We would like to thank Bulgaria National Radio (bnr.bg/en) for much of the information about the following rituals and customs practiced throughout the Balkans.
Blagovets, celebrated on March 25, means “good news.” It is the official feast of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to the Savior. In folklore, the good news extends beyond the Orthodox Church to the rituals of spring dating back to Thracian times. When you hear the cuckoo sing, it is an indication that winter is departing and summer will soon arrive.
One of the most popular traditions on Blagovets is for women to walk around the yard and bang on metal objects to scare away snakes that are supposed to be emerging from their dens into the sunlight. Women also sweep out their houses and everyone piles old, useless items into a pile which they set on fire. Young people jump over the fire to ensure good health throughout the year.
Snakes play another important part in this day. A zanhar or person who heals with herbs would plant garlic in the head of a snake. The seedling that grew from it was purported to have healing powers.
Legends tell of samovili and dragons return from their winter abode on this day. When the cuckoo sang, it warned mothers not to let their daughters near places of water in the morning because that was where the samovili gathered. These female nymphs of the woodlands and waterways like to play tricks on people and even carry them away and make prisoners of them.
Mystical Emona, Chapter “Bewitching Hour”
Sultana watched him from her rocking chair. “That me medicine cabinet. No doctors close. Me use the Nature to heal ills. Me kill snake on holy day, Blagovets. Snake and evil spirits play then. Loud noise drive snake to sun. Easy to catch. Garlic growing in head cure all ills.” She covered her lap with the afghan. “It not snake-guard. He live under house and protect house and hearth. Never hurt snake-guard or have bad luck.”
Nestinarstvo (Bulgarian: нестинарство) is a ritual where people, predominantly women, dance on embers with their bare feet as a means to purify themselves with the fire’s healing powers. The Thracian word “nestia” means “fire.” Like so many Bulgarian customs, fire dancing incorporates both Orthodox and pagan beliefs.
It originated in remote villages in the Strandzha Mountains area, in southeastern Bulgaria. The celebration occurs on the Day of Saints Constantine and Helena, originally June 3, but now May 21. The ritual also celebrates the cults of the sun, fire, and water in order to bring fertility and health. Fire had protective powers and increased the sun’s divine power, and water had healing powers. Emperor Constantine I himself worshiped fire, and so he allowed the nestinari to perform their dance even after he legalized Christianity.
The celebration begins in the morning when people gather outside the home of the oldest dancer. They light candles and bow to the icons on the saints at the chapel that has been set up near the woman’s house. The dancer leaves her house when she hears the sound of kettle drums and bagpipes. She is pale and is already in a trance. Next, everyone goes to an ayazmo, a sacred spring, where they drink its healing water. The gathering continues to a meadow near the forest. Singing and dancing take place, and a fire is built.
When evening arrives and the fire has turned to embers, those present form three or nine circles, which is associated with the Sun, the “Fire of Heaven.” They perform a chain dance, a horo, around the fire and kiss their icons. The dancers raise the icons above their heads as they enter the fire so they can dance on the embers without injuring themselves. The music begins to speed up and so does the dancing. Fire opens a door to the spirit world, the oldest of the nestinari sees the future of the village while she dances in her trance-like state.
Mystical Emona, Chapter “Fire in Her Eyes”
Angelina loosened her hair, took off her sandals, and, with her eyes closed and her arms stretched out to the sky, stepped onto the living coals. She began to dance to the slow rhythm of the music, her long white dress flowing around her.
Martenitsa (Bulgarian: мартеница) is an amulet or bracelet made of red and white yarn that symbolizes the coming of spring. Bulgarians begin to wear them on March 1 (Baba Marta or Granny Marta) and continue to wear them until March 9, March 25, or until they see a stork, sparrow, cuckoo, or blossoming tree. At that point, people remove the bracelet and tie it to a tree to ensure good health and luck throughout the year.
The tradition dates back to Thracian times to welcome spring. Orpheus is said to have decorated his harp with such an item.
In the ancient world, the year was divided into two seasons: winter and summer, and March 1 ushered in the summer. The colors on the martenitsa also date back to ancient times. The red was symbolic of the sun’s rays, and the white was the last snow of winter. The two tassels twisted together provided both humans and livestock protection from the evil forces of the dying winter.
In celebration of summer, women put red covers and rugs into the yard, hoping they Marta would smile and make the sun warmer so they could have bountiful crops. People also made fires outdoors to warm Marta. In return, they plead with the sun not to be too scorching while farmers had to work in the fields.
Today, white symbolizes purity and innocence, and also joy, grandeur, and beauty. Red protects people, enhances masculinity, and brings fertility to women.
On Granny Marta Day, people not only start wearing their own martenitsa, they also give them to friends and relatives and wish them health and happiness. In the past, people even put martenitsi on their cattle to ensure their health.
Mystical Emona, Chapter “A Thread of Hope”
Kalyna took the amulet off her ankle and wrapped it around Stephen’s wrist. “The martenitsa is given to others as a sign of friendship. It has the power to protect people from evil. The two colors have special meanings. White is for purity and honesty, and red is symbolic of life, passion, and love.”