Blogbox | Culture

Flowers, nettles and the Erdhlezeti festival

By - 19.05.2023

Celebrating Saint George’s Day and the arrival of summer.

I don’t quite recall at what age we started to go out to collect flowers for Saint George’s Day, the celebration of the arrival of summer. As a child, I didn’t have a very clear idea what exactly this holiday meant. But I always looked forward to it and the rituals we had.

Each year, on May 5, the eldest girl in the family would get the rest of us together. She led us to the meadows and to the Sitnica River, which runs through the municipality of Lipjan. There we would collect flowers and willow branches. It was very important that we gather a mixture of plants, such as blooming flowers and nettles. I had no idea how, but this practice was supposed to be related to our physical or mental well-being.

Often, the meadows were flooded due to the rain, which made it difficult for us to reach the spot where the dremiqarka flowers grew.

Nevertheless, we would cross the flooded meadow. The water sometimes reached up to our waists. Now that I think about it, what seemed to me then a great depth in fact must have been quite shallow. But I was really small back then.

Happily, we used to fill our arms with flowers and take them home. We were careful, because the flowers should not touch the ground. With my very small fists, I was determined to grip the flowers and not allow them fall to the ground. We used to hang the flowers on a tree overnight, so that the next day, when we took the ritual bath filled with flowers, they would be fully effective at promoting health and well-being.

On May 6, our mothers and grandmothers washed us one after another with the flowers and nettles we collected.

“Strong as iron, smooth as nettles,” they often repeated.

I now better understand the connotation of this phrase, mixing faith in nature, which was believed to bring health, with metal, which was believed to offer protection and signify sustainability.

That same day, we used to visit Janjeva Tekke and the tomb of Isak Baba, whom the locals remember as a saint and a charitable man. We would walk around it several times to bring us luck throughout the year. I remember the large crowd of people who gathered, leaving goods around the tomb and counting on the belief that the same will be returned to them in the form of health and prosperity.

Nowadays willow branches are rarely seen hanging in backyards and the weather is no longer predicted according to the arrival of Saint George’s Day.

The coming of summer

The rituals we grow up with stay for a long time in our subconscious. Sometimes, we allow them space and sometimes we try to suppress them, claiming that they no longer represent us.

While I am trying to cultivate some rituals on a personal level, I am slowly returning to a deeper knowledge of those which I practiced collectively with the women and girls of my family like the practices connected to Saint George’s Day.

But now it is difficult to find places where this day is celebrated as in the past. Our culture and festivals have been hurt a lot in recent years. One of the obvious reasons for this is the migration of young people, Kosovar men and women, towards a better life.

It’s as if flowers, nettles and willows have stopped signifying hope. Faith in these plants has been reduced with the passage of time and yet the basic desire for a decent life has not been fulfilled. In Prizren, Saint George’s Day is celebrated loudly on May 5 at the city cemetery. Saint George’s Day in Prizren is also called “Karabash,” because of the tomb of Karabash, where until a few years ago visitors gathered to pay their respects.

This year, there weren’t many people at the shrine whereas the city park was crowded. At the corner of the park, where the celebration was held, Karabash sweets were being sold.

The local Albanians, Roma and Turks spoke longingly about the history of celebrating this holiday. In conversation with some women, who had gone out to sell curabies, they reaffirmed the pain they felt due to the migration of their sons and daughters. One of them said to me: “Saint George requires hyzmet (serving)! Now, there is no one to do it! My children are no longer in Kosovo. My grandsons and granddaughters are no longer here to go out the night before and collect the Saint George’s flowers.”

It seemed as if the living and the dead were celebrating the revival of nature together.

But still, they enjoyed the holiday. “At least we have each other,” said one of the three old women sitting on a blanket in the field, referring to her friends. They claimed that they had been selling curabies with little mirrors attached to them for generations, only for Saint George’s Day. 

Sometimes, the problem with repeating a rite for a long time is that the practitioners begin to do so mechanically, often forgetting its meaning.

“Why do the curabies have a mirror?” I asked curiously.

“I don’t know,” one of them replied. “The old women must have known something. Evil eye, for sure.”

It seems that the mirror is a kind of amulet, or “mësysh” as it is called in some regions of Kosovo and protects you from the “evil eye.”

Not far from Prizren, in Dejnë in Rahovec, Saint George is celebrated similarly. Men and women visit the tomb of Dervish Brahimi in the field where the celebration is held. They kiss the entrance of the tomb when entering and leaving. Dervish Brahimi is known throughout generations as a prominent religious figure.

Women, especially, leave the tomb with tears in their eyes. “I came here to pray for a way to be opened for my son, because right now he is in a difficult situation,” said one of them, after kissing the doors of the tomb.

The residents of Rahovec seemed to be celebrating Saint George together with the dead. They had laid their blankets right next to the cemetery.

I don’t think that their relatives were buried in the cemeteries, or that all the cemeteries belonged to saints. The atmosphere in the field felt heavy. It was something of a trade-off between life and death. It seemed as if the living and the dead were celebrating the revival of nature together. The air was filled with prayers addressed to the underworld, the holy dead and family members, to whom gifts were sent: shirts, towels, socks. The gifts do not have great material value, but are a symbolic way of recognizing and honoring holy persons and will hopefully fulfill the visitors’ wishes.

I too took part in the ritual. I moved three times around the tomb of Dervish Ibrahimi in Dejnë, but now I was more aware of what I was doing. One of the women, who guarded the tomb inside and waited for visitors, wrapped a piece of yarn around my hand, as the ritual requires, and wished me luck and health. 

While I was waiting to return to Prishtina, some residents of Rahovec, who realized that I was taking notes, seemed to ask for my assurance to freely celebrate Saint George’s Day. “It has nothing to do with any religion, does it? That’s how we are! We have always celebrated nature, the arrival of summer!”

But, this does not mean that we actively protect nature. Even on Saint George’s Day, where the revival of nature is celebrated, the celebration was filled with garbage and plastic. Toys, or better said, plastic weapons, were being sold. A native of Prizren told me that on this day, these kinds of toys are often bought for children. It was the biggest absurdity, to see four or five year olds with candy in one hand and a plastic gun in the other.

Paradoxically, we celebrate nature and destroy it at the same time.

But perhaps there is a glimmer of hope in raising awareness about our relationship with nature among future generations. Permaculture, as an approach that aims to harmonize the relationship between people, nature and the resources derived from it, is taking place more and more in the activities of various organizations, even youth spaces.

Termokiss, a community-run center in Prishtina often organizes gardening activities. These rituals are changing their form.

While in some areas Saint George’s Day was celebrated in the fields, in Prishtina, young people celebrated Saint George through singing.

On May 5, the Discogrupi community organized a party with the theme “Spring Affair ” at the Ramiz Sadiku Canteen, where a crowd of young people gathered to celebrate the arrival of summer to the sound of disco.

Meanwhile, the Erdhlezeti Festival has taken place in Prishtina since 2013 and celebrates the spirit of the arrival of summer and revival of nature.

Bajram Kinolli, widely known as Kafu and one of the creators and organizers of this festival, emphasizes the need to continue cultivating this celebration, as a tool for inter-ethnic tolerance. For him, the festival is a way to “remember the good days of the celebration when all ethnicities lived and celebrated together.” 

“In Gjakova it has been celebrated by Albanians, Roma, Turks, Serbs, etc. The feast of Saint George is the unification of ethnic groups,” said Kafu. “Summer, it seems to me, comes similarly for all of us. It doesn’t have a flag, language or faith. For this reason, we have also made a joint call: pleasure has come. Because the delight of summer comes for all of us.”

Saint George was celebrated again this year. I don’t know for how long, or in what ways this celebration will continue to manifest in the future. However, these rapid cultural transformations point to an urgent need to develop an individual and collective consciousness, and look towards preserving our spiritual heritage, in all its forms.

Feature Image: Valmira Rashiti / K2.0.