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‘For Health’: Orthodoxy and Nationalism in the celebration of Theophany

To a Bulgarian, celebrations on the day of Theophany – known in Western Christianity as Epiphany – are performed za zdrave (за здраве), or ‘for health’. Underlying this response, however, are conflicting views regarding national, religious, and folk/communal identity, all of which intertwine in the performance of the event and its celebration. The performance of a Christian ritual has merged with local folk traditions, thus recognised by some Bulgarians as a religious experience which brings health, and/or a tradition, preserved by the locals and keeping the Bulgarian identity. The study focuses on the symbiotic relationship between religion and nationalism, where religious practice can be taken to enhance one’s view of their national belonging.


Damming the River

The men from Kalofer gather on the day before Theophany to dam the river. The place is chosen due to its proximity to the biggest church in town whence a procession of priests and laity brings the Holy Cross to the river; the church can be seen on the hill, in the right corner of the photo. The preparation starts in the morning and continues till midday, during which townsfolk, primarily men, gather to observe; some elders give advice to the younger men on how to approach the process while some come to see their friends working on the dam and share a glass of homemade wine – something offered to everyone present (including me). The manual labour is completed with traditional tools, axes and pitchforks. This communal atmosphere changed significantly after the arrival of journalists from the main national channels – the majority of men who were not directly involved in the process left, and only few seemed happy to talk to the media. The preparation process revealed a strong sense of community in the realisation of the ritual itself.


The Male Horo; or, The Circle Dance

In contrast to the dull winter surrounding of the river on the previous day, on Theophany everything is filled with the colours of the traditional folk dress and the national flags. One of the key elements of the ritual is the male horo. The only participants are men who form a circle in the river and sing two local folk songs under the accompaniment of back pipes and drums – the musicians form an inner circle, before a priest throws the Holy Cross into the river.  Two significantly distinguishable groups can be spotted - the Kalofer men having a clear group structure and purposefully separating themselves, while the outsiders, positioned behind them, are chaotic in their expression of rather nationalist sentiments with a notable prevalence of national flags. The presence of national flags in a Christian celebration is incredibly important to illustrate the presence of nationalism in public events deemed to be preserving ‘Bulgarianness’. More subtle is the symbolism of the folk dress which once again is not a Christian reference, but instead expresses a nostalgia for a highly idealised notion of Bulgarian identity. The popularity of the celebration is obvious from the vast crowds on both sides of the river, coming from all around the country to be spectators of Bulgarian ‘tradition’ and ‘for health’ – an expression acknowledging the Christian element and belief in the purifying nature of the ritual.


Catching the Holy Cross

The highlight of the event is the moment the Holy Cross is caught. By ecclesiastic canon, the Holy Cross is thrown in a river to purify the waters and bring health to all. A widespread belief is that the man who catches the cross in the river will have good health throughout the year. In Kalofer, the cross is given to the youngest participant. Through the enactment of this ritual, I explore the narrative of manhood as a representation of ‘national strength’ as well as a kindred transmission of tradition from one generation to the next. The photo depicts some of the young boys who have entered the river on the shoulders of men as an initiation to the male horo. One of my interlocutors shared that the men in his family have been participating for generations – his turn came when his father stopped participating. The male horo represents a community’s understanding and reinvention of the celebration of Theophany while becoming a symbol of Bulgarian identity for others.