St. St. Constatine and Helena


May 21

Name day of everyone named Konstantin, Kostadin, Kostadinka, Koycho, Dinko, Elena, Elen, Eli, Elitsa. May 21st is celebrated in Bulgaria as the church feast of St. St. Constatine and Helena. The day is also popular in various places around Bulgaria as the traditional feast of Kostadinovden. It is celebrated as the last feast of spring and its rituals remind of the coming summer. According to the traditional beliefs, “Elenka is carrying hail up her sleeve”, or that “Kostadin and Elena are carrying the hail in a sack”. Therefore, the feast is celebrated against hail.
Throughout the country the feast is celebrated predominantly as a church feast, dedicated to the Emperor Constantine the Great, and his mother Helena. During his reign (306-337) the Milan edict was released (313) declaring Christianity the official state religion. According to the legend, Helena visited Palestine and found the cross of Christ there.
The day is also popular in various places around Bulgaria as the traditional feast of Kostadinovden. This is the day of the nestinars (firedancers) that used to be very popular in the Strandzha Mountain region. Their name today is only a memory inspiring admiration for the strength of Bulgarian spirit. There is an old legend from Strandzha region of how the Bulgarians started dancing on live coals. It was long ago, back in times when God walked among the people. One day he got tired of dealing with man’s deeds and thought of finding an assistant. He wondered how to test his fidelity and at last he decided. He made a fire burning up to the skies and summoned all unmarried young men. When the fire came to glowing embers he said: “Whoever goes into the fire with his bare feet, and dances on the embers, he will be my assistant!” The young men looked at the live coals and didn’t dare to take off their shoes. But there was a brave man called Kostadin who stepped into the fire, danced on the live coals and nothing happened to him. God took him for his assistant. A year passed and Kostadin wanted to marry. God agreed and to a suitable bride he subjected the young girls to the same test. Elena danced barefooted on the embers and God blessed this day to bear the name of the two of them – Kostadin and Elena.
From then on Bulgarians are dancing Fire dances, called Nestinarski dances. From early in the morning young and old prepare the wood for the fire. In the evening the clapper sounds for evening service. Boys holding icons and the nestinars go round the church three times and then stand by the spread embers. The sound of bagpipe is heard, the drums beat fast and the nestinars start dancing with their bare feet on the embers. First they dance round the fire and when “they get the spirit”, they step onto the embers. The rhythm is bewitching, sacred, broken by the piercing cry of the nestinars. They dance with an icon in their hands, touch the live coals with their hands and around them sparkles are spread. The nestinars are dancing in the fire without feeling any pain or without burning their feet, although the temperature of the coals is between 400 and 800° C. There are no traces of burns on their soles and the next day they walk as freely and lightly as before the fire-dance. For the believers, that is a true proof of supernatural forces – the saint protects the dancers that day. Some explain the absence of pain and burns with external factors – wading in the mud, the coarsening of the soles during summer when they walk barefeet or the use of healing ointments. But ethnographers have proved that nestinars don’t use any aids. What is it then? One of the reasons for absence of burns is that the fire-dancers pass over the coals very quickly, their soles coming in touch with the coals for practically fractions of a second. But there is something else, a much more important reason – the preparation for becoming a nestinar. The ecstasy the nestinars feel and radiate is largely attributed to fasting, purification with water, meditation and psychological set-up. Their state of mind helps cool their limbs, contract their blood vessels and reduce the sense of heat and pain respectively. The state of ecstasy in which the nestinar falls during the ritual contributes to physiologically reduce the pain and the effect of burning. After the dance on the live coals, the nestinars begin a horo dance round the fire and everybody must take part in it for health and prosperity.






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