Old Balkan festival rings in ‘warming of the earth’ and arrival of spring

May 07, 2007, Monday/ 19:14:00
In Edirne, we cross over the historical Tunca Bridge, arriving in Sarayiçi Square, where the Kırkpınar wrestling usually takes place. This time though, rather than well-oiled wrestlers, we find crowds from Edirne’s Roma community wearing sequined clothes and celebrating Hıdrellez, or the arrival of spring.Every year, all throughout the Balkans and even deep into Anatolia, Hıdrellez is celebrated around May 5, with some festivities stretching for a day or two afterwards. For the uninitiated, Hıdrellez is a name which most likely comes as a combination of the names “hızır” and “elias.” According to legend, the meeting one night between a popular patron saint Hızır (Arabic: El Khadr) and the Prophet Elijah in the ninth century was the origin for this once very widespread Turkish festival. These days, most Turkish non-Roma do not really celebrate Hıdrellez, though some city-dwellers still plant little things like money or rings at the bases of rose bushes they might keep on their balconies on the eve of May 5.

We move through the crowded square toward the traditional Hıdrellez bonfire in the middle of the square. The Roma celebrate the shift in seasons every year in this spot, with dancing and singing around the fire. Celebrations last for three days, and as the bonfire grows, so does the number of people gathered around it. Songs are sung, people dance, and when the fire reaches a certain height, youths start to leap over it, a tradition thought to bring good luck and fortune for the coming year. One of the young men there tells us “this cleanses us of our sins.” Smells of special “kakava pilav” waft through the air behind us.

Young Roma girls dance around the Hıdrellez fire, pose for photographs in their colorful, sequined skirts and applaud for the youths leaping over the fire. One of the young women, named Papatya, says: “You have to come to our neighborhood this evening, that’s where the real festivities are. I’m even planning on wearing a bridal gown.”

It’s not just the Edirne Roma community present at the Kakava festivities though. People have come from all over Turkey to dance here. Some are spread out having picnics, others are drinking their tea next to the famous Selimiye Mosque and watching the goings-on. As the Hıdrellez bonfire starts to wind down, the crowds begin dispersing. Naciye, a woman who has come from Istanbul, spreads a bit of the ashes from the fire on her young son’s forehead, explaining “it’s said to be good for the health if you rub it across the forehead.” As the fire dies down, younger children can be seen leaping over the flames 3 times, hoping to use this safer version of the previously raging bonfire to bring themselves good luck for the coming year. Later on, a hose from the local fire department will extinguish the bonfire and mark the official end of the year’s Hidirellez celebrations.

We head for Edirne’s Kıyıklı neighborhood in the evening, the same locale that the Roma girl Papatya had mentioned. A local Roma, Mehmet Gündoğdu, nicknamed “Baskan,” or “President,” starts dancing when he sees us arriving. We see Papatya, dressed in the bridal gown she had mentioned, declaring “My older camera brothers have arrived!” There are smaller bonfires lighted in front of almost every Roma home in the neighborhood. People are dancing around the fires. Local resident Fatma Hanim invites us to her home, mentioning “For Hıdrellez, I’m asking Allah for great prosperity in the coming year.” She ties some money on a rose bush in her garden, staying true to one of the oldest Hıdrellez traditions: using rose bushes to try and make wishes come true. People who want children might tie a baby doll to a rose bush, and people who want homes may plant beans in the shape of a home in the dirt under a rose bush. This usually happens on the evening of May 5, as it’s believed that the transition between May 5 and May 6 can make important wishes and dreams come true.

Towards dawn in Kakava, young girls all begin to put on bridal gowns and head down to the banks of the Tunca River. Roma pass across the bridge over the river accompanied by music and drums, wishing for good fortune. As the first light of dawn arrives, young Roma enter the waters of the river, trying to catch the bridal gowns left in the waters of the river for good fortune. As the sun begins to rise, the Hıdrellez magic gently recedes. The hundreds who have come to join in the Kakava festivities get back on their buses to return home. The Roma call out “goodbye, see you next year” to us as they wind their ways back to their homes. And one more Hıdrellez comes to an end.

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