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  • Tanya Popova

The power of celebrations for the individual and the community

Dressing with traditional costumes is a very popular thing in Bulgaria for all generations. It is done for community celebrations, weddings, christenings, school events, national holidays and others.

The festive season is upon us which means lots of celebration and different traditions are happening across the globe, which got us thinking about what celebrations mean in our lives. Celebrations, be they with family or community, are an important part of every person's life. They are a powerful tool for bringing people together and strengthening ties in families and communities, which is why we find different celebrations and traditions across countries so fascinating at Neighbourly Lab. We are excited by the power of celebrations to:

1. Keep alive the connection between the generations

2. Bring people from different backgrounds together

3. Strengthen ties in communities

4. Heal and rebuild relationships

From our conversations about celebrations and traditions, I realise how unique/strange some of the biggest holidays back home might seem to people outside of my culture (I am originally from Bulgaria). These celebrations all champion a sense of community:

1. Day of the Grandmother

One of my favourite celebrations is The Day of the Grandmother. In Bulgaria the grandmother plays a crucial role in every person’s life. This may be due to generations of families all living under the same roof in years gone by, or the fact that grannies are often so involved in the upbringing of their grandkids in Bulgaria. Whatever the reason, grandmothers are deeply loved by their grandchildren. For children, nothing can compare to the trip to their granny’s house where they would find a table full of homemade delicacies (hence all the jokes about Eastern European grannies who do not let you leave their house before you’ve finished all the food!).

On 8th January we celebrate the Day of the Grandmother to demonstrate the love and respect that we have for them. The tradition brings together three generations on that day: the child, the mother and the grandmother. The mother brings water and helps her child to wash the grandmother’s hands and then dry them. Symbolism here is related to the act of washing away all the misfortunes, as water is believed to have purifying powers. While water is dropping from the hands of the granny she gives blessings to the children (the power of sending blessings through words is something that Bulgarians believe in deeply).

2. Forgiveness Day

Another celebration that I believe has a deeply beneficial effect on social connection is Forgiveness Day (Sirni Zagovezni). On that day as per tradition young people ask for forgiveness from the elderly - for example, daughters and sons ask forgiveness from parents and grandparents. “Forgive me if I have done anything wrong and offended you in this past year” and the reply “I have forgiven everything, now God should forgive” - that is a typical example of the conversations shared on this day.

For someone who is reading this for the first time, the act of asking forgiveness might seem like an unusual and uncomfortable thing to do. However, we are encouraged to share openly on this day and honesty is welcomed, so we can share without shame or fear of judgement.

The real value of this ritual of forgiving and being forgiven is that it goes both ways - the difference in age is not important here because everyone can make a mistake, no matter how much life experience they have under their belt. Our Forgiveness Day preaches that it is not shameful to ask for forgiveness - quite the opposite, this is a way of rethinking one’s values and evolving as a human being. Thinking about the big picture, a person is a part of a family, and families form a whole community so I would argue that the act described above brings not only internal peace for the individual but harmony in the community as a whole.

Image courtesy by Flaticon.

3. The 11th of May (reading/literacy celebration)

A special celebration that not every nation has is the 11th May - the day that honours Cyril and Methodius, the two brothers who invented the Slavic alphabet. On this day schools are the main generator of festive initiatives - kids read Bulgarian language literature at school, they prepare and perform at concerts and celebrations. Parents and grandparents help in the preparation of handmade signs and torches with the Slavic alphabet letters - an activity that strengthens the bond between generations.

In the evening many schools organise torch processions which symbolise the light brought to people by literacy and knowledge. I believe this can be quite a magical moment for young students and a fun way of learning historical facts that would remain vivid through the lived experience of walking the streets with your schoolmates carrying a symbolic light in your hand and engaging with the community through songs, pictures and games. Apart from students and teachers, there are a lot more people involved in the sessions and concerts - parents, grandparents, ex-students, partner organisations and every bypasser who happens to be on the street at that time. This brings together people from different ages and backgrounds, and they are reminded about their shared past and the importance of keeping the connection that exists among all of us who live in the same community.

Reflecting on it now, I realise I did not cherish this celebration enough as a kid. I believe this is due to the fact that we often cannot see the value of certain things when we are living through them. Once we are removed from the place/time we recall and reevaluate things. I am now nostalgic for this exact celebration, as I remember how exciting it was to have that connection with the people of my town.

Finally, I believe the most important factor in a day of celebrations with one’s community is not its specific name, date or ways that we celebrate but the fact that this is an opportunity for us to improve our connection with others in our community. A chance to come together and share in something positive. Speaking from my point of view I can say for sure that celebrations were an important part of my character development and they made me empathetic, open and willing to help others.

Learn more about Bulgarian traditions here.

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