January sees Bulgarian villagers celebrating Midwife Day known in Bulgarian as Babin Den. The date of the celebration varies according to which part of the country you live in - for some it is celebrated on the 8th January and for others on 21st.
Bulgarian’s don’t need many excuses to celebrate! There are countless festivals throughout the year celebrating everything from name days to obscure religious festivals and an alphabet day.
Babin Den Origins
Babin Den has its roots in old pagan traditions, which has been an important celebration throughout the course of Bulgarian history, particularly during the Ottoman rule and period of National Revival, when local women did not trust the nominated Turkish authorities and defied the state’s control over her maternal powers by choosing her own birth partner. The name ‘Babin Den’ originates from the Bulgarian word Den for day and the word for old woman or grandmother ‘Baba.’ Until relatively recently all women used to give birth to their children at home and the elder women of each village all acted as self taught midwives, helping the younger women to have their children. During this ancient birthing process, the women believed that the delivery would be trouble free if everything in the house was untied and if all of the windows were closed. She would then light a candle which floated on water to ease the pain of the birth. The actual birth was a big secret in the village – only the girl who was expecting, the girl’s mother-in-law and the midwife knew about the birth. Even when the child was born the new mother was not allowed to go out or get up from bed until the child had been baptised. Babin Den is celebrated to pay thanks and show respect to those ladies who have helped in the child birthing process. Since 1951, it has been called the Day of the Delivery Assistance and is seen as the official celebration for all medical personnel involved in delivering babies.
The Role of the Baba Today
Bulgarian Babas still play an important role in Bulgarian family life. Visit any village and you will see them tilling the land, growing their own organic food and looking after their grandchildren, whilst their own children go out to earn a living. They still use their amazing knowledge of herbs, poultices and other natural remedies to treat sickness. Their skills as cooks are widely recognised and they take great pride in using traditional recipes for their baking and cooking. They teach the next generation about Bulgarian folklore and traditions. They sit outside their gates during the warmer months, watching the world go by and reflecting on life with their fellow Babas.
Womenfolk with young children celebrate by going to their village fountain to draw fresh water. They then gather at an old woman’s house and perform a ritual of washing her hands with the water and a tablet of soap. When her hands are washed, the old lady dries them on the skirts of the young women and this is done to bring them many children and an easy birth.
The old ladies are also given gifts of shirts and socks; the young mothers place them over the old lady’s right shoulder. The old women give a silver coin to each of the children she helped deliver and she also cleans their faces with the water, which she used to wash her hands because this is believed to purify their minds.
Often there is a mock wedding ceremony rather strangely between a male bride and a female groom; the role of which is given to the youngest grandmother in the village. All of the old women dress in bright, colourful traditional costumes and after the wedding ceremony, they parade around the village. Any men who dare to pass are accosted and asked for money, then they pin this to a flag topped by an onion and birds’ feathers. It is said to symbolise natural life forces. Any man who refuses to give money runs the risk of either having their trousers removed or being dressed up as a woman for the day. The flag is carried like a cross in a religious procession. Male musicians who accompany the procession are all dressed as women.
The ritual celebrations do not stop there; another Babin Den custom is to stage a mock birth, where one of the younger women of the village pretends to give birth to a doll assisted by some of the old Babas.
Another custom is for one of the old ladies to be pushed by a young man (dressed comically as a woman) around the village in a wheelbarrow. The other old dears dance, something you don’t usually see given that the Babas usually only just manage to totter to the local shop. The procession calls at various houses where food and drink is given, whilst the bottles may look like they are bottles of Rakia, they are usually filled with water – Bulgarian Babas are not really big drinkers like their husbands. Sometimes one of the old ladies is lowered into a swimming pool in a symbolic baptism ritual. The eating and drinking continues and the old girls break out into song and perform traditional dances like the Horo, the Bulgarian national dance, the celebrations continue all evening, but by morning the Babin den celebration is over and the Baba’s return to their old roles as the matriarch of a big family.