Palm Sunday in Bulgaria, which is on 24 April this year according to the Eastern Orthodox Church, is an event that offers a glimpse of yet another contradiction in society, between half-forgotten traditions, religion and pure joie de vivre.
The feast in Bulgaria has two names: Tsvetnitsa, or Flower Day, and Vrabnitsa, or Willow Day. Whatever the name, Palm Sunday is one of the most colourful and vibrant festivities in this country. From early in the morning and throughout the day people queue in front of churches. Some of them carry bunches of flowers. When they reach the entrance of the church, they take the blessed willow twigs distributed by a priest, kiss his hand and proceed inside. There they light candles, leave their flowers at the icon of their preferred saint, pray for a while, and then hurry home. Once there, they weave the twigs in wreaths and place them at the main entrance and by the household icon, if there is one, for protection against evil and harm.
Few go to the church for the special mass marking the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. Taking the blessed twigs is deemed more important and, once this is done, there follows a celebration of the name day of relatives and friends bearing flower or plant names. Names of floral origin abound in Bulgaria and that means that there is hardly a family in the country without at least one person called Margarita, or Daisy, Yavor, or Sycamore, Dilyana, or Catnip, Yasen, or Ash tree, Zdravko, or Geranium and so on and so forth. Generic names like Tsvetelin, Tsvetomir and Tsvetan, with their feminine variants, are also popular. They all mean flower or flowering.
In short, the Bulgarian Palm Sunday is yet another excuse to gather with friends and have a drink or two. The feast's ecclesiastical meaning is all but forgotten, and the rituals that still mark it have more to do with millennia-old paganism.
For traditional Bulgarians who, before the forced urbanisation and atheism of Communism, used to live mainly in villages, Palm Sunday was a celebration of nature reborn. Tellingly, it was also part of the initiation celebrations that marked a girl's passage into womanhood.
On the previous day, Lazarovden, or Lazar's Saturday, the teenage unmarried girls of the village would gather, dressed in wedding or woman's clothes. They would form a group of lazarki and visit each home in the village, singing and dancing for the mistress of the house while wishing her health and wealth. The lazaruvane was a crucial point in the life of any girl. If she had not been a lazarka for at least one year, she was not allowed to wear woman's clothing or any finery, to braid her hair like a grown up and, most importantly, to marry. Another danger threatened any girl who had omitted being a lazarka: she was at risk of being taken by a dragon and becoming his wife.
Palm Sunday usually garners crowds in churches
On the following day, Palm Sunday, the lazarki would pick willow wreaths and bunches of flowers or bake special human-shaped loaves of bread. They would join the other villagers in the church and, once the mass had ended, they would go to find running water. They would throw their wreaths, flowers or loaves into the waters, and see which of these would be first to pass a given place. Its owner would then become the leader of the gang – a great honour – and the others would do their best to show her respect. They would keep silence in her presence, a burden that she would remove, ritually, on the third day after Easter when her friends would visit her at home for a feast.
Young girls were not the only ones occupied with ritual activities on Palm Sunday. Women who were long past their lazarki years would take good care of the willow wreaths they brought from church as these were thought to possess magic powers. Throughout the year, they would use them to cure sick members of the household. When the skies darkened and a storm threatened to destroy the crops, they would take out the wreathes and look at the clouds through them, believing that this would clear the skies.
In the 21st Century, the genuine lazaruvane ritual is no more, although in some villages it is recreated like a remnant from the past, often – due to depopulation – by elderly women or Gypsy girls. All that has survived somewhat altered, from these century-old traditions, is the eagerness with which modern Bulgarians take their blessed willows home. The rest of the traditions are alive only in articles on the Internet.
Blessed willow twigs bring happiness and health to the household, Bulgarians believe
The feast usually coincides with the best days of spring, when everything is in full blossom