The magic of bread
Bread and salt are a gift that brings happiness. Evil words shall not be spelled before bread; it shall not be used for sorcery. It shouldn’t be handed across a window, “as if to a dog”. Bread shall not be denied a stranger who knocked on your door or to a beggar.
The ritual bread holds the idea of life’s continuity, of birth, death, and life again. Sowing the seed evokes burial, its germination – birth. Ground flour and baked bread are miraculous metamorphoses – of nature into culture, of chaos into organized universe.
Through bread, the participants to the ritual are establishing contact, drawing closer to each other, sharing common values. The ritual bread is a communication medium between people in the family and in the society, as well as with the souls from the world of the dead.
Kneading is a true sacrament. The woman who kneads must be of [known] mother’s and father’s descent, must be in her first wedlock and with a good and healthy offspring, must not be a widow, and must have washed herself carefully, dressed festively, and garlanded.
When maids are kneading for the first time, they should do it “on a fair day”. Such are thought to be Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Kneading on a Sunday isn’t good. Bread kneaded on Blagovetz (Annunciation) is “blag” (sweet), on Andreevden (St. Andrew’s Day) – “rising”.
A semantic equivalent to bread in the different rituals is grain, whether cooked or not, prepared as a meal, or “sown” over the participants to the ritual. It denotes fruitfulness, abundance, “swell”. Boiled wheat, maize, etc. is not only swelling but is also agglutinating, forming a whole entity. Thus, it becomes a magical sign of union, of completeness.
Symbolism of shape and decoration
Our ancestors’ magical thinking transpires in the bread’s shape and decoration. The Bulgarian woman depicts on the loaf life as a whole – house, courtyard, threshing floor, field, vineyard, meadow, plough, carriage, oxen, cattle-pen, hives… Bread is a true sculptural art. To a much higher extent, however, it is a prayer, a magical invocation of good and prevention of evil through symbolic images – messages to the hereafter’s powers.
The loaf is round because a round space is a symbol of the sun, of abundance, fertility, health, good and happy family, victory over evil. The circle represents the horizontal model of the world, as the pillar represents the vertical one. A round loaf is a model of the cosmos.
A circle on the loaf symbolizes the sky, from which is falling rain, dew, snow – and fruitfulness, accordingly. A hoop bordering the loaf is a border, a fence that protects the life represented by the bread. In the case of breads intended for a funeral or a mourning up until a year from the death, the ring is not closed – this is a cleft in the border, a passage to the hereafter.
Birds, most often pigeons, have their place reserved mostly on wedding breads. They are a symbol of harmony and fertility. Small birds, as well as a wreath or flowers, mean a happy announcement, they’re a wish of happiness, plenty, joyfulness, youth, blossoming spring.
An arrow is a symbol of the snake, the master of the house, the fields, the vineyard, which shall be preserved. If the snake “surrounds” the picture-bread, its magical power doubles.
The cross, as well as the plough, is a magical blessing for fruitfulness, plenty, abundant harvest. Livestock, respectively, means a wish for fertility in the flock, while dogs are chasing out illnesses.
A garden is a symbol of happiness, health, long life, while a rainbow means also rain and plenty of grain.
Bows mean marvelous power against impure powers and illnesses.
A weave symbolizes a man and a woman, in an embrace, in concord. An apple on the bread has a magical inseminating power and directs to the idea of marriage and love.
Maize is associated with “enlargement”. In wedding breads it means “getting pregnant”. However, enlargement, i.e., growth may apply to daylight (on St. Andrew’s Day, St. Ignatius’ Day [December 20], St. Athanasios Day) or to wealth.
Picturing or putting garlic, nettle, pear, or rose hip onto the bread has a protective significance. Most often such signs are observed on St. George’s Day breads.
Salt onto the bread means wealth in the household and a good produce from the livestock.
Ritual eating had a magical sense for Oldtime Bulgarians. The table is an image and a symbol of the clan. No one should sit at it before the host crosses himself. It’s a contact directly with God. “Come, Lord, to eat,” says the father and in that moment the table has a meaning of a sacrifice. Feeding together looks like magical sharing and distribution of values, life, fate, destiny. Hierarchy is observed unconditionally. The first to take a seat is the oldest; anybody else’s next. He again is the one who breaks and distributes the bread, the home’s common fortune. Whatever he gives is the recipient’s allotted share of the common luck. Nobody is allowed to reach across, to ask for more, like no one could reach to grab his or her destiny. Still, it’s fair that he eats his piece of bread and of chance alone and in full.
The table obtains a forceful magic on a holiday. Then, every action, every food on it has a symbolic meaning – they’re contributing to goods, fruitfulness, life, health, and the respective divinations.
On Christmas, everybody remains sit at the table for a long time, to make sure that whatever magical signs and messages to fortune are sent would materialize. If somebody has to get up early, it’s recommended that he walks crouched, like a tree overloaded with fruit. At the end, all are standing up together – to ensure that all wheat fields ripen at the same time. The earlier all sit at the table, the earlier the crops will ripen.
Morsels of every meal are put aside for deceased relatives and they are brought to the cemetery the next morning.
The Christmas Eve table recreates an enchantment for fruitfullness and luck. In songs, it’s called “six-folded” and “seven-rowed”, since it’s thought that every tabletop includes six smaller ones, each consisting of seven rows. Foodstuffs that swell are put on it, to make luck and fruitfulness “rise” alike. The more the count of meals, the richer the year will be. There should be an odd count of meals – 7, 9, 11.
Whatever is put conjures cornucopia – ritual bread with a coin, maize, popcorn, beans, apple, oshav (dried-fruit kompot); even a small clump of earth from the field is added. Garlic is a shield against evil and illnesses; honey is an omen for sweet life; European cornel branches, walnuts, and ivy – for health. Honey, cinder, and incense are cures against various diseases. Only meatless dishes are put on the table – sauerkraut dumplings with rice, peppers stuffed with rice, beans, zelnik (cabbage pie), oshav, garlic crushed with walnuts, tikvenik (pumpkin pie), boiled wheat (on top of which the Holy Virgin’s bread is put), honey, fruits (walnuts, grapes, quinces). A round loaf (or a banitsa) is made, in which lucky charms are hidden – a silver coin, a white nacre button for the sheep, a wheat ear for the ploughman, a white folded piece of paper for learning, cornel buds for health.
The table should never stay empty, because this will bring quarrel to the home, “it augurs indigence”. Nobody should leave the dinner, in order his place not to be left empty.
One should sit close to the table to prevent the Devil from ensconcing himself between it and the human. A person sitting at the table’s corner would remain unmarried.
One shall not hand anything across the table, “it’s sinful”. Everyone takes whatever is in front of his place – that’s his luck and fortune. No wicked words shall be spelled.
A morsel that fell is for the dead or is an omen that a guest will come, that someone will come back from a business trip. A morsel shall not be dumped, “yor sweetheart will dump you” or your luck.
If inadvertently an extra set of tableware is arranged, a guest will come.
If an unexpected guest comes, he is invited to the table. The belief is that the guest brings 9 lucky charms yet eats out only one. At the end, hosts help him sluicing his hands, to avoid that luck is brought out from the house.