Old New Year and jumping in the freezing river


There are a ton of holidays in January.

Happy New Year, again. Also, Happy Богојавление (Epiphany).

Last week, we celebrated the New Year. In the last post, I mentioned that Macedonia follows the Julian calendar for Christmas, which falls on January 7 here. Likewise, there is another New Year. They call it Old New Year.

I rang it in with my coworkers at a nearby restaurant, with a big dinner, drinks, and the most impressive display of dance stamina I’ve seen in this country thus far. (Also, just another example of the laid-back planning culture: we picked the date and location three days in advance.)

The evening started with the distribution of round rolls to all 30+ teachers and staff members in the restaurant. One of the rolls contained a coin that designates the holder the godfather or godmother, depending on who is holding the roll. That person has good luck, health, and wealth for the year and they’re responsible to bring the бaничka: (bah-neech-ka) the following year.

(We had бaничka at Christmas Eve dinner: layered pastry with leeks and other deliciousness baked inside.)

A couple of my coworkers shouted my name, but they’re still getting to know me and don’t realize that I’m about as lucky as a broken mirror reflecting 13 black cats crossing my path.

Either way, the psychologist won and she celebrated like I might if a Chipotle burrito walked into the room and climbed into my lap. Her excitement was fun. Everyone who participates in the lucky bread raffle throws in 100 denar, or about $2, so our victor also claimed an envelope full of money.

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Before, during, and after, everyone danced. There was oro, oro, and more oro. The circular dance wound around the room while the three-man band played different traditional songs at different tempos. My coworkers invited me to join the circle and I did for a few laps.

That’s one of my confusions with the oro. At least with the simple versions that I can handle, I never know how long to dance. I’m always internally counting my steps so I don’t mess up the lifetime oro-ers around me and I always wonder if it’s okay if I sit after one song. Several of my coworkers worked up a sweat circling around the room.

I did not.

Maybe that’s the secret to counteracting all the leb (bread)?

I had a ton of fun chit-chatting with a few of my colleagues, laughing at each other’s dance moves and cheers-ing our glasses every time someone raised one. (This was often.) The band also played two songs in English for me toward the end of the evening: Chubby Checker, “Let’s Twist Again” and Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” You better believe I twisted and twisted again (like we did last summer), though one of the waiter’s and one of my colleagues stole the show and out-twisted all of us.

There was no countdown to midnight, but maybe that was because we celebrated a night early. I’m not sure if they normally count down on Old New Year, but I heard lots of fireworks around the village. (Kids with handheld fireworks.)

Today was another holiday: Богојавление (Водици) or Epiphany.

It’s an Orthodox holiday that is a remembrance of the day St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus. More info on the background here.

In my village, that meant ten guys in bathrobes, shorts, and sneakers assembled at the edge of our river and prepared for a polar plunge. I’m not sure how early people started assembling, but there was a huge crowd by the time my host mom and I lined up along the bridge 30 minutes early. (She got me a primo spot by telling the people near us that I was an American and needed to see the tradition for the first time.)

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My primo spot was right next to three buckets of water, which I later learned was from the river. A procession, including a priest and some other religious leaders, walked from the church to the buckets and then the priest started reading out of two books. I didn’t understand most of what he said, save a word here and there. (#alldayerryday)

Periodically, he dipped a branch and a small, gold cross in all three buckets and shook the water off the branches into the crowd and over the edge of the bridge where the shivering men were waiting.

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The fellas started to get impatient and at least one yelled, “Let’s go” before the priest wrapped up. Eventually, after I accidentally got a face full of river water from the branch shaking, the priest tossed it into the water, along with the cross.

I had been trying to time it right to take video of the whole scene, but my camera froze just as the toss happened. It took seconds for one of the chilly guys to reach the cross and everyone else to spring back out to waiting bathrobes and towels.

At this point, a third of the crowd surged in toward where I was standing to get a jar of water from the three buckets. No one was shy about shoving inward and I had no option of moving. My host mom handed me a bottle to have filled and a few coins to place on the table, half of which I dropped after being jostled.

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My host mom and I strolled home to watch the news, which was a steady stream of coverage of the jumps in major cities around the country. There must have been thousands watching the river in Skopje. (It seems to normally be a river, but in Prilep, they all jumped in a pool that was way too small for the number of men I saw jump in.)

I noticed that all of the participants were men. Apparently, a woman jumped in and won the cross in one of the cities last year and some other men stole it from her. Eventually it was returned, but women were asked not to participate this year. (Don’t even get me started on how much sense that makes.)

There is nothing that could compel me to jump into the river in January, except maybe being told that I’m not allowed to do so.

Stay tuned for next year (when I guarantee I once more watch from the sidelines because it’s too cold to be indignant).

Oh and happy holidays from Julie.

Julie did not jump in the river today, although after digging in the ashes from the woodstove, she probably should have.

Julie did not jump in the river today, although after digging in the ashes from the woodstove, she probably should have.

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