Babinden, an ancient pagan festival of birth, fertility and bawdy grandmothers
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Babinden is an ancient Bulgarian tradition in honor of traditional midwives or Baba. 

This female feast was believed to be the only day when women were able to joke with men.

Midwives were usually women past child-bearing age or widows.

Traditionally pregnancy in Bulgaria was kept a secret with only the pregnant woman, the mother-in-law and the village midwife in the know.

The midwife often stayed with mother and baby for the first weeks after birth.

No wonder the word Baba also means grandmother.

The bathing of the children by the midwife

This is one of the young babies strapped to the back of the oldest baba.

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On Babinden, all children born in the previous year and their mothers gather at the midwife’s house.

The Baba may rub babies with butter and honey and was the faces of the children in fresh water.

This is thought to cleanse the youngsters’ minds.

The midwife has her hands washed by the younger women.

She splashily leaps into the air three times, exclaiming: 

“So may jump the children and become white and red. May the harvest and health be as abundant as these water droplets”

The young mothers’ feast

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The young mothers bring bread, banitsa (traditional cheese filo pastry), grilled chicken and wine.

Every woman gives the midwife a bar of soap and a towel and helps her wash.

But the Baba doesn’t wipe her hands on the new towels.

Instead, she wipes her hands on the skirts of the women (to ensure fertility and easy birth).

The midwife wears a string of red-hot chilies around her neck which symbolizes male fertility.

The feast is cheerful and boisterous, accompanied by songs, dances and lewd jokes.

The bathing of the midwife

 

The Haulage of the Midwife

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The Feast of Babinden culminates in the ritual bathing of the midwife.

The guests take the Baba outside and seat her in a carriage or a sleigh.

(In some parts of the country it’s a large wicker basket.)

This particular ritual is called vlechugane or the Haulage of the Midwife.

The Haulage is a little like a carnival with the midwife pretending to smoke, using a gourd as a pipe.

The men, dressed as oxen with hides, masks and horns, pull the carriage or sleigh around the village.

If any other men are caught by the women on their procession, the women demand a ransom.

If the man refuses to pay, he may have his trousers confiscated or have to dress like a woman for the rest of the day!

Not to mention he may have his backside smeared with tar.

In some villages, the men rise up and “kidnap” the midwife and take her to the water.

There they demand a ransom of wine.

Often there is a mock wedding ceremony – between a male bride and a female groom.

 

The groom is the youngest grandmother in the village.

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The merry company makes its way to the river, lake, well or swimming pool and bathes the midwife.

One of the men says the following: this woman bathed all our children and now we have to give her a bath.

The women reply: Yes we must bathe her!

Children hold a special place in the Bulgarian culture.

Some traditional sayings are:  “A childless house is a burnt house” and “The child is bigger than a king“.

If you fancy becoming a midwife, here are some basic rules to follow:

  • Children should not be conceived on the night of Friday to Saturday.
  • A pregnant woman may not kick a dog or a cat, step over fire tongs, eat a bread that has been left over from a journey, step on spilled water or litter.
  • A pregnant woman may not steal and eat in secret because the stolen or the eaten item will manifest itself as a scarring or a birthmark on the baby.
  • A pregnant woman should receive all she craves.
  • If food is hidden from a pregnant woman, the baby will be a fastidious eater and sickly.
  • A pregnant woman should be protected from becoming scared, startled or shocked.

For an easy delivery the Baba should:

  • make the sign of the cross three times,
  • burn incense and bless the house with it,
  • close all windows and doors and untie all that is bound.

 

Babinden was celebrated in the traditional way right up to the middle of the twentieth century when the communist regime managed to make the village midwife obsolete.

Visit any Bulgarian village and you will still see Babas tilling the land, growing their own food and looking after their grandchildren.

They’re widely respected for their skills in cooking and natural remedies.

They sit outside their gates when it’s warm, watching the world go by and reflecting on life with their fellow Babas.

Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.