This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Harry Markov discusses Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers.
Saint Haralampi, patron of Plague and Beekeepers
Here I want to tackle my Names Day, St. Haralampi. First, let me explain the concept of the Names Days. I’m not aware if any other Eastern Orthodox Christian countries celebrate these, but the concept is simple. Bulgaria has a vast religious calendar that hosts all holidays, many of which are Names Days. I’m having hard time keeping this formal, because it looks as if I’m dumbing it down.
Yesterday was St. Haralampi, during which all the people who have this name or a variation of it celebrate. I’m Haralambi, so I celebrate, but so far haven’t heard of a female version of my name, because Haralambi is essentially a Greek name [because I’m ¼ Greek]. Mandatory for all Names Days is to wish the ‘name bearer’ [I invented this term, because I don’t want to type up ‘people who celebrate their Names Day’ all the time] health and prosperity. I don’t get many, because my Names Day is obscure. Not many are named after the saint, due to his Greek origin.
Now that I’ve covered the basics, I want to talk more about my saint. Saint Haralambi isn’t a well known historical figure. What is known about his life is that he died defending his faith, which automatically listed him as a martyr and thereafter as a saint. Legends say that he was a Miracle Worker and a great healer. Because of his healing, he was named a patron of diseases [icons portray him chaining all personifications of diseases and in particular, the plague itself] and beekeepers [because of honey’s healing properties].
As legends go, on February 10th Saint Haralampi captured the Plague [an ugly, old woman] and chained her. Celebrations during this day are meant to keep the plague outside the house. To protect themselves from this terrible disease, people fenced houses with hawthorn and briers [if my translation is correct], sewed garlic cloves to the headscarf for women and shirts for men. Some even dressed with special “pestilential shirts” sewn of nine widows.
Women are forbidden to work on this day, lest the plague enters their home. What they do is to bake a special bread [shown above]. Here the facts become rather meshed up. One source says that women coat the bread with blessed honey from the church and nuts. Then they cut it into four pieces that correspond with the four directions of the world. One is kept at home and the other three are given to neighbors and relatives as a token of health. But before any of this goes down, the house must be scrubbed clean.
There is another custom. Only the “pure” women [no idea whether by “pure” the text refers to virgins or healthy women] to bake bread and bring it outside the village at the crossroads to appease the plague. Alternatives to this suggest to leave food and water on the ceiling or to hang bread wrapped in cloth on an abandoned wall along with a wooden vessel of wine. To be on the safe side and drive away the plague, it’s called diminutive names: "sweet and honey", "good", "aunt". I’d go for a bit more mystical and call her “honeyed one.”
The most interesting custom so far has to do with the use of twins. The whole village has to be ritualistically plowed by two twin brothers. They have to do so using a plow made from a twin tree [or twin wood, I’m not sure about the translation here] and twin oxen.
If St. Haralampi’s Day is not celebrated, he will grow furious and will release the plague and other terrible diseases from their chains down on the ungrateful ones. Yes, my saint is not as benevolent as you thought. No wonder people commit to so many customs and rituals in his honor.
Also, on this day consecrated honey is believed to have especially strong healing properties as it can cure rashes, measles, wounds on the body. If you smear it on children’s foreheads, they remain healthy.
Harry Markov lives in Varna, Bulgaria on the shores of the Black Sea. This post originally appeared at his blog, linked above.