FEBRUARY is the month when Bulgarians celebrate wine and its patron saint Trifon, also known as Trifon Zarezan. For vine-growers and wine-makers Trifon Zarezan has become so popular that it is celebrated both in accordance with the old and the new religious calendars. The old calendar emphasises the date of February 1, but over the past 15 years, February 14 has become the day of Trifon Zarezan. This provides the opportunity and excuse for many people to repeat it in less than two weeks. The fact that February 14 is also the day of St Valentine has made the date very popular because Bulgarians can choose whether to celebrate wine or love, or even both, on the same date.
The festivities on the day of Trifon Zarezan mark the dividing line between the ending of winter and the nearing of spring. The transition between the two seasons stirs the most fierce conflict in the annual natural cycle - it is the transition between the dead winter season and the invigorating powers of the following seasons. That is why, namely in this period, rituals are performed to strengthen and ensure a triumph of vitality and fruitfulness. The first pruning of the vines for the season is the main ritual performed on February 14, when people gather in the vineyards outside the villages. Only the men can prune the vines, but women are not totally deprived of partaking in the holiday observation. Women get up early in the morning, bake festive bread - loaves decorated with dough vines and grapes, roast a hen stuffed with grits (baked ground corn kernels), and put these all and a flask of wine in a woolen bag and see the men to the gate. Women also knead special round loaves - a symbol of the fertile field, and generously hand them out to neighbours and relatives. Men first go to the holiday church service and then head to the vineyards, taking a musician with them.
Every man, when stepping into his vineyard looks at the rising sun and makes the sign of the cross three times. Then he cuts three twigs from three different vines and washes the cut places with red wine, holy water and ashes from wood burnt on Christmas Eve. While pruning, everyone whispers blessings, whishing for an abundant harvest later in the year. The pruned twigs are twined into wreaths that men put on their hats, shoulders, or flasks, or take home to put in front of the icon.
Then the men go to the fruit-trees which did not bear fruit in the winter and threaten, ritually, to cut them down. Another participant in the ritual promises that next spring the trees will once again be fruitful so they should be spared. During the festivities, men pick up three live coals from their hearth. These symbolise the invigorating power of the fire and the sun. Looking at the coals, people try to foretell which crops will yield the most abundant harvest in the new season.
Having done the pruning, men gather in the vines to eat, drink, sing and dance. In the evening they are guests in the `King's' house. The King is the man who harvested the most grapes and made the best wine the previous year. It is a tradition that the King and his `subjects' must get drunk that evening to secure an abundant harvest in the coming year.
As for the etymology of the name Trifon Zarezan, there are many different folklore versions. One of the most popular stories is that Trifon, just like the villagers, once had a vineyard. One day, when he was pruning his vineyard, the Virgin Mary passed by. Trifon laughed at her that she did not know who the father of her child was, so she condemned him to cut his nose with his pruning shears. From then on, people called Trifon `Zarezan' (the `snub-nosed'). Even the icons depict St Trifon with pruning shears in hand, showing him to be honoured as a patron of vineyards- one of the main symbols of fertility in Bulgarian folklore culture.
However, ethnographers are unanimous that St Trifon's celebrations are a remote reverberation of the ancient Dionysus festivities, and more precisely of the myth of King Lycurgus of Epirus who did not honour the god of wine and was punished by Dionysus, who inflicted him with madness.
Another folk legend goes that St Trifon was born in AD 225 in Phrygia in Asia Minor. He became famous at the age of 17 when he cured the daughter of the Roman Emperor Gordian. Unfortunately, Gordian was succeeded by Decius, who prosecuted Christians, and in AD 250 as a devoted Christian Trifon fell victim to Decius' prosecutions.
The different versions of Trifon's origin, however, have only made the day of St Trifon Zarezan even more shrouded in mystery and loved by all Bulgarians.
In recent years, Trifon has come to share his day with another saint. Known around the world as the day on which lovers express their feelings for each other, or secret admirers profess their love through anonymous cards - or by the more cynical and unattached as `singles' awareness day', the origins of St Valentine' Day, like Trifon's day, are steeped in myth.
One popular legend goes that 800 years before the establishment of Valentine's Day, mid-February was the time when young Roman men celebrated their rite of passage to the god Lupercus, the god of fertility. As part of this celebration, it is said that men drew girl's names from an urn. The couple would then pair up as lovers.
In an attempt to do away with this pagan festival, in AD 496, Pope Gelasius made a change to the ritual. In what was no doubt a popular move among the young men of the day, girls' names were substituted for the names of saints who were to be emulated for the rest of the year. The church looked for a suitable patron saint of love to take the place of Lupercus and found an appropriate choice in Valentine, who, in AD 270 had been beheaded by Emperor Claudius. Claudius had decided that single men made better soldiers than married men and outlawed marriage. But Valentine performed marriages for young couples in secret. He was subsequently imprisoned and fell in love with the blind daughter of his jailer. He signed his farewell message to her before he was taken to his death: `from your Valentine', thus coining the phrase used in Valetnine's cards today.
As part of a larger effort to reduce the number of saint days of purely legendary origin, the Church removed St Valentine's Day as an official holiday from its calendar in 1969, but the tradition has remained.
It was only after the fall of communism in 1989 that Valentine's Day started to be celebrated in Bulgaria. Now, as in many parts of the western world, it has become big business for the greeting cards, flowers, chocolates, underwear and other industries, but Bulgarians not wishing to be caught up in the commercial whirlwind can always turn to Trifon Zarezan and a good bottle of wine, or two.