma have adopted the custom to pick nettle in the evening of 5th May for each family member and hang it under the roof-tiles. By the fading away of the nettle they predict the year for each person: a jolly or a sad one.
There was a custom (which is to a great extent lost now) to have a bath in the evening of 5th May in water with herbs and plants: St. George’s flower, nettle, burr, etc. It is not difficult to see in this custom the ritual purifying before the feast, spring symbolism and the hope of chasing away the diseases and being healthy through the year.
Walking “on green”: the groups of Romani musicians, the Basket-makers from Shumen and most of the Muslim Roma (irrespectively whether they are called Horohane Roma or Millet) practice the custom to walk “on green” on the eve of St. George’s Day. All Roma go to the forest, light fires and have fun during the whole night. In the morning they go home bringing blossoming branches (“green”) to decorate the doors of the houses.
Ritual slaughtering of the lamb: Most of the Roma do the slaughtering of the lamb-offering is extremely solemn. It is usually done in the morning of 6th May. The Kaldarashi had the tradition to slaughter a lamb for each boy in the house. Today due to economic difficulties this custom is almost abandoned, although some families still observe it. The tradition for the other Roma groups is to slaughter one lamb in each house.
The lamb is decorated before being slaughtered. A wreath of St. George’s flower, wheat, cranesbill and spring flowers (for example the Kaldarashi) or blossoming twigs and willow are put on the lamb’s head. Somewhere the lamb is additionally decorated with red paint and necklaces. The purpose of this decoration is to show the wealth of the coming spring and to serve as a pray for fertility and fruitfulness.
One or two candles are put on the wreath and they are lighted before the lamb is slaughtered. The Burgudžii from Gorna Oryahovitza this candle is specially prepared on the Passionate Saturday and it is decorated with red thread, nettle and grass, which we mentioned above. While the candle(-s) is burning, the lamb is incensed and blessed. This custom is still well preserved among Kaldarashi and the other Romani groups have rather abandoned it, although they still keep the memory about it.
A custom typical for the Burgudžii is giving salt to the lamb. This way they predict the year – if the lamb eats much salt the year will be good and vice versa.
After this they do to the slaughtering. For the Kaldarashi it is done by the oldest man in the family – the head of the family. Even if he is too old and weak, he just slaughters the lamb and gives it to his sons to take out his skin and roast it.
They never let the blood of the lamb to flow into the ground. It is collected and together with the internal organs and the bones they are thrown into the river on 7th May. This is done “for people’s luck throughout the year” and “the blood not to go into a dirty place”. A red dot with the blood of the lamb is made on the children’s foreheads. This is done “for health”.
The lamb is not cut to pieces. It is roasted whole on cheverme (barbecue) or in a large baking dish, the inside is sewed and thus also roasted. For the Kaldarashi the tradition is that the head of the family washes the barbecue spit with water from a special tin-plated copper with cranesbill and wheat stalks in it.
The table for the St. George’s Day: Some Roma (certain families from the Grebenari from Dryanovo) prepare a special table for St. George’s Day – it is obligatory round, made in a way that “there is no nail in it”. The reason for discarding nails is because iron gets rusty: “We put the lamb, the offering on this table. It is not good to have iron or anything else that gets rusty”.
The richly decorated lamb is placed in the middle of the table. A red egg is placed in its mouth (the first egg from Easter), a slice of bread, a banknote (the highest value available), and a golden coin. Some fresh garlic is put near the lamb (to prevent against evil eye and to bring health). It is obligatory to put red wine on the table.
Before the lunch the table is incensed. Then the eldest people in the family – the head of the family and his wife (or his brother) take the ritual bread (the so-called kulak), slightly cut it crosswise and pour red wine in the four arm ends of the cross saying: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Amin!” and they break the kulak into two, everybody kisses the two pieces, then they break it into two more pieces and everybody kisses them again. After this the head of the family takes a candle, says a prayer and extinguishes the candle in the bottle of wine, putting it three times in the mouth of the bottle and on the fourth he extinguishes it. Thus the table is considered inaugurated and the lunch can start.
This custom is well preserved by the Kaldarashi. The other Romani groups preserve just single elements from it.
Another ritual preserved by the Kaldarashi and the Burgudžii is to sell the head of the lamb. As mentioned above it is richly decorated. The person on the left of the host considered clockwise takes the head and sells it to the neighbour on his left. The two men hold fresh garlic in their hands. The purchaser tries to steal the head before the deal is over, but the seller hits his hands with the fresh garlic “to chase away the evil thoughts and the evil ghosts”. So the head is sold from person to person clockwise, until it reaches back the host. All this is a special game form – no real money given.
Washing and hanging a swing: Usually St. George’s Day is connected with a lot of joy and good mood, expressed in various ways. Almost all Romani groups have the custom that the lads go into the river to show that the warm weather has already come and the water is not cold any more. It is also accepted that the lads hang swings for the girls and while swinging them, they ask them about their future marriage, etc.
“Singing to the rings”: this custom is shared by all Romani groups on St. George’s Day. Its essence is predicting (half-seriously, half-jokingly) the future marriage of the young girls. It is usually performed in the evening of 5th May and in the morning of 6th May.
In the evening before St. George’s Day all unmarried girls gather and each girl drops a ring or another sign (bracelet or a necklace) in a bucket of water. Then they put cranesbill in the water and leave to bucket to “spend the night” under a rose bush. For the Roma musicians the gathering of the rings is performed very solemnly – with music.
In the early morning of St. George’s Day, before sunrise, the girls gather again at the bucket. The one, who sings best, covers her face with a veil not to see anything and starts singing different songs, succeeding jolly and sad songs. While singing she takes out a ring from the bucket. It is believed, that if she takes out a ring during a jolly song, the girl’s marriage will be happy and vice versa.
RAMAZAN BAYRAM AND KURBAN BAYRAM: These two mainly Muslim holidays are celebrated by Romani Muslims. They are especially richly celebrated by Turkish-speaking gypsies – Millets.
Before the first Bayram – Ramazan Bayram (or Sheker Bayram) the Islamic tradition requires a 30-day fast. The Roma rarely do this long fast. The Islamic fast is manifested in ritual food denial during the day – from sunrise to sunset administration of any food or drinks, sexual contacts etc. are prohibited. The day of a Muslim Roma during the Ramazan goes the following way: early getting up at 6 o’clock, breakfast and at sunrise the fast begins. During the day they pray 5 times- in the morning after the breakfast, about 10 o’clock a.m., about 3 o’clock p.m., about 5 o’clock p.m andrikofarmakeio.com. and before going to bed. The fast ends after sunset, when these, keeping the fast, drink water three times.
The Islamic fasts aim at purifying the soul of the believer, preparing him/her to meet Ramazan Bayram revived. Due to the duration of the fast – a whole month, often the believer skips a day or two. They catch up on the fast before the second Bayram.
On the eve of Ramazan Bayram (the so-called Arife) the women of some Romani groups henna their hands. They believe that at that very night the souls of the dead return to their native homes.
Men celebrate Bayram by going to the mosque, then the holiday table is arranged – it is rich in sweets – Turkish delight, khalva, etc. On this day people ask their relatives, friends and neighbours for forgiveness. Some Roma have a custom similar to Survaki on St. Basil’s Day. In the morning of Ramazan Bayram children gather in small groups and go from house to house. They greet the host with the holiday and wish him health and luck. He treats them with candies and sweets.
The celebration of Kurban Bayram is similar, but for this holiday a ram shall be slaughtered (the other name of the holiday is Koch-Bayram, i.e. ram-Bayram) or a lamb. This is done because according to the Islamic legend (which partially repeats the Jewish and the Christian ones) Ibrahim (Avraam) had to sacrifice his only son Ismail. In this way Allah wanted to check his faith. Although Ibrahim grieved for his only son, he agreed because his faith was strong and the moment he was about to do the sacrifice, an angel flew down from the sky and gave him a ram. Allah forbid human sacrifice and ordered on this day people to slaughter an animal for the offering.
Romani Muslims prepare for Kurban Bayram a week earlier. If they do not have a ram, they buy one. The selected animal shall not have any defects – it shall not be lame, blind or crippled. The Roma do not bargain about the price of the sacrificial animal but accept the price offered by its owner. Then they take the ram home. This shall be done at least a day before the holiday, because the sacrificial animal shall spend the night at home, so that the luck doesn’t run away.
Before being slaughtered, the ram has to be hennaed and decorated. His three legs are tied and some Roma put a towel on his eyes – not to become afraid by death. Then a pray is read. Most Roma do not understand what it says as it is in Arabic language, but they think that it is for health and fertility.
Some time ago the meat of the slaughtered animal was divided into three equal parts – one was used for the table dishes, so that all relatives, friends and guests are well feasted. The second was left for the family and the last was given to the poor people. This custom is observed by some Roma , Turkish and Bulgarians professing Islam even nowadays.
On this day the most prestigious for the Muslims is to give alms to the poor. Besides meat from the sacrificial animal, richer Roma give clothes and shoes to the poorer to be happy during the holiday.
And while the celebration of Bango Vassilii, Ihtimya, Patragi and Erdelez demonstrates the proximity between Romani and Bulgarian holiday traditions, the celebration of the two Bayrams come to show us that such proximity exists even to the holiday traditions of the Muslim ethnoses living in Bulgaria – Turkish, Bulgarians professing Islam, etc. Most of the elements in the festive ritual are Islamic, perceived through the prism of Romani spirituality.
BARI BOGORODITSA / GREAT MOTHER OF GOD (August 28) This holiday is celebrated as one of the main holidays of the Burgudžii in Northeastern Bulgaria, as well as of many other Roma, especially in Southern Bulgaria. With them, it rivals even on St. George’s Day, believing that St. George’s Day is a male holiday, and the Great Mother of God – a female. Then a sheep is slaughtered, from which pop stew, meatballs and sausage are prepared. Today the celebration is more modest, but still lasts three days.
Ignazhden (January 2) This holiday is celebrated by practically all Roma groups, including Roma Muslims. It is celebrated on January 2. Ignazhden is believed to be the first person to enter the house to determine luck during the year. For this reason, on this day, the Roma give up their traditional hospitality and do not let strangers in because they do not know their luck. Early in the morning, at about 4 o’clock, the one who is “the most cademly” goes to the village water fountain. When he returns, he boils corn, takes straw and goes to the animals. There she fasted the straw, placed the boiled grains of corn on it, let the animals eat and called: “I come with health, with many chickens and hens, with many prosperity…!” This is done for fertility during the year.
 You can read these sayings in the two student books: Krasteva, Kolev, Krumova, Tales from the fireplace, 162-163; Kolev, Krasteva, Krumova, Roads retold, 168.
The wedding customs of the Roma in Bulgaria reveal the richness and the vast diversity in the world of Bulgaria Roma . Very often these customs are different for the different groups. Sometimes even Roma from one and the same group but living in different villages have differences for some elements of the wedding ritual. There are also differences between the wedding customs of the Roma in the past and nowadays. But they are all alike, because they expose the vivid and full of energy Romani spirit.
THE DECISION FOR THE WEDDING
In the past – until the 60s of the ХХ century all Roma groups had the custom that the parents decided whom their child would marry. It happened sometimes that even the young couple did not know each other, but the parents’ word was enough for the new family to be created. Today the custom that the parents create the family of their children and the custom that the children marry at the age of 14-15 is to be observed only by a few of the Roma – Kaldarashi, Burgudjii, Thracian Kalaidjii and some Romani Muslims (Horahane Roma and Millet). For the other Roma these customs are already past. And for the Bulgarians and the Bulgarian Turks the above mentioned customs have extinguished long time ago.
The initiative to create a new family came from the boy’s parents. When they liked a girl as suitable for their son, they went to her parents to ask for her hand. The Roma valued several things in the young girl. First, she was supposed to have good household skills: to work hard, to cook well and to keep the house clean and tidy, to know how to look after small children. That is why even from the early age her parents cultivated these qualities in their daughters. Romani girls at the age of 11-12 knew how to knead and bake bread, how to look after their younger brothers and sisters, how to cook and clean when their parents are not at home. Some Romani groups added to these qualities also professional skills in the traditional craft. For example Kopanari insisted on the young girl’s skill to be able to make wooden spoons and spindles as well as to know how to sell them at a profit.
Other quality, which was highly praised in the Romani girl, was her respectful attitude towards her parents and older people in general. This was a guarantee that the girl would treat her parents-in-law with not less respect. The Roma insisted also on the beauty of their future daughter-in-law. Quite often they were ready to pay extremely high dowery (babaak) for a beautiful daughter-in-law.
The Roma insisted especially on the virginity of the girl. It was supposed to be preserved for the husband during the first wedding night. If not, the parents might not ask the girl’s hand or might return her back to her parents. And her name was disgraced forever.
The girl’s qualities considered valuable were her hard working and skills in the traditional craft. Even from the earliest age the boys helped their fathers and that is why at the age of 13-14 a young Roma was able to work absolutely independently.
The girl’s parents insisted on something else – the name of the boy and his family had to be respected. No father would want to send his daughter to a family of spendthrift and drunkards.
In the past one of the obligatory and most respected wedding customs of the Roma was the matchmaking. In some groups it is still preserved even nowadays. After the boy’s parents like a girl for a daughter-in-law, they went to her parents’ home to ask for their permission. Of course, they send a secret messenger first. He/she was supposed to understand one single thing – whether the girl’s parents consider her ready for marriage and whether they are ready to accept guests for matchmaking.
If the girl’s father refuses, he does it with polite words and tells no neighbour or relative. This is done to preserve the honour of the boy’s father. If he agrees, he prepares for the guests – in-laws to visit them on the chosen day.
The boy’s parents arrive with a lot of gifts for the whole family of the future bride. They often bring richly decorated bottle of Rakia. Tied to it is a beautiful red or colourful kerchief – a symbol for the asking of a bride. Next to the kerchief a golden coin is also tied – this is a sign that the father –in-law is ready to pay dowry for the bride. A colourful bunch or a flower are put at the neck of the bottle– this symbolizes that the father-in-law and the mother-in-law want to show that their future daughter-in-law is a beautiful as the most beautiful flower. The words, with which (the Kaldarashi for example) the guests address the host show respect towards him, his family and his daughter: “Avilyam katka ande tumaro vilaetu! Ashundyam ka kate namerilpe o chiriklo, kairo dasles de kadaki bursh! Kate li suli ili nai? – We came here into your region! We’ve heard that the turtle-dove we’ve been looking for many years is here. Is she here or not?”
The girl prepares coffee, Turkish delight and other sweets for the guests. In the past she was supposed to knead and bake bread so that the father-in-law and the mother-in-law could see what their future daughter-in-law could do. According to the Rudari tradition the girl had to make wooden objects– spindles, spoons, bowls and to show how she was going to sell them.
After the parents are convinced in the girl’s skills, they discuss with her parents when, where and under what conditions the engagement and the wedding will take place. The first thing the parents negotiate is the dowry which has to be given for the bride. In the past Roma had the custom (and at many places it still exists) that the boy’s parents pay the dowry to the girl. This dowry is called “babaak“, “baba-aka” or “baba-haka”. The babaak is paid to the girl’s father, because he has raised and brought up his daughter, and now she is going to another house.
For the different Romani groups the babaak differed in quantity and form. For Rudari and the Romani Muslims it was mainly clothes and goods, and an amount of money was added to them. Today most of the Rudari and Romani Muslims do not pay babaak or it is only in goods (wine, Rakia, blankets, etc.). For Kaldarashi, the Thracian Kalaidjii and the Burgudžii the dowry was (and still is) mainly golden coins and money, and it was considered prestigious paying as higher price as possible. These Romani groups continue their tradition to pay the dowry for the bride even nowadays.
For most of the Roma the babaak was related to the virginity – i.e. the amount was paid only if the bride was a virgin and the bridegroom is her first man in life. If this condition wasn’t fulfilled, the girl’s father had to return half or even the whole amount of money. This was also clarified during the in-laws’ visit. Other things that were clarified were the dates for engagement and wedding. The in-laws negotiated even the slightest details, like the type of music which will be played, who the cooks will be, etc.
THE ENGAGEMENT (THE NISHAN)
Soon after the matchmaking an engagement (nishan) was arranged so that everybody understands that a new family is created. For many Roma (for example most of the Yerlii, irrespectively whether Muslims or Christians, as well as some Rudari) the engagement is more important even than the wedding, because after it the new couple starts living together.
The “Nishan” continues from 1 to 3 days. The bridegroom and his parents go with music to take the bride from her parents’ home. There, her female friends prepare her – they dress her, put make-up on her face, and for the Romani Muslims they modify her eyebrows making them thinner (for the first time in her life) and they also make “sakuz”. The aim is that the bride transforms from a girl into a grown-up maid. The clothes which the bride puts on for the nishan are usually made of expensive material. For the Roma Muslims they are traditional – shalwars and a blouse.
For most of the Yerlii and Rudari the first wedding night is a must. It is a proof for the girl’s honour. And the proof has to be taken out – this was the sheet from the first wedding night. After showing it the general spree starts – the music plays, the guests sing and dance and red, sweetened Rakia is drunk. The Rudari also tear off the head of a rooster and spray the walls of the house with its blood, and all present people – irrespectively whether men or women – put on lipstick.
For Kaldarashi as well as other Roma , these customs are observed during the last day of the wedding. The engagement for these Roma is not obligatory. On this day the boy’s parents gift to their daughter-in-law a golden coin and earrings, so that everybody knows that she is going to marry.
Years ago the Romani weddings continued for a whole week – from Monday to Friday, even to Sunday. Today Roma have shorter weddings – they usually last three days: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
In Roma tradition, just as it is in the Bulgarian and the Turkish ones, the evening before the wedding is very important and a number of rituals have to be implemented. It is devoted to the girl. In that evening the girl separates with her maid life and her family home. On the next day she is going to create her own family, go to a new house and her life will change forever.
For Romani Muslims (Horahane Roma and Millet) the evening before the wedding is called kana-gedzhesi – the evening of the henna. As the name shows, the central ritual in this evening (this is usually the Friday evening) is the henna dying of the future bride.
The custom of henna dying is common for many Muslim peoples. It is related with the belief that the saint Mariam (Mother Mary) was born with a red nishan (symbol) on her hands and hair. That is why each girl has to henna herself before wedding as a symbol of honour and purity.
Usually the hennaing is done by the godmother, but only in case that she has never divorced. Otherwise – according to the Romani belief – the bride might divorce after some time.
The henna dying starts with the palms of the future bride. The godmother puts coins on the hennaed palms of the bride and ties them, so that the marks of the coins are visible. Then she put an odd number of burning candles between the tied palms – one, three, five or seven. This is done to show that the maid has lit up so far her father’s home. The Roma believe that the burning candles will light the bride’s way from now on till her oldest age, and in this way there will always be light and happiness in her life.
The burning candles are not put out. As soon as the flame gets closer to her palms, the bride puts them in a bowl of flour. Then the godmother dyes the girl’s hair with henna. During the whole time the future bride has to keep silence. Her friends try jokingly to make her speak, tease her with jolly words, but she has to keep silence.
After the end of the hennaing, the godmother veils the girl with a red veil and together with the bridegroom she takes them to the yard. There the music plays a traditional song, which for many Romani Muslims is in Turkish language. In the yard the wedding guests greet the couple. This happens in the following way: their friends spread a red (or blue) veil over them which is a symbol of honour and purity. The new couple stands under the veil. All wedding guests pass by them, wish them something and decorate them with money. If the guests are older, the bride and the bridegroom kiss their hands as a sign of respect.
Christian Roma do braiding of the maid instead of hennaing. In the Friday evening the girl’s female friends come to her father’s house. The godmother also comes and braids the long girl’s hair. Before then the girl was wearing her hair free, but since that day on she has to braid her hair. At that time the girl’s friends knead the bread for the feast, singing songs to them. Then a party with a lot of music and joy starts.
The Rudari have a custom in the evening before the wedding, called fidiles. The boy’s parents come to the bride’s home to show their respect towards her and her parents. The guests have to be obligatory received with coffee. The party starts and during the whole evening the boy’s parents have to fulfil all wishes of the girl’s parents. They are often asked to dance on the table, to dance in a large baking dish, etc. This is done to check whether they really want their future daughter-in-law.
On Saturday morning the real wedding starts. Until noon the guests of the wedding are divided into two– the boy’s relatives prepare at his home, and all the girl’s kin is in her father’s home to support the bride’s worth sending off. A number of rituals are implemented in both houses.
At the boy’s home comes a barber, who shaves solemnly the bridegroom. This is to show everybody that he is a grown-up person – not a child, but a man to get married. During the shaving the clarinet player plays old sad melody. The bridegroom shall not cry, because in this way all the grief will remain away in his life.
Then the bridegroom, the godfather and the relatives leave to the bride’s home. Walking first is a younger brother or a cousin of the bridegroom (he has to be obligatory unmarried), who carries the wedding flag. It is material with two stripes – white and red and on the top of the flag there is a stuck apple and a bunch of flowers. The red material symbolizes the purity of the girl and the white – the purity of the boy. The two tied together stripes shows to everybody that a new family is to be created. The apple on the flag symbolizes the fertility and is a wish for many children and for wealth.
At that time the girl is being veiled at her home. Early in the morning a cousin of hers goes to a nearby well to fetch water, with which the girl washes her face. While filling in the water, the lad wishes: “As long the rope in the well is, as long and happy the life of the bride and bridegroom may be! May they have many children, money, happiness …”
After fetching the water the godmother washes the bride’s face and veils her. This is done in the following way: an apron is tied around the bride’s waist (the apron has to be loose and free, so that the veil can go through it). The godmother passes the veil three times through the apron and over the head of the bride, saying blessing and wishing the young family happiness and prosperity.
When the procession with the bridegroom comes, the relatives of the bride close the doors. They want money to open them. Then the bridegroom has to buy the bride’s shoe, her handbag and some other things. Al this happens with a lot of jokes, music, round dances and belly dances.
On the wedding day the bride is dressed in a white wedding dress– as is the clothing of the bride in a Bulgarian wedding. Some Muslim Roma still keep even nowadays the traditional wedding clothing “don anteri” – shalwars and a white shirt (or more likely a blouse). But it is worn during the engagement or in the evening before the wedding. The Kaldarashi pay special attention to the clothes which the bride wears – they have to be new, beautiful, expensive and on each day she has to wear different clothes. But even for them the obligatory bride clothing on the wedding day is a white wedding dress.
Then the procession takes the bride from the home to the bridegroom’s home. The moment, in which the young family gets out of the bride’s home, the traditional Bulgarian song “A fir-tree is bending, bending down!” is being played.
Before leaving the bride takes in her hands a young child and round bread, then she kicks a copper of water and cranesbill. This is done so that the life of the young family is full of children, they always have bread on their table and their life goes smoothly.
In the past symbolic obstacles were placed along the way from the bride’s home to the bridegroom’s home, the bride’s relatives arranged “ambushes” and required ransom to leave the procession go on its way. This was done because the road symbolized the growing up of the children, their transformation into adults, and each growth is accompanied by obstacles and difficulties.
The father-in-law and the mother-in-law go out to the entrance of the boy’s home. The put bread and honey in the mouths of the couple. Many Muslim Roma preserve the tradition according to which the bride shall spread some honey or sweetened water on the door of her new home– so that the life of the couple in the new home is sweet.
After meeting the bride to her new home the wedding party starts. In the past (sometimes even nowadays) it was done outdoors – on the meadow near the Romani neighbourhood or in the street. For this purpose large tents for 200-300 people were set up. Today is more common to celebrate weddings in a restaurant.
Important part of the wedding party for the Romani people is the band. For larger weddings even two bands may be hired, but the music obligatory shall not stop. Because tens, even hundreds of relatives, friends or just residents of the neighbourhood come to the wedding, and each person has his own taste, it is important that the band plays various music to satisfy everybody’s wish. It is a well-known rule that the Roma wedding depends a lot on the music– if the music is good, the wedding is to be remembered for years on. The Roma – irrespectively whether poor or rich– like to have fun from the bottom of their hearts, to pour their souls in songs and music that is why the wedding bands are so respected.
During the wedding party special attention is paid to the table where the bride’s parents sit at. It shall have everything they want – this is a sign for high respect towards them. For some Roma (for example the Kaldarashi) during the first day of the wedding the newly-married couple also stays behind the table of the girl’s parents. During the party the bride and the bridegroom are tied to each other by means of a red ribbon.
For many Roma an important moment in the wedding is the gifting. All guests have to gift something to the new couple. On one hand it is a sign of respect towards them. On the other – the new family needs a lot of things to start a normal life. Usually the Roma gift money. It is considered that even if a Roma is poor, he or she has to give as much money as possible on the wedding of his/her relative or friend.
Quite solemn is the gifting of Kaldarashi Roma . They do it as a way of mutual aid and guarantee for keeping the family ties. The band stands next to the gifting person, plays the song he/she wants and gives him the floor. The person says his wishes to the new couple and announces what he/she gifts. The Kaldarashi endow as much money as possible and in this way the new family gathers a large amount. According to the tradition of this Romani group, when the time comes, the new couple has to attend the wedding of the person who gifted them (or his son) and as a sign of gratitude and respect to gift him more than what they were gifted.
On a Roma wedding – like the Bulgarian ones – the most often wish to the newly married couple is for many children. For the Romani people the most important thing are the children. They are more important than money, society position and everything else. Roma consider the lack of children the biggest misfortune in life.
The wedding party continues during the whole day. For Kaldarashi and some other Roma the first wedding night of the bride and the bridegroom is on Saturday night. They do then the ritual “rakiinitsa”, which the other Roma do on the engagement (“nishan”).