Nikulden—St. Nicholas Day—December 6th, is a great winter festival. Bulgarians celebrate St. Nicholas as the protector of sailors and fishermen. Stories are told of St. Nikolay, the commander of the sea, calming wind and storms and walking over the sea to rescue ships in danger. Like Greek sailors, Bulgarians keep icons of St. Nicholas on shipboard, seeking protection from storms. Sailors’ wives put icons of Nicholas into the sea, praying to St. Nicolay to bring their husbands safely back to shore.
The autumn fishing season ends on Nikulden. The day’s catch is to be offered to the saint; fishermen eat the first fish caught right on the shore, before bringing the rest home.
Crowds of People go to church on Nikulden to light candles, pray, and receive the antidoron. Festive concerts, fish fiestas, and fireworks are all part of civic observances.
Carp is the special food for the day, as legend tells how, when a ship was sinking because of a hole in the hull, St. Nicholas stuffed a live carp in the hole, saving the ship. The special fish dish, ribnik, is carp or trout wrapped in dough or stuffed with rice, walnuts, raisins, and herbs. Ribnik is baked in the oven along with two special loaves of bread. Other meatless dishes are also served. The food is blessed at church or at home before being served. Carp is regarded as Nicholas’ servant.
After wafting incense over the food, the host raises the bread high, and breaks it in half. One half he keeps, the other is left on the table. The cross-shaped crown bone from the fish head (the krakhche) is also kept—it may be buried as a protection for the house or grandmothers used to sew it in children’s caps to protect them from evil.
For the more than a hundred thousand Bulgarians named Nina, Nikolina, Nicoleta, Nenka, Neno, Nina, Neycho, Nikola, Nikolay or Kolyo, the day is also their name day. Nikolai is the fourth most popular men’s name in Bulgaria. The table is richly laid, usually with the traditional stuffed carp. It is a Bulgarian custom that on one’s name day, visitors may come even if uninvited, so the table is richly filled.
Before serving the food is blessed at church or home. It is then kept out on the table all day to be shared with neighbors and other guests. It is a great festival day, that extends beyond those whose name day it is, as anyone may invite guests for lunch or dinner. The day ends with songs and fun. Gifts aren’t given, though candy or wine may be given as a gesture of respect.
Nikulden is such a special day in Bulgaria that it may be celebrated by anyone, not just those who bear the name of the saint. So, it seems, practically everyone is entertaining on this day.
Saint Nicholas is one of the most celebrated saints in Bulgaria where many churches and monasteries are dedicated to him. It is also the professional day for Bulgarian bankers.
In other sections
Bulgarian Fish Dish with Rice, recipes and instructions
St. Nicholas Monuments in Bulgaria