HOME | PROJECT BACKGROUND | ROMA HISTORY | ROMA CULTURE | INTERVIEWS | SITE MAP
Castes & Clans : Site Profiles : Maps :  Photos : Links : Additional Reports : Contributors

Roma Culture: Holidays

"Life here is terrible. No one can celebrate any holidays, because no one has any money."

- Šelja Bajrami, Plemetina, Kosovo

These interviews overly concern themselves with Roma holidays. Our interviewees would move past the harder, sadder questions and concentrate on the smaller questions we’d inserted with a mind to making the interviews less tense. Roma spoke lovingly of their traditions on Djurdjevdan/ Herdeljez, Veljigdan, Vasilica and Božić. They told us of the way their mothers and grandfathers used to do things. They talked of the food they’d eat, the sheep they’d sacrifice, the ornate preparations, visits to holy places, and the songs they would sing. They talked of visiting their neighbors in years past, of sharing, and of gifts given in a time when there were more gifts to give.

Roma live for holidays; in hard and insecure times, these celebrations are the one thing that Roma look forward to. On holidays, as in weddings, they are a community, caring for one another and wishing one another good fortune that many of them won’t get. The rest of the year is desultory; it’s struggle, it’s day-to-day, it’s about sick kids and no jobs and cold.

Roma girls in Prilužje: World Roma Day, 2003

A Rom will sell what’s in his home to buy a sheep to kill on Djurdjevdan; a Rom will sell his home to save the dowry for his son. These traditions are the ones the Roma managed to preserve through years of forced assimilation and flight. It’s them; it’s a celebration of them. And when the holidays aren’t here yet, they’re being planned for, just as the ones past are reminisced about on the nights when there’s no music and no guests.

Observed Holidays:

Djurdjevdan (Saint George’s day), also known as Herdeljez (Turkish: Hidirellez. Alternate spellings: Herdelez, Herdelezi).  May 6th
Collecting Kukureg & Dren: Roma and Serb Children, Djurdjevdan 2003. Photo by Kieran D'arcy

St. George- Djurdj- is a patron saint of many Serbs; his day is an important Slava (celebration) for the Orthodox. Djurdjevdan is celebrated in many eastern European countries; it was an important holiday in the west, but observances there have faded.

Herdeljez is a Muslim holiday; it can be assumed that Herdeljez and Djurdjevdan have the same root. This holiday may have been brought to Southeastern Europe during the time of the Ottomans, and was absorbed by the Serbs and Roma. That some scholars believe Saint George may have been a Turk lends weight to this.

The word Herdeljez is a combination of the names of two Muslim prophets: Hizir & Ilyas. Legend states that both drank the water of eternal life. At midnight on May 5th they meet, every year, to welcome the end of winter. Hizir is the guardian of plants, and provides for the poor; Ilyas is the guardian of water and animals.

Djurdjevdan, 2003: watch Video of Roma collecting Kukureg & Dren.
Djurdjevdan, 2003: watch Video of a fast Gracanica interview.

“When the spring came for the poor people, it was a treasure.”

- Arif Alija, Plemetina, Kosovo

Roma consider this an important holiday because it signifies the end of winter; the beginning of life. Djurdjevdan marks the end of cold nights and little food.

Roma begin preparations for Djurdjevdan weeks before the event. They empty and clean every corner of their homes.

Roma, Serbs, and some Albanians celebrate this by going to the fields in the early morning to collect the plants Kukureg and Dren, along with water from the nearest river (or rivers: in Plemetina and other areas water must be gathered from 3 rivers). Members of a family will ceremonially bath in the water, heated with the plants. Other Roma decorate their homes with the plants.

One Plemetina Roma stated that Dren is a strong plant; the bath will help the children become as strong as Dren.

Before the 1999 war, many Roma celebrated Djurdjevdan/ Herdeljez at the two Turbe on Gazi Mestan, Kosovo Polje. Both are Ottoman graves from the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389. The first Turbe Roma visited and sacrificed at is on Gazi Mestan, at the tomb of Sultan Murat’s standard-bearer; his name is now the sites’. The tomb was built at the spot where he was slain by Serb forces under Prince Lazar. Gazi Mestan’s grave is a small dome, with two green-painted cement coffins on the inside.

Gazi Mestan's Tomb- interior
Gazi Mestan's Tomb at Kosovo Polje

In Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote of encountering the 16th generation descendant of Gazi Mestan’s servant at his tomb; he was the site’s caretaker. The servant’s obligation to care for Gazi Mestan extended nearly 500 years after he died. These descendants have long since left, and the site is abandoned, locked down and decaying, surrounded by trash.

The second Turbe- Sultan Murat’s- lies a few kilometers north of the standard-bearer’s, on the road to Mitrovica. This Turbe is a large, domed building, built with stone bricks. Murat’s coffin is the centerpiece; only his entrails are buried there. The rest of him was preserved and transported back to Constantinople when the Ottoman army withdrew.

The Turkish government pays for the upkeep of the site. The grounds are enclosed by a high wall; inside are trees, graves and the multicolored ribbons that Afrim Osmani mentions in his interview. The site is cared for by a middle-aged Slavic Muslim woman from Novi Pazar; her family has tended the site for generations.

Murat, like the Serb King Lazar, was also slain during the battle; legend states that a Serbian prince, Miloš Kobilić (since changed to Obilić), was accused of plotting treachery against Lazar and sought to disprove this by claiming to join the Turkish side. He was brought before the Sultan, and when he bent to kiss his hand, he removed a dagger secreted within his robes and stabbed the Sultan to death before being promptly cut down by the Sultan’s bodyguards. For more information on the truths and myths of the 1389 battle, please refer to Noel Malcolm’s Kosovo: a Short History- the definitive historical treatise on the area.

Roma consider these Turbe to be blessed; they sacrifice sheep there for the health of their families and luck in the coming year. Some Turbe have special attributes; one may be better for luck and wealth, while another may be renowned for the health of one’s family or to cure a couple’s infertility.

The most important tradition for Djurdjevdan/ Herdeljez is the sacrificing of a sheep. Roma are shamed if they cannot do this. Some Roma claim that only a sheep can be sacrificed on this day; others kill chickens as well. Other traditions include buying new clothes for one’s children; in Prizren, the children will go door-to-door for change and candies. Roma women will bake special bread, and the first night will be a large feast. In some areas, no-family guests are invited; in others, no guests are allowed until the second night.

Many Roma that adhere to Islam condemn Djurdjevdan/ Herdeljez- especially in Kosovo Polje and Prizren.

A Gracanica Rom stated that celebrating Djurdjevdan/ Herdeljez outside will make the next winter less hard. 

Murat's Tomb at Kosovo Polje

Vasilica

Saint Vasilija’s Day- the Serbian New Year on the Julian calendar, January 14th 

“Why did your family celebrate Vasilica?”

“I don’t know. Because our great-grandfathers celebrated it.”

- Adilje Osmani, Gracanica, Kosovo
Baking the Bread

Vasilica eve is marked by the lighting of candles and the sacrificing of geese. Some Roma say that, for every son you have, you must kill a goose. In some areas tradition states that a guest will arrive, bearing corn and gold. He will strike each family member on the head, to insure a better year.

Roma will bake a coin into bread; each member of the family will receive a piece, and whoever finds the coin will have luck in the coming year. But the coin’s discoverer must carry this coin for the entire year for it to work.

The preparation for the Vasilica day’s meal begins on Vasilica eve. A Roma family will stay up for the entire night; the men will drink and the women will prepare the Sarma (meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves) for the next morning. Legend states that the Sarma must be guarded from thieves.

The Sarma will be ready to eat by the next morning. Guests will arrive; the Sarma will be ceremonially ‘sold’ to them by the Romni woman that prepared it. 

Veljigdan (Orthodox Easter)

Children are given painted eggs by their parents; a Turkey or a chicken is slaughtered, and special breads are baked. 

Božić (Orthodox Christmas), January 7th

Roma will buy fruits and nuts for their children; they’ll visit their Serb neighbors. Some Roma families will spread hay on the inside of their homes. The significance of this is unknown; one Kosovo Polje Rom stated that this had something to do with replicating the manger Jesus was born in; he could not elaborate.

Hedenebiri (alternate: Shinkol-hedenebiri- Roma Flag Day), May 20th

Hedenebiri, or Shikol-hedenebiri, is claimed by some Prizren Roma to be second only to Djurdjevdan/ Herdeljez in importance. In Prizren, two flags are displayed; one is the Roma national flag (a red wagon-wheel on a blue and green background. The other flag- inherited from the Ottomans- is a simple green flag with embroidered Koranic quotes. 

This holiday seems exclusive to the Roma of Prizren, though other Roma throughout Kosovo openly display the national flag in their weddings, festivals and parties. Many Kosovar Roma do not recognize or celebrate a holiday for this flag.

World Roma Day, April 8th

This holiday is not connected to Orthodoxy or Islam; it is a celebration of history and culture. In Kosovo, April 8th is celebrated in secure Roma areas by dances, traditional music, and more untraditional events, such as Roma hip-hop bands and fashion shows. 

Ramazan (Ramadan), December (dates vary, and are set year-to-year).

Some Roma will fast for the entire month; less observant Roma will fast on one day. Ramazan, for proper adherents, is marked by waking at 2-3 AM to feast- sehri (although this was referred to as sifire by a Prizren interviewee). The rest of the day is for fasting; young children, pregnant women and the sick are exempted. Night is marked by a second feast- Iftari.- followed by a visit to the mosque.

A miniscule number of Roma now celebrate Bajram and fast, but earlier, none did.

Bajram (sacrifice), February 11 (Kosovo- dates change from year to year). A 3-4 day festival.
The Sacrifice: Plemetina 2003. Photo by Kieran D'Arcy

Turkish: Kurban Bayrami (February 10-14). Other Turkish areas (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan): Gurban Bayram (February 22). Arabic: Eid Al-Fitr.

Bajram traditionally falls on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Hajj. 

In Kosovo, Bosnia, and Albania this is known as the big, or great, Bajram. Bajram is based upon Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac (Ishmael in the Islamic world). The Bajram festival is a time to visit friends and family, help the poor, and recall relatives that have passed away. Roma women will prepare cakes and baklava. On the first day of Bajram, no one visits another; this day is reserved for the families to celebrate, on their own. On the second day, neighbors are visited.

A sheep will be sacrificed: 1/3rd of the meat will be given away to the poor, 1/3rd will be given to neighbors, and 1/3rd will be kept for the family. In some Roma areas, this tradition simply translates into buying a sheep for a family too poor to do so.

In Prizren, Mahala children will kiss the hands of adults and ask for Para- change. A stepmother will buy gifts for her daughter-in-law; a wife will buy gifts for her husband.

Bajram (others)

In Kosovo, Bajram has become a general term for a holiday. Bajrams occur during the month of Ramazan/ Ramadan and at other times of the year. Some K-Albanians call their Flag Day a Bajram; others celebrate the March 5th anniversary of the deaths of the Jashari clan in Prekaz, Srbica/ Skenderaj as a Bajram (The Jasharis- co-founders of the KLA- were killed in a three-day shootout with Serb forces on March 5th, 1998).

Antanasia- 

is celebrated by Roma only when a member of the family is ill.

Bibi- 

Bibi was a ‘saint’ of the Serbian Roma.

Slavas- are, in Serbian Orthodoxy, the celebration day of one’s patron saint. This is a unique religious celebration to the Serbian Orthodox church. Many Serbs do not celebrate their actual birthdays; instead, that celebration comes on the day of their patron saint. 

Many Roma- including Muslims- have this tradition.

The most popular Saint’s days are: 

Sveti Nikola (Saint Nicholas) - December 19th
Saint John the Baptist- January 20th
Sveti Sava (Saint Sava) - January 27th
Sveti Djurdj (Saint George) - May 6th
Sveti Arhandjeo (Saint Michael the Archangel)- November 21st

Vidovdan (Saint Vitus’s Day) - June 28th (June 15th in the Julian calendar).

Roma in Serb areas celebrate this. June 28th is the anniversary of the 1389 battle between mixed Christian forces commanded by Prince Lazar and Ottoman Turkish forces under Murat. Vidovdan is also the anniversary of the 1914 assassination of Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ferdinand was murdered by a Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilo Princip.



©CSD 2003-2009. All rights reserved.

For more information email bobby@balkanproject.org