Today on the 13th of March the Orthodox Church celebrate Sirni Zagovezni (Сирни Заговезни) a day of forgiveness. What does it mean? It literally means Cheesfare Sunday or The Great Leant and this celebration always happens on the Sunday, 7 weeks before the Orthodox Easter.
Its a way of celebrating the spring and its also the start of the fasting before Easter, and its the longest fasting period of the year in the tradition of the Orthodox Church. The fasting means that no meat are allowed to eat, except from fish one a week. It also means that no marriage are allowed to take place before the Easter and no traditional dancing.
So on this day the focus lays on forgiveness. Back in the days the family’s would gather around the table that are covered with food for the celebration. In the evening the young people were asking the elder ones for their forgiveness for the past years trouble and mistakes that caused quarrels. For young families the tradition was to go to their parents house and also their best man. Meanwhile the young children was out asking for forgiveness, the woman of the house was home preparing the food for the feast. The food would be fish, fish pie, different kinds of banitsa, eggs and butter. It was important to use butter, milk and eggs, since these products would not be a part of the food during the Lent.
The ritual is for the one who asks for forgiveness to bow down low and kiss the hand of the elder and say Forgive me and the older should response with any of these answers God forgive, You are forgiven or May you be forgiven. This ritual was repeated at every house they went to, and traditionally you need to seek forgiveness for every single person in a higher position in the community. This ritual was a must to perform before the fasting before the Lent could start.
The Game of Hamkane
The young people must perform the forgiveness ritual before they are allowed to sit down by the table and start to eat. After the eating the children are playing a game called Hamkane. This is a game were they tie an boiled egg or a piece of halva (or in some cases even a piece of sirene=feta cheese) with a red thread or a martenitsa and a piece of charcoal higher up on the string. Then they swing the thread and the children around the table shall with their mouth catch it without using their hands try to catch the egg, charcoal, halva or cheese. After that the charcoal is ritually being put away to cure diseases or for breaking evil spells. The same goes for the egg (only the white part shall be eaten, not the yoke) and the cheese that also are meant for protection. The string on which the egg, charcoal and cheese was attached to, is ritually being set on fire several times. This was connected to harvesting, and it is believed that if the string starts to burn faster, that bodes a bumper harvest. The string also works as a incantation for the young men and woman, if the string burnt quickly the man or woman is about to get married soon.
This is a different ritual being performed on this day were the men are using a cleft log with straw stuffed between the two halves. They put the straw on fire and the log being twirled with incantation.
Jumping Over the Bonfire
In many villages of Bulgaria their is a tradition to make a big bonfire, this is an old tradition and it is believed by performing this ritual, hailstorms will be prevented. They carve the woods about one week before the day and let it dry so it will easily catch a fire. The woods are being collected by young maidens, and it is said that the maiden that collects the most will be deemed to be the fairest in the village. Both young and old people are gathering around the fire, and the young pays a tribute of respect for the elders and ask for their forgiveness. This is a way of getting rid of quarrels from the past year.
Another part of the bonfire ritual is for the young men to jump over the fire. The jumping over the fire symbolize good health for who ever that does it, and it is believed that the one that jumps the farthest will get married in the autumn. Since this is the last day before the fasting starts, everyone are dancing, eating and drinking the whole day and night. Sometimes the men are dancing around the bonfire with burning stacks, Sirnitsi.
The Monday after the Sirni Zagovezni, follows by Kukerovden. Kukeri is a tradition that welcomes the spring by men dressed up in masks scaring away the evil winter spirits. Many participants start already on Sirni Zagovezni and dress up in their masks and dance around the fire. But more about kukeri in another article!
Sirni Zagovezni in Today´s Bulgaria
The time has changed a lot since these times but its still a day of celebration, and many Bulgarians still gather around with their families to have a dinner and the children, no matter what age, ask their parents and grandparents for forgiveness. The Bulgarians that lives abroad contact their old folks and ask for forgiveness. And many villages still keeps the tradition with the bonfire, the dancing and having fun. Its quite common that event are being organized with professional folk dancers around fires where the rest of the people just come to enjoy and have a good time. When it comes to fasting its a active choice to remove the meat and animal products.
Sources for this article: