by Dimana Trankova; photography by BTA

Two holidays, same date: the Bulgarians are torn between the outlandish holiday of love and the local celebration of wine

st trifon zarezan 2.jpg

You may not particularly like Bulgarian streets because of their narrow pavements, missing flagstones and parked cars, but you will probably not notice these shortcomings on 14 February. Shops and pubs are decorated with hearts and pink balloons, women are more beautiful than usual and young people are kissing on every corner.

And then you encounter a group of Bulgarians who are obviously slightly tipsy. The mixed company loudly praises Trifon Zarezan. Several yards further you come across a baffling scene.

"Where are you going with these roses?" asks a young man who is carrying a plastic bottle full of dark liquid. If you have been in Bulgaria long enough, you will know it is not blueberry juice, but homemade red wine.

"I'm celebrating St Valentine's day with my girlfriend," the other man answers. Instead of a bottle, he is carrying a colourful bag of presents.

"Are you a Bulgarian or what? What about Trifon Zarezan?!" the first man explodes and contemptuously leaves the henpecked xenophile to join the mixed company.

You might think (don't ever mention this idea to Bulgarians!) that Trifon Zarezan is the local counterpart of St Valentine. But the only thing they have in common is that their holidays are celebrated on 14 February and symbolise the revival of nature.

Bulgarians play their bagpipes to facilitate the growth of their wines

There are more profound differences, however: St Trifon, the patron saint of wine, vine-growers, winemakers and tavern-keepers, is a much more entertaining character than St Valentine.

The only interesting fact in the past of the Catholic priest, who was killed in 269 AD on the orders of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus, is that he was probably two different people. The first St Valentine lived in Rome and the second was the bishop of Terni, but both were executed in the same year for the same reasons. They were Christian at a time when this was forbidden and performed marriages for socially underprivileged Romans.

St Valentine's day (whichever of the two he was) is celebrated on 14 February following the decision of Pope Gelasius I in the 5th Century to abolish Lupercalia, the pagan holiday of fertility and a time when young Roman men and women paired off as lovers. The church deflected the young people's attention by employing a legend which claimed that the saint fell in love with his gaoler's daughter and sent her a letter signed "From Your Valentine". The syrupy story turned 14 February into a popular holiday in the romantic Middle Ages which, in turn, became an industry pouring out tons of cards, chocolates and erotic underwear in the 20th Century.

st trifon zarezan

St Trifon is another matter.

The Orthodox calendar laconically states that the young Trifon from Phrygia became a martyr shortly before St Valentine, in 248 AD. More curious data are to be found in Bulgarian legends. Let's begin with the belief that vine-grower Trifon was the Virgin Mary's brother.

When, on the 40th day after giving birth to Jesus, the Virgin Mary was taking the baby to the temple, she passed by her brother's vineyard. Trifon was pruning his vines. Being something of a wind-up merchant, he teased his sister about her illegitimate son. Angered, the Virgin went to Trifon's house faking tears and told Trifon's wife that he had cut his nose while pruning his vineyard. The frightened woman rushed to the vineyard and found her husband intact.

"I am not that clumsy," snapped Trifon, but while showing his wife that he couldn't possibly hurt himself with the pruning shears, he did cut off his nose. Since that day he has been called "Zarezan", the one who cut himself.

If you ask Bulgarians why a rude man like Trifon deserves a place among the saints, this will cause wonder. "He was the Virgin's brother, wasn't he?" The Bulgarian language even has a special word for family links determining social success, shurobadzhanashtina.

Trifon Zarezan might have been rude, but in Bulgaria wine is held in high esteem. This is why his day is marked by everybody, including Bulgarian Catholics, and the verb describing the gradual inebriation during the holiday is the same used to denote the pruning of the vines, zaryazvam.

Following an old tradition, in the morning men put on their Sunday best, place a wreath of vine branches on their heads and set off for the vineyards. They never fail to take a wooden flagon of wine to drink on the way. Each man prunes a vine and pours some wine over it wishing for an abundant harvest. Then a priest blesses everybody with holy water and they choose the "king of the vineyards". This honourable title is given to the best vine-grower or winemaker and he will hold it for a year. To avoid bringing back their flagons full, the men have a feast in the vineyard and then stagger back to the village and the king's house, where the table is already laid for them.

Not very Christian. But don't be surprised, as St Trifon is the ill-disguised Dionysus, the god of wine and wild merrymaking, who, as the ancient Greeks believed, was born in Thrace.

In modern Bulgaria, where an increasing number of people live in the cities and rely on a dwindling number of elderly relatives in the country for the production of homemade wine, the pruning ritual is gradually becoming no more than an exotic old tradition. But Trifon Zarezan's day is celebrated wholeheartedly in the cities too: in taverns and private homes alike and with all sorts of alcoholic drinks that are at hand, even Martini. The only rule is to drink for as long as you can. The next day, there is hardly anyone without a bloated face in the street.

Because drinking is such a popular pastime, Trifon Zarezan easily survived the atheistic Communist regime. The older generation remembers the repression of people who dared to go to church at Christmas or Easter. But nobody has heard of State Security agents nosing around for those getting drunk on Trifon Zarezan day!

st trifon zarezan

By an ironic quirk of fate, the saint/god of wine had to face serious competition after the democratic changes.

Catholic St Valentine quickly caught on in post-Communist Bulgaria, a fact which can astound only one who has not heard about the popularity of Valentine's Day in Buddhist Thailand, Communist China, Hindu India or Muslim Bangladesh. Besides, the Bulgarians, who have never been devout Christians, quickly and eagerly adopt "Western fashions". There would hardly be any conflict if the dates of the two holidays did not coincide.

An American couple from Oklahoma have been exchanging the same Valentine Day cards since 1946

The first to line up under the banner of the romantic saint were the young and women, who may grow impatient with the devotion with which their other halves consume wine and rakiya, but will never tire of receiving roses. The discrediting of Women's Day, 8 March, which under Communism was the only day other than their birthdays when women were given proper attention by their husbands, also played its role in their embrace of St Valentine.

The patriots stood squarely in Trifon's corner. They saw Valentine as a threat to their national identity, and to men in general: they will always prefer wine and rakiya to roses.

The Bulgarians are now in a state of cultural schizophrenia and it is unlikely to end soon, despite the attempts of peacemakers to celebrate St Valentine and St Trifon Zarezan together, because "love and wine are the same thing".

It wouldn't have come to this if the Bulgarians had looked at the church calendar from time to time. It says that St Trifon's day is on 1 February.

Traditionally conservative Orthodoxy is surprisingly ilberal over wine on St Trifon Zarezan's Day

When Bulgaria adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1916 and 14 April came after 31 March, the Church decided against changing the dates of its holidays, which are still celebrated according to the Julian calendar. This is why, for example, Christmas is marked on 25 December instead of 6 January.

Apart from the Church and winemakers, nobody knows why most Bulgarians prefer to keep Trifon Zarezan's day on 14 February. The more resourceful of them never miss the chance to celebrate it twice.

Useful to know, albeit a little confusing. Just imagine the respect in the eyes of your Bulgarian friends when on 14 February you can answer their question about whether you are going to celebrate Trifon Zarezan's day with them with the well-informed "Wasn't it on 1 February?"


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