All text in this article is from Bulgarian Folk Customs, ©1998 by Mercia MacDermott, published by Jessica Kingsley.
One of the most important occasions when young people could meet was the sedyanka (plural sedenki) – an evening gathering, half working-bee and half party, at which young people could get to know each other under circumstances which satisfied the requirements of patriarchal respectability. The girls would arrange to meet at the home of one of their number, and would either bring their own spinning or help the hostess’s family to husk corn or thread tobacco on to strings for drying, and so on.
The young men would arrive later, not to work but to provide music, to listen to the girls singing, to chat with them, to contribute anecdotes, legends, riddles, and tongue-twisters and, above all, to join in the dancing which provided a climax to the evening.
Sedenki were so popular that, in larger villages and towns, each neighbourhood would organize its own, so that there might be several in progress on the same night, and the boys might look in on more than one. Originally, all age groups attended the sedenki. The boys and girls would sit in the centre by the fire, where the light was brightest, with the young married couples forming a second circle behind them, and the old folks on the outskirts of the company in the shadows, invisible to the young folk but observing their every move. In olden times the boys and girls were segregated on opposite sides of the fire, and, where the two groups would otherwise have merged, there would be seated a girl and boy who were close relatives (and thus not potential lovers) or the lady of the house or some other elderly woman. During the nineteenth century, however, there was a tendency for fewer old people to frequent the sedenki, which thus became events mainly for the young. There was also some relaxation of the strict rules which separated the boys from the girls, and the boys were permitted to sit beside the girls of their choice.
Sedenki took place in the autumn and winter when there was little work to be done in the fields, and when men working in distant parts returned home. Often the timing of the first and last sedyanka of the season was governed by the state of the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas): when it’s first fruit ripened and turned red, the season opened; and when the yellow flowers appeared in the spring, it closed.
Sometimes the first sedyanka of the season was timed to coincide with the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (28 August / 8 September), because of the belief that the Virgin was the protector of the family and of motherhood. In a few areas, the first Sedenki were held in July, during the so-called Goreshnitsi (Dog Days), when rituals connected with fore were performed. This choice of date was intended to ensure that ‘ the lads would burn with love for the girls’. It is significant that the usual verb used for ‘organizing’ a sedyanka was the same as that used for building and lighting a fire, and that whether a sedyanka was held inside or outside, there always had to be a fire, regardless of the weather.
First sedyanka rituals
The first sedyanka of the season had a ritual character, and its purpose was to ensure the success of the forthcoming season of sedenki, namely that they would be well attended by boys, so that each girl would have a wide choice of suitors and find romance. Unlike all subsequent sedenki, the first sedyanka was held in secret and attended by unmarried girls only, who, moreover, brought no work with them.
A typical sedyanka would proceed as follows. A few days before the agreed date, each of the participants would try to obtain a pale from the fence of her chosen boy’s house and one of the rags used for cleaning the oven at his home. On the day before the sedyanka, the girls would go round the fields and vegetable gardens outside the village and and collect long pumpkin-vines. All these things would be left out all night ‘to sleep under the stars’, so that they would be purified and cleansed of all evil which might otherwise render the ritual less effective. On the actual evening of the first sedyanka, the girls would gather, with all their requisites, outside the village at some crossroads. These symbolized the many paths that the boys might take on leaving home and would ensure that all roads led them to the sedyanka. At the crossroads they would light a fire and stand in a circle around it. The oldest girl present would produce her oven-rag, making three movements as though cleaning with it, and say: ‘as the oven is swept with this rag, so may the bachelor lads be swept out of their houses and come to the sedyanka.’ All the girls would then circle the fire three times and jump over it three times; whereupon the first girl would throw her rag into the fire and say: ‘As this rag burns in the fire, so may the bachelor-lads burn for the girls.’ Once again all the girls would circle the fire and jump over it three times. Then each girl, in turn, would perform her own sweeping movements with her own rag and throw it onto the fire saying: ”as the oven is swept with this rag, so may So-and-So [her chosen’s name] be swept out of his house and come to the sedyanka. May he sit beside me, may he fall in love with me, may he marry me!’
When each individual had performed the whole ritual, punctuated by the three circles around the fire and the three jumps over it, the leading girl went on to the next stage. She raised her pale above her head and said: ‘This pale hinders the bachelor lads. Let it burn in the fire, and open up a hole in the fence through which the bachelor-lads can pass and come to the sedyanka.’ All the girls in turn repeated the action, each linking her pale with the name of a specific boy. In the third and final part of the ritual, the pumpkin-vines were trailed around the fire and then burnt, while the girls expressed the wish that ‘as the pumpkin-vines are drawn after us, so may the bachelor-lads be drawn after us,’ and ‘as the vines burn, so may the lads burn with love for the maidens.’
The girls would then put potatoes to roast in the embers of the fire, and at a suitable opportunity, they would offer them to their beloveds. The placing of the potatoes in the fire concluded the secret part of the ritual, and the girls then sat around the fire and sang loudly, in the hope that the boys would hear and come and join them.
In another version of this custom, the girls would omit the preliminary ritual for sweeping the boys out of their homes and removing all barriers to their coming to the sedyanka. Instead they would concentrate on ensuring that the boys were drawn to the girls and were consumed with love. Together they would secretly take an oven-peel from a house where there was a young bachelor, and collect pieces of wood which had been carried by water down three streams or water courses which did not join each other. These pieces of wood were symbolically dragged, not carried, to the site of the ritual. As they dragged the wood, each girl would say to herself: ‘As this log is drawn after me, so may So-and-So be drawn’. The girls would also prepare an apronful of kindling twigs, a pumpkin-vine, some tow and a pot, and each would collect a handful of hay from 12 different haystacks. All these items would be left under the stars for purification on the night before the ceremony. On the evening itself, the girls would gather at the agreed spot, stand in a circle and place their hay in the middle. The leader, known as the iztûrsak (a term meaning one who will ‘shake out’ the lads, and get them to the sedyanka), chosen for her unblemished reputation, then emptied the twigs out of the apron onto the hay, saying: ‘As these twigs pour on to the fire, so also may the lads pour to the sedyanka.’ She then piled up the wood and lit the fire, saying: ‘As this fire burns, so may the bachelor-lads burn for the maidens.’ All the girls would then jump over the fire three times and re-form themselves into a circle. Each girl would then take a twig, name it after her beloved, and throw it onto the fire, saying: ‘As this twig burns, so may So-and-So burn with love for me’. After all of them had circled and jumped over the fire three times, the leader then went round the fire three times, dragging the pumpkin-vine, saying: ‘As this stem is drawn after me, may the lads be drawn after the maidens’ while each girl mentally added the name of her chosen one. The vine was then thrown onto the fire and burnt with appropriate wishes. After the fire had again been circled and jumped over three times, the iztûrsak took the tow, pulled it apart and threw it onto the fire, repeating formulas to the effect that, as the tow was pulled and burnt, so might the boys be pulled to the sedyanka to burn with love for the girls.
Then the oldest girl would take the oven-peel, seat the iztûrsak on it and start to drag her around the fire. All the girls would chant: ‘What are you pulling?’, and the girl with the peel would reply: ‘I am pulling the bachelor-lads’. After the third round, all the girls would tell the iztûrsak the names of their sweethearts. When the girls again put the question ‘What are you pulling?’, the iztûrsak would call out a name and, in answer to the question ‘For whom are you pulling him?’, the appropriate girl would answer. When all the names had been called, the girls would once again jump over the fire and circle it three times.
The iztûrsak would then place the empty pot near the fire, and all the girls would withdraw to an equal distance from it. At a given signal, all raced towards the pot, and it was believed the first to reach it and break it with a kick would be the first to marry that year. The final stage of the ritual involved fixing as many apples as there were girls to the arms of a wooden apparatus for winding wool, placing it near the fire and twirling it around, to encourage the lads to ‘twirl around the girls’. Each girl then took one of the apples to give to the boy of her choice. In order to discover whether their love would be returned, and whether they would marry within a year, each girl would tease out some tow* and make it into a ring, which she would lay on the ground with two markers of wood, representing herself and her boy, placed diametrically opposite each other. She then set fire to the tow exactly halfway between the markers, and, if the fire reached both markers simultaneously, it was taken to mean she would be married within the year.
*[“In the textile industry, a tow (or hards) is a coarse, broken fibre, removed during processing flax, hemp, or jute and separated from the shives. Flax tows are often used as upholstery stuffing and oakum. Tows in general are frequently cut up to produce staple fibre. The very light color of flax tow is the source of the word “towhead“, meaning a person with naturally light blonde hair.” Wikipedia.]
This concluded the secret part of the ritual and, as in the first version, the girls would start singing loudly to attract the boys. The songs were special ones associated with the occasion.
Other regional variations of the custom involved the preliminary collection of other objects, such as a splinter of wood from every bridge in the neighbourhood, salt from every sheep-fold (so that the boys would come crowding into the sedyanka like sheep, eager to lick salt), or soil and eggs from several anthills (so that the boys would arrive in hordes, like ants). All these objects would be thrown onto the fire in the manner already described. The first sedyanka custom practiced in some districts was the fetching of ‘turning’ water (vûrteliva voda). The iztûrsak would put a large vessel in a bag, and all the girls would set out for a stream, with pumpkin-vines tucked into their belts and trailing behind them. Some might also drag peels, or carry spoon-boxes full of spoons (so that the boys might gather at the sedyanka as tightly packed as spoons in a box). When they reached the water, the girls stood in a semi-circle, and as the iztûrsak filled the vessel, they all sang ‘as the water revolves, so may the lads revolve around the sedyanka‘. Whenever possible, ‘turning water’ was obtained from a mill pond, or as it fell from a water-wheel. Sometimes herbs believed to induce love were then placed in the water, or the girls would wash their faces in it. The ‘turning water’ was then offered to the boys to drink, since it was believed that a boy who drank from such water would never know peace and quiet until he married one of the girls concerned!
In some parts of Bulgaria ritual spinning formed parts of the first sedyanka, even if it took place on one of the Dog Days, when all normal work was taboo. Each girl would spin a single thread and, if the ritual was being performed at a crossroads, the threads would be joined together to form one ling threrad, which was then strung out across the paths, forming a barrier intended to ‘make the lads stop at the sedyanka’. Alternatively, the oldest girl would collect the threads and roll them into a ball, which was attached to the cauldron chain over a hearth and allowed to burn. When the threads caught fire the girls would sing ‘As the yarn burns in the fireplace, so may the bachelor-lads burn for the maidens’. The very act of spinning, that is, the turning of the spindle and the twisting of the thread, was thought to encourage the boys to hover around the girls.
Sedyanka season begins
Once the first, ritual sedyanka had been held, the season began in earnest. It was always the girls who organized the sedenki, taking it in turns to invite others to their homes. While the weather was still warm, sedenki could be held on a threshing floor, on a meadow close to the village or, more usually, in the courtyard of a house, where there was plenty of space both for visitors and dancing. Later on, sedenki could be held in barns or lean-to sheds, and finally, when the winter set in, they were held indoors, around the hearth. Regardless of what the weather was like, no sedyanka was complete without a fire and, as soon as two or three other girls had arrived, the first fire was started and was allowed to smolder and smoke until all the girls were there, whereupon they heaped it with wood so that the flames would flare up and illuminate the sky as a signal to the boys. Once the fire was burning well, the girls sat around it with their distaffs and spindles, or knitting or embroidery and sang, waiting impatiently for the boys to put in an appearance. Sometimes they would try to foretell who would arrive first, that is whose boyfriend was most eager to be with his love. One way of doing this was for each girl to tear a little wool from her distaff and place it on the ground in front of her. At a given signal all the girls simultaneously set fire to their wool and watched to see whose wool would burn up first, thus indicating that her sweetheart would be the first arrival. If, after more work and more songs, no boys had appeared, the girls would take down the chain which hung above the hearth and drag it about, together with a trivet, in order to draw the boys to the sedyanka.
The boys were never formally invited to a sedyanka, but had to discover its whereabouts from the glow in the sky or the sound of singing, or from information gleaned from younger sisters in the know. Boys usually went in groups to a sedyanka, dressed in their best clothes, taking along invited musicians if none of their number played an instrument, and armed with cudgels, and possibly also with guns and pistols, to ward off dogs. On their way they would sometimes fire their guns into the air, ‘to cleanse the path from evil’. What with the music, the gunfire and the barking of dogs, the girls were left in no doubt as to the approach of their suitors. The lady of the house would meet the boys at the gate, and all the girls would rise to greet them. When the boys were seated, either on one side of the fire or ‘knee to knee’ with their sweethearts, they would beg the girls to entertain them with songs. A boy attending his first sedyanka was likely to come in for a lot of chaff and banter and, if he bore himself well, he was accepted into the group. Anyone could attend a sedyanka, but local boys often regarded boys from neighbouring villages as rivals, and would indicate that they were not welcome by placing leafy branches, known as pochki across the gate of the house where the sedyanka was taking place. Naturally this seldom deterred such visitors. The girls, for their part, would place pochki at intervals around the place where the sedyanka was being held, in the belief that this would prevent the boys from leaving it for another. (Pochki were normally used in spring to indicate meadows set aside for hay and to warn cattle owners not to graze their stock there.) Girls from rival sedenki could ‘undo the magic’ by stealing the pochki and burning them in their own fires, so that ‘as the pochki burn in the fire of our sedyanka, so also will the boys burn in our fire.
Apart from sitting ‘knee to knee’ with the girl of his choice, a boy could signal his regard for her by contriving to place her apron over his knee, by laying her plait on his shoulder, by giving her a red apple, and, above all, by acquiring her posy. A girl who returned home without her posy was considered to be ‘marked’, that is, she had chosen her beloved, and the boy who obtained it would proudly display it, stuck in his hat or in his belt. Another way in which a young man could indicate his love for a girl was to wait until her attention was elsewhere, and then to tug surreptitiously at her spindle, thus breaking the thread which flowed from her distaff. Towards the end of the sedyanka, he might take one of her full spindles and carry it home so that his mother or grandmother might assess the girl’s ability to spin fine, even yarn. He would return it at the next sedyanka. Work was, in fact, an extremely important element in the sedyanka, and not merely an excuse for getting together. Brides were chosen not merely for their beauty, but also for their industriousness and their skill in all matters necessary for maintaining a family. At a sedyanka, the girls would demonstrate these qualities by working hard, even when singing, story-telling, and receiving oblique declarations of love. Of course not all such declarations were welcomed or reciprocated. Boys regarded a rebuff a an insult, and might later take revenge by removing the gates of a girl’s home, by smearing them with tar, by stretching a cord across the road so that she would trip over it and spill her spindles on her way home, or by some practical joke, such as taking her father’s cart to pieces and reassembling it on the roof of a shed! While jokes of the latter kind might evoke general amusement, the removal of gates at night – an action which, according to popular belief, invited evil forces to enter and cause ruin to the family – was usually condemned by the community. The village elders might even see fit to punish the lad responsible with a beating, and to fine his father for not bringing him up properly!
When it became clear to the practiced eyes of the company of the sedyanka that a boy and girl were clearly in love, special songs were sung in their honour. Bulgarian folklore is extraordinarily rich in songs for every possible occasion and eventuality, so that the whole progress of a love affair, from the giving of posies and apples to formal betrothal and wedding preparations could be celebrated at consecutive sedenki with appropriate songs. Such songs are, in fact, a major source of information about customs and beliefs. There are even songs to be sung when, as occasionally happened, a couple who had encountered parental opposition to their marriage, slipped away in the shadows and eloped from a sedyanka.
Custom decreed that once a girl had signified her presence, there should be no attempts by other boys at ‘poaching’, and anyone – for example a newcomer unaware that the girl was ‘marked’ – who attempted to pay her court risked being thrown out or beaten up by the other boys.
During the sedyanka, modest refreshments, such as fruit (dried or fresh, according to availability), nuts, popcorn, corn-on-the-cob, would be served by the lady of the house. Wine, and rakya – the traditional accompaniments to Bulgarian jollifications – were seldom offered at sedenki and, indeed, boys preferred not to be seen drinking in front of the girls, for fear of giving a bad impression. No girl wanted to marry a drunkard!
From time to time the whole company would rise to dance. As well as the horo, they would dance the rûchenitsa, a fast and furious dance in which individuals show off to each other, demonstrating their skill and physical fitness by performing ever more difficult figures and seeing who can keep going the longest.
A sedyanka would continue all night, until cock-crow, when, it was believed, evil spirits returned to their lairs and it was safe to venture outside the enclosure of the home. The boys would leave the sedyanka first, and the girls would set out later. In patriarchal times, it was unheard of for a boy to see a girl home, unless she was his sister or a close relative. Brothers attending other sedenka would call for their sisters on their way home, and girls without brothers would leave in a body and see each other home. As morality became less strict, however, boys were permitted to escort their girls home.
The last sedyanka of the season, was usually held at Shrovetide [in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the three weeks before the beginning of Lent, which was six weeks before Easter], although in mountain districts, where field work commenced later, gatherings might continue after this date. Like the first sedyanka of the season, the last also had a ritual character, but it was attended by boys as well as girls. The girls brought no work, but the younger ones came with a large wooden hook with which they caught the older, as yet unattached, boys and girls by the leg, so that they, too would soon be ‘hooked’. As usual the singing, dancing, and merriment continued throughout the night, ending with a version of a ritual called dai-lada, which was also performed on other occasions, and which was supposed to foretell the marital future of the participants. All those present stood in a circle around the fire and put their rings into a pot of oats held by a very small boy, or the youngest bachelor of the party, who stirred the pot and drew out the rings haphazardly, one after the other. While the girls sang verses invoking Lada, (the ancient Slav goddess), and predicting where, when, and whom a girl might marry. Her future depended on what was sung when her ring was drawn out. The process was usually repeated two or three times to ‘confirm’ the forecast, and all the participants took a few oats from the pot to place under their pillows in order to dream of their future spouses.
The last sedyanka ended with a long, fast horo, which had a competitive character, since it was believed that the last three dancers to remain after the rest had dropped out from exhaustion would be the first to marry.
The period of courting was normally confined to a year, in the sense that if, by the beginning of the next marriage season, a boy’s parents had not sent match-makers to begin the process of formal betrothal with a ‘marked’ girl, then she was considered to be free of all obligations to him. She could then accept the attentions of another boy at the next season of sedenki without any damage to her reputation.
The age at which people married was determined by many considerations, including local tradition and personal circumstances, such as the need for the boy to complete his military service or to build a new house, and for the girl to have finished making her trousseau (cheiz). This trousseau comprised not only several sets of clothing for herself and household necessities, such as blankets, rugs, towels and tablecloths, but also the numerous shirts, aprons, towels and socks tradition required a Bulgarian bride to present to all those present at her betrothal and wedding ceremonies. Major items, such as embroidered shirts, were given to senior guests, such as the parents and the kum, but every guest was given something in accordance with their rank in the family. The amount of work involved was enormous, and a girl had to start preparing her cheiz as soon as she was capable of spinning and sewing.
Another factor which determined the age of marriage was the generally observed custom that children should marry in order of birth, that is, the younger children should not marry before their elder brothers and sisters. A younger sister often did not even start going to sedenki until her older sister was engaged. In some communities it was considered permissible, if not desirable, for a girl to marry before her older brother, but in such cases the girl’s fiancé might be required to pay some form of compensation to the bachelor brother.
Marriage to people even remotely related was frowned upon and, until the end of the last [19th] century, there was an absolute prohibition on marriages between relations up to and including third cousins. Custom also forbade marriages between people whose relationship was spiritual rather than biological, for example foster children, godfathers, wedding sponsors, brothers- and sisters-in-law, and those considered to be brothers and sisters by reason of their having been suckled by the same woman or christened with the same water.
Although marriages between relations were generally thought to be scandalous, some folk songs reflect a more liberal attitude. In one very well-known song, a boy begs his aunt to allow Todorka to go cherry-picking with him outside the village, and the aunt, correctly guessing his real intent, replies that this is impossible because they are related to each other. The boy first swears that he will neither gaze at her nor touch her, but then asserts that ‘Deep water has no ford, and a beautiful girl has no family’.