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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Men’s Icy Horo

Bulgarians celebrate Epiphany today. It’s one of the biggest religious holidays in the country. It’s also St. Jordan’s day, so anyone with the name Jordan (Йордан in Bulgarian) or a derivative name celebrates their name day.

According to Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, the priest in each village or town throws a cross in the river, lake, sea (or whatever body of water is nearby) and the men of the community dive in the water to retrieve the cross. The man who retrieves the cross will be blessed with good fortune and health throughout the rest of the year. The only thing is, January 6 is usually one of the coldest days of the year. Today was no exception. The temps were well below freezing but the brave men around the country dove in the icy waters, undeterred by the ice and having to break it before going in. Some of them even retrieved the cross and got bragging rights for the rest of the year. 

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Crazy as it is, however, this tradition is just not enough for the men of Kalofer (a town just south of the Balkan range). Oh, no! Because Kalofer is the birthplace of Hristo Botev (a revered Bulgarian poet and revolutionary who fought for the country’s liberation from Ottoman rule) and is considered a town of heroes. So the men of Kalofer don’t just dive for the cross. They dance a mean men’s horo (a traditional Bulgarian dance) in the Tundzha river, which runs through the town. The men get a head start the night before when there’s a lot of singing and dancing around town. There’s also a lot of alcohol but they have to be careful because they are not allowed to participate in the men’s horo the next morning, if they are too drunk. Yes, it is insanely cold. And yes, they continue to do it every winter to demonstrate their manliness and good spirit. As a matter of fact the tradition is gaining in popularity and more and more people from far and wide (including Bulgarians living outside the country and foreigners) come to participate or just to watch each year.

The men participating in the horo are encouraged to wear traditional Bulgarian outfits and Bulgarian flags are welcome. No political symbols are allowed. And though women aren’t allowed either, the theme song of the tradition is about a woman in love - “Vasilka fell in love” (“Залюбила е Василка” in Bulgarian). I mean, what else would a bunch of men dancing with their, ahem, bums freezing in icy water be singing about, right???!!!

This year was special because there was a team from UNESCO observing the Kalofer men’s horo as the town has applied for including the ritual in the organization’s world cultural heritage list.

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There were reports of the cross being thrown and retrieved from icy waters around the country with Kalofer’s men’s horo featuring prominently on every channel all day today, so I thought I’d share the crazy, cool (if not downright freezing) tradition with you. I wanted to go see it in person but didn’t get to do it this year. Perhaps next year.

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