Bulgarians celebrate one of the biggest pre-Christmas Christian holidays on 6 December
Written by Andrea Vushkova, edited by Lindsay Martin, photos by Pixabay and sanovnikat.com
What is your first thought when you hear Saint Nicholas’ Day?
Father Christmas? Presents? Coal? Asking some of my foreigner friends, those were the answers I received.
But the most common association with this holiday in Bulgaria might seem rather peculiar. On December 6 we celebrate Nikulden (our translation for Saint Nicholas’ day). I played a mini version of “Family Feud” and asked 100 Bulgarians that same question: What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Nikulden?”.
87 participants gave the same answer: fish / carp fish.*
Why, you are wondering? Let’s dive in Saint Nicholas’ story to find out.
Nikola (or Nikolay, as Slavs would call him) was an archbishop in the Eastern Roman Empire. He became famous in the Christian world for all the miracles he performed. Hence his nickname – Nikolay Miraclemaker. He saved people from poverty, slavery, and wrongful death sentences. The saint also watched over the sea- and fishermen and could tame storms. According to one legend, he filled the hole in a fisherman’s boat with a live carp fish and saved the man from drowning. Since then, the saint became the patron of sailors and the carp fish – a symbol of his day. Nikolay died on 6 December, 343. Out of respect for their patron, sailors do not go out in the open sea on this day and organize big festivities with their families, praying that they will be safe in the water. This date also marks the end of the autumn-winter fishing season and is the official holiday of Burgas (the second biggest city at the Bulgarian Black sea coast).
Based on this legend, the tradition in Bulgaria is to serve a holiday meal of carp. Typically, it is either wrapped in dough, or filled with walnuts, rice, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and other herbs. (You can find traditional recipes here). Of course, preparation varies from household to household. Some people actually go for another type of fish, since carp is quite a heavy and fatty one. When lunch/dinner is over, we put some fish scales in our wallets, as a wish for wealth and success. Ah yes, Saint Nikolay is also the patron of bankers and they celebrate their professional holiday on 6 December.
Last but not least, Nikulden marks the name day of everyone with the name Nikola, Nikolay, Nikolina, Nina, Nikoleta, etc. Similar to Tsvetnitsa (like I mentioned in the article Easter traditions in Bulgaria: The week before Easter), many people celebrate, so don’t be surprised if you see Facebook posts with 20 people tagged in them.
So this is Nikulden’s story in short. I hope you enjoy the day, and don’t forget to add something fishy to your meal!
* The other associations were with the name Nikola/ Nikolay and “name day”.
One person said “beard,” which might sound random but, in fact, Saint Nikolay is considered as the inspiration for the character of Santa Claus, thanks to his long white beard.