< Customs and Rituals

Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker - patron saint of fishermen and sailors in the bay of Burgas

From ancient times the villages along the Bay of Burgas deeply honoured one of the most righteous Christian saints - Nicholas the Wonderworker. He was perceived by people as masters of the sea, serpent of storms and sea elements. They believed that the saint-wonderworker sail a golden vessel at the sea and always can be found at places of need. Therefore, sailors and fishermen from the Bay welcomed him as a patron. He was honoured in the medieval monasteries erected at both sides of Burgas Bay. In North the gulf was protected by the chief monastery of St. Nicholas located on Cape Emona and in South the Monastery of St. Nicholas found in nowadays city of Chernomorets (named in the past the village of St. Nicholas).

From ancient times the Burgas boatmen believed that whenever a new boat is being made, an icon of St. Nicholas must be embedded in its bow. This would strengthen its structure and protect it during storms at sea. Among the fishermen families in Burgas the custom of lighting up a candle in front of the family's St. Nicholas icon is still observed, while the men are at sea. In this way the fishermen’s women seek the saint's protection to bring back their husbands alive and healthy. According to the memories of the old citizens of Burgas, up to the 40’s of the twentieth century, on the eve of the feast, the older and virtuous women walked around the houses of fishermen and sailors and received from each one a handful of wheat. In the evening they had boiled it in the house of one of the fishermen, who is respected and well known for his good luck. They placed the wheat in a special bowl in the shape of a ship and decorated it carefully. In the morning the dishes were served and blessed in the church during the festive liturgy. The so sanctified grain was given out to keep up the memory of the deceased or died at sea sailors and fishermen. This custom ends on the coast, where people throw in the waters garlands of ivy with the rest of the grain and spill out red wine in memory of fishermen and sailors perished in the past year.

Today the custom is still observed in Burgas. On St. Nicholas day no fishermen, sailors or their families are allowed to work, as well as any ships or boats to go into the sea, except for serving a memorial ritual. If the sailors are travelling far into distant seas or oceans, they’ll stop, anchor and prepare a festive meal. They celebrate in honour of St. Nicholas decorating with greenery and flowers the bow of their boats and ships.

The traditional meal prepared for this day is a very interesting ritual, which involves an old Bulgarian legend:
"One day St. Nicholas sailed deep into the sea along with his friends. Suddenly their boat got hit by storm. The boat began to fill with water sinking quickly. The companions of the saint mocked him that he couldn’t do a miracle to save them. In spite of, St. Nicholas caught one carp with his bare hands and filled the hole with it, which stopped the water from coming in."
Perhaps the original version of this legend was about any random fish with scales that stands for good luck and more money. Even so, this is how the custom adopted the carp as a symbol of the ritual feast and a votive offering to the holy patron St. Nicholas. The carp must be prepared stuffed with rice, groats, raisins and walnuts and coated with dough. This dish is also called Ribnik. The dish is decorated with strips and circles from dough outlining fish backbone, tail and head. On the table the dish is cut so as to preserve the bone of the head in the form of a cross, which is cast into the sea for health and welfare of the whole family.
Honouring St. Nicholas as patron saint of the fishermen has created some statutory prohibitions and rituals following his holiday. The first catch of the fishermen has to be offered to their patron saint, and the first fish caught must be prepared and eaten directly on the coast as its bones are thrown into the sea. It is believed that on this day the sea “closes” and the autumn-winter fishing period ends. After this day the tradition prohibits catching fish until spring. In this way the fishermen not only protect themselves from the cold winter weather but also letting the sea to restore its fish wealth in the spring.

In 1992 St. Nicholas' Day was declared a public holiday in Burgas. Already 17 years the citizens of Burgas honour their patron saint as they keep alive the ancient traditions and create a new festive atmosphere.

© Tsonya Drazheva
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