Life of St Nicholas Fra Angelico
One of the scenes of Fra Angelico’s “Life of St. Nicholas,” from the Pala di Perugia.

Nikulden, also known as St. Nikola’s Day, is celebrated in Bulgaria on 6th of December each year. This is a traditional Bulgarian holiday that warms the hearts of Bulgarians in the cold December weather. It is celebrated by all Bulgarians, regardless of whether there is a Nikola in the family (all people named Nikola celebrate their name day on Nikulden).

The legend says that St. Nikola, the saint this holiday is devoted to (Saint Nicholas, as English-speakers may know him as), was famous for the miracles he created at sea – he saved a lot of sailors and rescued ships from shipwrecks. These magical powers got him the reputation of a patron of the sea. That’s also one of the main reasons that all the traditions on this day have something to do with fish and sea in general.

Except for all people named Nikola, all sailors and fishermen celebrate this day as well, paying tribute to the saint who is considered a master of all water sources – rivers, springs, seas, oceans, etc. People believe that it is St. Nikola who is also in charge of the storms at sea and has the power to create mighty winds and hurricanes. Perhaps that’s the reason Bulgarian sailors and fishermen don’t go out at sea with their vessels on this day – as a symbol of their obedience and as a sign of respect to St. Nikola’s power over the seas.

Traditionally, Nikulden is a holiday on which all Bulgarians eat fish. In families with older women still being part of the household, the traditional Ribnik is prepared. This is a special meal consisting of a carp that’s filled with rice, walnuts, raisins, etc/ and then wrapped in dough and baked. In more modern (or younger) families, the tradition is switched to eating any fish or even sushi on this day!

In the past it was the women who cleaned the carp and they were very careful not to drop a single scale on the floor as it was believed that if a man stepped on a fish scale on Nikulden, he would get sick and die. According to the tradition, they used to take out a cross-shaped fishbone and save it. They believed this particular fishbone had the power to cure illnesses and protect from bad luck and evil spells. The rest of the fish bones were not thrown away either. They were burnt, buried in the ground or thrown in a river. This was believed to bring good luck and health to the whole family.

Nikulden is a family holiday that’s accompanied by a lot of fun and talks by the table. Traditionally, Bulgarians invite friends and relatives over for a whole day of laughter and toasts. An interesting fact is that on this day the table is set for the day from early morning and shouldn’t be cleared so that every person who enters the house can treat themselves.

There is a legend about the carp and St. Nikola. St. Nikola was at sea in his boat when a storm hit and the boat’s bottom was pierced. To prevent the boat from sinking, St Nikola caught a carp with his bare hands and stuck it into the hole, thus saving the boat’s crew. Ever since then, a carp is sacrificed in each family in honor of St Nikola who is a protector of all fishermen and sailors. Besides this, any time a new boat is constructed (be it a small fisherman’s boat or a yacht), if the owner is a Bulgarian, you will see an icon of St. Nikola in it, protecting it from storms and strong winds.

All Bulgarians are eager to celebrate St. Nikola’s Day each year as it sets the beginning of the beautiful Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

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