Surely everybody in the developed world and Swindon is aware that the fourteenth of February is a saint’s day. In the bit of the developed world where I used to live the saint in question was a bloke called Valentine, named after romantic Irish crooner Val Doonican. It’s a day when anybody who loves somebody in a carnal sort of way sends the person that they love a bouquet of red roses or a big box of Maltesers and a greetings card, each costing five times the price of what they would on the thirteenth or fifteenth of February. It doesn’t really have to be one of these items that you buy to express your deepest feelings to the love of your life, or even anything slushy and soppy, as long as it is something that is temporarily ridiculously overpriced. So a Domino’s pizza, or a bag of cinema foyer pick ‘n’ mix sweeties or a ticket to watch Manchester United wouldn’t do because those things are permanently ridiculously overpriced.
I must admit that in the past I have joined in with this ritual. I was reluctant at first as the thought of it being a saint’s day suggested to me that I would have to go to church and pray. What else would you do on a saint’s day? In the first ten years of my life, when I was rather saintly myself, I spent so much time kneeling by pews in the name of saint this, that and the other, that I developed callosities on my kneecaps and a morbid fear of saints. When I lived in Scotland I had an invitation from friends to go to watch St Mirren competing against St Johnstone, which I almost declined until I discovered that it was a football match and that no snakes, dragons or dolphins would be harmed in the proceedings. Though it means bowing to the vulgar consumerism of the twenty first century, sending a card and a bunch of daffs is a lot more enjoyable and probably more worthwhile than hoping that a man or woman with a silly name and who was executed in a terrible way over a thousand years ago, is gaily skipping around Paradise.
Call me boastful but on St Valentine’s day this year my tally of cards was only one short of my all-time personal best haul of St Valentine’s day cards ever, despite me being in my twilight years and living in a country where the patron saint of sentimental tat is barely recognised. My all-time personal best haul of St Valentine’s day cards ever, by the way, amounts to one.
Here in the Republic of Bulgaria we have a much better saint to celebrate the life and work of on this day. His name is (was) St Trifon Zarezan and he is the patron saint of going on a bender. According to my mate Ivan who sits outside the bar in our village in all weathers quaffing fine rakias in a pilgrimage sort of way, St Triff was a common vine-grower. Apparently one day he went out to his vineyard to prune his vines and there he met the Virgin Mary and joked with her that she had an illegitimate child. She was a bit put out by this and decided to punish him, so she went to see his wife and told her that Trifon had cut his nose. In a huge panic, Mrs Trifon rushed towards the vineyard to help her husband but soon saw that he was fine. When she told him what had happened he said that it was impossible and he started to laugh, but while waving his hands around in his state of hilarity he really did cut his nose with his pruning knife. It was from this accident that he got his nickname ‘Zarezan’ which means ‘truncated’. The real St Trifon died as a martyr during the Roman persecution of the Christians but people didn’t want to associate his name with sadness and pain, so they crowned him with the halo of wine making and rejoicing. My friend Ivan must have broken his nose at least half a dozen times down the years as it is spread all over his face. I often wonder if his love for strong drink, laughter and facial disfigurement could mean that he is a direct descendant of Trifon.
As a consequence of this merry tale, the day of St Trifon Zarezan is seen as the cusp between the end of winter and the arrival of spring. It is considered to be the first day of the year on which it is safe to prune vines so, traditionally, Bulgarian village men wander off to the vineyards to perform this task while women stay at home to prepare food for a feast. At the end of a hard day’s pruning everyone gets together to eat the fine food, drink wine, sing songs and dance to celebrate yer man Trifon and the winter’s passing. The villager who grew the most grapes in the preceding year is appointed ‘King of the Harvest’ and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs is placed on his head as everyone gives him loads and loads of wine in the hope that they will be blessed for their generosity. It is thought that the more wine that is poured on this day, the more plentiful the next harvest will be. The fifteenth of February, incidentally, is St Anadin’s day in celebration of the patron saint of hangover cures.
Well that’s the tradition and it still goes on in many places in rural Bulgaria but my village of Malki Chiflik is only four kilometres from a small city so, being a bit more suburban that rural, most people here mark the occasion simply by going out to work during the day and sitting in front of the telly feeling knackered in the evening. They do keep up the custom of having a glass of locally produced wine or rakia, and the vinegar in their packets of salt ‘n’ vinegar flavour crisps tends to be the bad wine shipped in from a rival village nearby.
I’m determined to be as Bulgarian as I can so I spent the day working in my vineyard giving loving attention to my vines which look like they are raring to go once the spring kicks off in earnest. Actually, when I say ‘day’ I really mean forty minutes as I only have three mature vines and a couple of babies that I planted myself in the autumn. I would emphasise, however, that I did the job properly. I spent hours watching YouTube videos on the subject and read the book Drinking Copious Amounts of Wine for Dummies. So, armed with a fancy pair of secateurs and a passion for all things Balkan, I set about the task of chopping off all the bits that shouldn’t be there and leaving the bits that should, even though it didn’t seem right to be so brutal to these lovely plants so early on in the year.
In terms of the changing of the seasons, today really did seem like the cusp. Piles of snow and ice remained in my garden but there was meltwater gushing everywhere as warm sunshine prompted me to remove five of six layers of the clothing that I had been wearing constantly since early December. It was a wonderful feeling to be outside in just my tee shirt. Well obviously not ‘just’ my tee shirt as I wore my gardening gloves, a broad smile and a crown made from chopped off grapevine twigs as well. I felt I had reached a wonderful milestone in the Bulgarian calendar, so in my mind I thanked St Trifon Zarezan for getting the timing just right and in my kitchen I poured myself an ample glass of rakia which I sat and drank outside as woodpeckers tapped at the upper boughs of my pear tree and I watched the sun setting on my beautifully manicured vines.
The flowers of romance.