Babinden, also known as Midwife’s Day, is a holiday that’s been celebrated in Bulgaria for many years. In the past, all births in Bulgaria were home births and the midwives helping the woman during her birth were not properly trained – they were just older women who had experience helping during childbirth.
These women were deeply respected by the society as they were a very important part of the whole process. They used to go to the woman’s house and stay there for up to 3 days after the baby was born, watching over and caring both for the mother and the baby. According to the superstition, it was not until the 3rd day after the baby’s birth that the evil spirits left the house in which the birth took place.
The midwife would regularly visit the mother and her baby in the first few months after the birth, taking care of the child’s health and giving the mother different advice on how to take care of her baby, how to nurse him, etc. The midwife (baba) was considered an important part of the family, and, as such, took a particularly exalted place in the traditional Bulgarian family life.
The holiday Babinden, just like many other Bulgarian traditional holidays, has a pagan origin. Helping in bringing a new life, however, is a skill that’s honored by so many cultures all over the world. In Bulgaria, in particular, this holiday is celebrated on the 8th of January every year. As a part of the traditional family rituals, the holiday is connected with many specific actions and ceremonies.
In the past, the Midwife’s Day (Babinden) started very early. Just before sunrise, all mothers of children under 3 years used to fetch fresh water and, together with a new towel, visit the midwife that helped with their children’s births to ceremonially wash her hands and give her the new towel. This “bathing” ritual represents the respect and love that the mother has to the old woman who helped with the birth of her child(ren).
According to the tradition, the baba ritually washes each child’s face as it was believed that on this special day the water passing through her hands had cleansing powers. The old lady is then given a lot of presents (shirts, socks, cloth, etc) and, in return, gives the young woman’s children presents in the form of socks, shirts, bracelets, etc.
At lunch time on Babinden, the mothers prepare a feast in the house of the baba. Every woman brings a loaf of freshly baked ritual bread, grilled or boiled chicken and a bottle of wine or rakia (a traditional Bulgarian spirit similar to whiskey). They set a long and rich table for all the guests to celebrate this special day. The lunch is accompanied by many songs, dances and jokes. The baba wears a string of red peppers around her neck and performs different fertility rites (there are no men allowed during this time).
The culmination of Babinden comes after lunch, when all men and women guests take the baba outside and seat her in a carriage or a sleigh. The men put on oxen masks and horns and pull the carriage or the sleigh with the midwife on it around the village. If they meet a man on their way, the women ask for ransom. The merry company makes its way to the river and then the ritual bathing of the midwife takes place. This particular ritual is called vlechugane (Haulage) of the baba.
When this ritual is over, all people get back to the village where there is another feast at the village square and everybody has fun, dancing hand in hand in a circle the traditional Bulgarian dance called horo. The horo escorts the baba to her home. There, everyone kisses her hands again, thanks her for her help, and presents her with more gifts.
Today, this holiday is celebrated in a rather different way, of course. It is a day of gratitude to the doctors, midwives, nurses and all the people, who help during women’s labour. Known as the Day of Maternity Help, this day is celebrated in all hospitals which have a birth center and all doctors, nurses and midwifes receive flowers and presents.