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Vestal in Varna


Cool midnight in Varna.  The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin is surrounded by hundreds of people walking anticlockwise around its substantial walls, carrying candles.  Some are chatting about Spartak Varna’s football match earlier in the day and some are muttering prayers, whilst the priest’s words inside are relayed to the masses over a loudspeaker.  As they complete their third circuit, they place their candles on ledges in the shadows, cross themselves and move on.  Some take their candle into the cathedral to be blessed and some take it straight home, to burn all night.  It is a scene which is being simultaneously repeated at churches all over Bulgaria, for tomorrow is Easter Day.

The Orthodox Church follows the Gregorian calendar, causing Easter to fall a week after the rest of the Christian world, long after children in Britain have finished all their Easter eggs.  Highly inconvenient for the European business world, it is celebrated over a three-day period, beginning on Thursday night with the painting of hard-boiled eggs and culminating in Velikden, or ‘the Great Day’, when Bulgarians eat lots of eggs and Easter cake, and cook spring lamb for the in-laws.  It is a family celebration on a much larger scale than Christmas, which is now only celebrated with any serious spirituality by those old enough to remember the time before the communist republic, or who choose a more Western lifestyle.  The festival has an air of novelty, largely due to the fact that religion was forbidden under communism, which died a slow death in the early 90’s.  “We had to believe in socialism, not God”, says Svetla, a school psychologist.  “Now we are free to enter Churches and celebrate Christmas, but Easter is the most important”.  She hopes her daughters will make the most of their freedom to worship in the way Bulgarians had for centuries before the arrival of Georgi Dimitrov and his People’s Republic in 1944, following traditions which date back to 865, when pagan religions were denounced and Orthodox Christianity became the official faith. Shortly afterwards, Saints Cyril and Methodius – who had just developed the Cyrillic alphabet, which forms the basis of many languages throughout Eastern Europe – visited the country’s then capital, Pliska, and decreed that monasteries and churches be built.  They had recently managed to persuade the Vatican to accept Macedonian as the fourth official language of the Church, and are remembered as roaming scholars, spreading the faith throughout the Balkans.

This side of the Middle Ages however, Bulgaria’s brand of Christianity has been incessantly persecuted.  Under Ottoman rule, it took a back seat to Islam and Churches had to be built below ground level, or even in caves, which explains some of the more unusual ones which can be seen today in particularly remote areas of the country.  Many monasteries were ransacked by the rampaging Turks, or simply destroyed and it is due to the commitment of the Christians of the day that a few isolated places of worship remained open, thus preserving Bulgarian cultural identity.

Back at the Cathedral, the crowd is growing as more and more people join the circuit, until it is fluid, like a glowing moat around the building.  The sheer volume of people is impressive, and the proportion of teenaged faces is startling when compared to the meagre turnout of pensioners celebrating Easter in many British churches the week before.  Admittedly, the young people are in groups, quietly chatting, dressed for the club after the service, but their numbers seem disproportionately high in a country whose birth rate is declining rapidly.  They are not there under duress, either.  Plammon, a 16-year old student thinks that faith has a place with people of his age: “Religion is important, people have to believe something to help them in their day.”

So are these people the faithful come to worship?  Certainly, many of the people in the crowd did not know why they had walked round the church three times, they gave a variety of answers involving the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost; the three days of Easter; more pagan links to the past, present and future; and even simply for good luck.  The candles, a hangover from Zoroastriansim (fire worship to you and me, the basis of many modern religions), were said to represent the Light of God and the spirit of Jesus Christ, who they believe rose from the dead on Easter Day.  They are undoubtedly an image of hope and light for the springtime, along with the egg and its connotations of rebirth and new beginnings.

 These are ancient symbols adopted by faiths the world over and there is a sense from some members of the crowd that now the country is a secular state, it does not matter too much what religion people follow, as long as they exercise their right and follow something.  Yet this freedom is not interpreted in the same way as it is in the West, there there is more tolerance of Islam and where Eastern philosophies are currently in vogue.  According to Pavel, a teacher in his late twenties, there is no reason to choose anything other than Orthodox Christianity:  “Why should I deny the religion of my ancestors?  Leave Buddhism to the Asians, Bulgarian Orthodox is the religion of our country, it was born here.”  The links between faith, culture and nationhood are strong and many others, who parade around the church with an almost patriotic sense of duty, citing dead soldiers of the Turko-Russian war, echo his sentiments.  Martin is a student of 18 who feels religious and cultural heritage are one and the same, and deserve to be preserved: “The tradition is more important than if the people with the candles believe in God, the customs must continue as they make Bulgarian Orthodox different from any other Orthodox Christianity.”  Atanas, 17, also believes that maintaining traditions for the future is vital: “You can change religion, but you cannot change old customs.”  Whether or not they believe much of what they are listening to is dubious, but there is undeniably an atmosphere somewhere between festive and pious.  Even the men from the BMW with the blacked-out windows cross themselves, jewellry jangling.

It is clear that Varna is celebrating more than just Easter with such fervour.  Religion is rarely cool amongst the young, yet the town’s teenagers have willingly incorporated a church service into their Saturday night out.  The youth of Bulgaria has projected its own meaning onto the proceedings, regardless of their spiritual content.  They are celebrating their right to celebrate whatever they want, however they choose through Christianity, which has the added appeal of a kitsch look back at cultural heritage, a nod that will sustain it for another generation.  The cultural implications of the Changes nearly fifteen years ago will be felt in the national consciousness for many years to come.

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