What is the origin of this custom?
In Serbian the word “baba” means mother, grandmother and midwife, basically anyone who gave birth or helped giving birth. It also means stone, rock, mountain and mother Earth, the Great Mother who gave birth to us all. Originally midwifes were the oldest women in the village, the ones who gave many births themselves and knew what is involved in giving and more importantly surviving birth. Hence they were the ones most qualified to help others give birth. No wonder then that in South Slavic languages the word for midwife (baba, babica) also means grandmother, old woman.
Babinden (Baba’s day) is a holiday celebrated annually in Bulgaria and parts of Serbia. It is celebrated on the 8th of January according to the old Calendar (today 21st of January). It is dedicated to “babice” (literally little grandmothers, little mothers) – midwives or any women who help at birth, and newly wedded women and women who have given birth during the previous year. The holiday has pagan origin and many fertility related rituals are performed on the day.
What follows is a description of rituals performed on Babinden in Bulgaria. Customs performed on Babindan in Serbia were very similar.
Even before sunrise mothers with children one to three years of age go to the tap to get fresh water. In the pot with water they place sprig of basil or geranium.
Both basil and geranium oils are antibacterial, so placing of these plants in the water effectively makes the water sterile. This is why basil is placed in holy water….They then take bar of soap and a new towel and head to the home of the woman who delivered their children to “wash her”. The ritual bathing of the midwife used to be performed under a fruit tree in the garden or on the chopping block in front of the house or on the house stairs or the doorstep.
Infections caught at childbirth was the main cause of death in women in the past. It is interesting that the main ritual performed during Babinden is ritual washing of hands of the midwife with antiseptic water…Did our ancestors know about the link between the dirt, bacteria and infections???
Anyway, every woman gives the midwife the bar of soap, pours water that she has brought with here over midwife’s hands so that she can wash herself, and then gives the midwife the towel to dry herself. Soap and towel are kept by the midwife as presents. However the midwife does not dry her hands with the towel. Instead she dries her hands using each woman’s skirt so that she can get pregnant easily and so that she can carry her pregnancy safely and so that she can deliver the baby easily and safely. The midwife then decorates the woman with a bunch of geraniums, which is in Serbian and Bulgarian known as “zdravac” meaning “healthy”.
Geranium, apart from being used as an antiseptic, is also used to increase fertility and to ease menstrual and menopausal problems. Officially the name Geranium is said to be derived from the Greek “γέρανος” (géranos) or γερανός (geranós) meaning “crane” plus the Latin ending “ium”. However Latin word “gero” means, among other things, to bear, to give birth. Knowing that Geranium was used extensively in fertility treatments and at childbirth is it possible that the name Geranium is derived from gero meaning to be pregnant to give birth? Also in Bulgarian Geranium is known as Babino vince (Baba’s vine). In Ancient Greek the word for old is “γέρων” (geron). The Serbian word “baba” means an old woman and geranium is baba’s wine, old woman’s wine…Is geranium then derived from geron old?
Anyway, the bunch of geraniums is tied with “martenitsa”, a bracelet made of red and white thread. This is the symbol of the holy union of the young sun Jarilo (red) and the young earth Vesna (white) which makes the earth fertile (pregnant)…
While washing, the midwife takes a handful of water, throws it into the air, bounces three times up and down and says: “May children hop like this and may then become white and red! As many drops, so much prosperity and health!”.
After the ritual washing women give the midwife shirts, socks, cloths which which they place on her right shoulder. In return, the midwife decorates the children which she has delivered the previous year with “martenitsa” with a silver coin attached to it, which she ties around their right wrist. She also gives them socks and undershirts as presents. Then she washes the children’s faces, because it is believed that on Babinden water passing through midwife’s hands has a purifying, healing effect.
This belief in the healing property of the “midwife’s water” can be seen from another ritual performed right after the birth of a child. The midwife fills a pitcher with water, puts a bunch of basil in it and takes it to the church. The priest consecrates the water and blesses the midwife. She then returns the “prayer water” to the mother who washes her face and pours a little of it in the bed of the child at each bathing until it’s 40 days old, the purification period after the birth.
Sometimes the midwife is taken to the river or the well in a large wicker basket. This is very interesting because it corresponds to the similar “old woman in a wicker basket” images found in Slovenia, about which I wrote in my post “Babji mlin – Grandmother’s mill“. These images are linked to Mother Earth rejuvenation rituals.
The procession is accompanied by musicians. Everyone is dressed up and women are decorated with martenitsas, red peppers and wool. They sing ritual songs with erotic motifs, dance, drink and generally misbehave.
If during their trip to the river or the well they meet an unknown man, women take their hat off and ask for a ransom. Once they reach the river or the well, they overturn the cart or the sleigh or the wicker basket and throw the midwife into the water. As I said already the word “baba” means baby, mother, grandmother, midwife, basically anyone who gave birth or helped giving birth. It also means mother Earth, the great mother. Originally midwifes were the oldest women in the village, the ones who gave many births themselves. No wonder then that the word for midwife (baba, babica) also means grandmother, old woman. In January when Babinden is celebrated, mother Earth is at her extreme power, as Baba, the Old Earth, the Hag, the Goddess of death. This ritual bathing of baba, babica (midwife, old woman) in actually ritual drowning of the Old Earth. It represents the snow melt, the end of the winter, the death of the Hag and the birth of the new young earth. The snow melt represents the first menstruation of the young earth, the sign that she is ready to be fertilized by the young sun…
That this indeed is ritual killing of the Winter Earth can be seen from the custom which was until the 1980s preserved in the village of Dikanci, in Gora region in South of Serbia. On Babindan young men would make a straw, corn stalk effigy of an old woman called “Guđa” (probably Gđa, short of Gospođa meaning Lady) which personified Baba, the old Earth. I wrote about how “Baba”, the old Mother Earth became “the Lady”, the mother of Christ in my post “Babje leto – Grandmother’s summer“. Anyway, the young men would chase “Guđa” out of the village with sticks all the way to the river. There they would throw the effigy into the water and then they would break and throw the sticks into the water too with shouts: “May winter not return!!!”. Similar customs are preserved in other Slavic countries and in Ireland. I will talk about this in detail in one of my future posts…
After this ritual bathing of the midwife, a dance is held on the village square where a ritual circular dance kolo is danced by everyone. This dance represents the never-ending cycle of life, the spinning of the circle of the solar and climatic year.
The day ends when kolo winds through the village and ends at the midwife’s house. Everyone kisses her hands and gives her more gifts. This expresses gratitude and love for this woman who helps the new life to be born. Again you can see how veneration of the baba (midwife, old woman) is connected with the veneration of baba (mother Earth).
Having children was by our ancestors regarded as the most important purpose in life. A proverb says “Q: Who is more important than the king? A: A child”. This is why women who helped deliver children were so highly respected.
Is this custom of celebrating midwives which are in the Balkans known as “babice” (little women) the origin of the “Little women’s Christmas” which is today celebrated in some parts of Ireland?