Ohrid, the jewel of Macedonia, the utmost summer resort, is reinventing itself as a winter destination. With its mild winters, magnificent landscape and rich cultural life, this UNESCO-protected city is reviving its old winter traditions in order to attract more visitors.
Alongside the unique opportunity to experience an almost Mediterranean New Years’ Eve in this warm and humid city, such local traditions as the celebrations of the Fisherman’s Day and St. John the Baptist’s Day have attracted visitors from all over the region.
The focal event of the celebration of the Day of St. John the Baptist on the 19th of January is the throwing of the cross into the waters of a lake or river. This event is known as Bogojavlenie (Epiphany) because during the act of the baptism of Christ God he was finally revealed to humanity as the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The retrieval of the cross from the waters signifies the unification of humans with Jesus Christ.
It is believed that all the waters become blessed and healing through this ritual. According to the religious tradition, this is the day when Christ’s temptations were over and when God finally appeared to him after the twelve unholy days after his birth. In a more secular perspective, this is the final celebration in the almost month-long chain of festivities including the New Year, Christmas and St. Basil’s Day.
This holiday dates back to the third century AD and its celebration was specially elaborated in the 14th and 15th centuries. The tradition has been revived in Macedonia in the past 20 years. During this unique event, the waters of the lake are baptized by the high priest by throwing the cross into the lake, but the real crowd puller is the people of Ohrid jumping into the cold waters of the lake in the pursuit of the cross. The one who finds it is believed to be blessed for the entire year. Those who catch the cross say it is God’s will that leads them to the cross as the waters are extremely muddy and messy due to the great number of swimmers.
The celebration drew a record audience in 2011, when more than thirty thousand tourists visited Ohrid on January 19th, and over one thousand people jumped for the cross.
Ohrid’s residents traditionally celebrate the holiday in small communities, in neighborhoods or brotherhoods. Each has a godfather who keeps the cross all year. One day before the holiday they visit a church to bless the cross and the waters.
It is believed that the night before this holiday the dark forces like witches, devils, vampires and ghosts are wandering around, making noise, orgies and committing evil deeds, so that whoever goes outside must take garlic, salt and bread to ward off evil.
The centuries-old tradition to throw the cross in the lake from a beautiful boat was interrupted during the Communist times when, as the older people remember, they had to throw the cross into a big pot in the church courtyard.
But those times are over and for the past ten years an official board has presided over this big public event.
Another tradition that developed from the celebration of Epiphany is the mass baptism in the waters. The board is trying to implement modern standards by organizing a special baptism for children and to make the whole ceremony accessible to people with disabilities.
Many charity events and promotions are organized during this day. Even the Association of Ohrid hotels and other tourism companies cut all the prices in order to attract as many visitors as possible.
Jump for the wine barrel
The festivities in Ohrid continue the day after the Baptism. The 20th of January is the fishermen’s patron’s day. It is the day when in the ancient times the fishing of the Ohrid trout officially began. The fishing of this unique species is forbidden nowadays due to over fishing and the threat of extinction.
However, willing to remember this event and to prolong and enrich the celebration of St. John the Baptist’s Day, fishing enthusiasts now jump into the waters to catch a hundred liter wine barrel. Erwan Fuere, the Head of the Delegation of the EU Commission to Macedonia has caught the barrel several times, this friendly and courageous act earning him not only the wine but also the status of an Honorary Citizen of Ohrid.
On the day, there is an exhibition of old fisherman’s tools as well as a demonstration of different fishing techniques. A big pot with a thick fish soup is prepared according to a traditional recipe. This event is accompanied by free drinks and food, including traditional winter marinated vegetables called zimnica, sausages as well as the unavoidable warm rakiya.