Saturday, 10 March 2012

Bulgarian customs in the Fens

Last weekend I had dinner in a nice bar and restaurant some way outside Cambridge in the Fens. It prided itself on being friendly, international and eclectic, and it was all rather charming. At the end of the meal (while we were listening to a pretty good kora/mandola duo playing live) the owner came over for a chat.
I'm not quite sure how we got on to the subject but seasonal customs and festivities were mentioned. The owner introduced his partner, who is Bulgarian, to tell us about practices there. I'd recently seen a picture of a red and white Bulgarian charm bracelet and asked whether that was a New Year custom.
It isn't, she explained. It's a March 1st custom, dedicated to Baba Marta (Grandmother March). You give a red and white bracelet with the greeting 'Happy Baba Marta'. The charm is worn around the wrist until the first migrating birds appear, and is then tied to a budding fruit tree to ensure a good crop.
She sought to give us some background explanations for this. These sounded suspiciously of the 'ancient origin' type communicated officially and semi-officially to provide evidence of national antiquity, but they were no less interesting for that. In particular she attached the Baba Marta figure to the arrival of the Roman god Mars in the region.
Because we were interested she suddenly announced 'I have a present for you', and brought back the mass-produced Baba Marta bracelets pictured. The picture on the card is wrong, she told us, because the man should be in red and the woman in white, but the gift of the charm was still consistent. (The printed phrase is 'Happy Baba Marta').
We sat the charms on the table while we drank coffee, and a little while later the waitress (her daughter) came past and saw them. 'Who gave you those? My mum?' she asked delightedly, and then told us that not only was it Baba Marta, but the Saturday (3rd March) was also a national holiday of independence. She seemed less concerned in the nuanced details of the custom - possibly because she had not learned them in any structured, official way - but took it more as a general expression of Bulgarian-ness.
A few days later I met a Bulgarian postgraduate student at the Folklore Society's library. She discussed Baba Marta quite enthusiastically, and filled in some of the background detail with the keen eye of a folklore scholar. She wasn't buying the Mars origin, for example, but did add the detail that tying the charms to trees is often associated with the appearance of the White Storks, because these are generally the first migrant birds to arrive in Bulgaria in the spring.
She also said that a tradition of celebration of Baba Marta has begun to establish itself in London more in line with the waitress's discussion of the custom. In South Kensington, apparently, it has become the practice over the last couple of years to attach Baba Marta charms to specific trees en masse. I hope that somebody has some pictures.
Happy Baba Marta!

Friday, 2 March 2012

On cream cakes and the invention of tradition

I recently spent a few days in Stockholm. I've spent a fair bit of time there, and I can work my way round a cake menu with a reasonably adept eye. I'd never been there at this time of year before, so I was delighted to make the acquaintance of a cake new to me, the semla (plur: semlor).
The semla is a hollowed-out bun, filled with a mix of milk, almond paste and breadcrumbs. This is covered with whipped cream, then the top of the bun is replaced, dusted with powdered sugar. The semla is traditionally served in warm milk. Although I didn't try them with warm milk I ate several during my stay, and I can confirm that they are as fantastic as they sound.
But this isn't (just) about my taste in cakes. Semlor are traditionally a cake for Shrovetide, before the Lent fast. ('Semla' comes from the German 'semmel', and is etymologically cognate with the Shrovetide Simnel cake here in Britain). After the Reformation in Sweden semlor became more generally cakes eaten between Shrovetide and Easter.
On returning to London we checked out the availability of semlor in a Scandinavian café here. They had been available, but only until Shrove Tuesday itself. None of this available till Easter stuff here.
This is consistent with the invention and adaptation of traditions to express a national identity away from home. Rather than the constant development of a tradition we begin to see a more rigid codification of one. (In a rather different sphere, one could point too to the strict exclusion of LBGT banners from American St Patrick's Day parades organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernians: such an exclusion took place even as these banners became a more familiar sight in Ireland itself).
This is interesting from a folkloric perspective. Sadly, it's not getting me another semla this year.