January 23, 2009

Jump Right In

Karl Marx called religion "the opiate of the masses," insisting that once it had been abolished people could get down to the business of really being happy in a society free of such oppressing forces as the church. Well, Communism sure tried its damnedest to stamp out this "opium," but in the process it created something akin to the "Tylenol PM of the masses." Drugged by ideology and anesthetized by decades of poverty, the people of Eastern Europe spent much of the twentieth century in a haze. In his absolutely riveting examination of the region, Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan explains how in Romania, for example, the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceau┼čescu actually used grinding poverty as a weapon to subjugate the population.

Yugoslavia was always a bit different from those Soviet-dominated nations; nevertheless, it was synonymous in all the fundamental ways, including the suppression of religion (again, though, not so violently suppressed as in places like Russia or Romania). In Macedonia, and more specifically our town, religion never disappeared. Rather it just became a bit dormant. Behaviors were modified and overt displays of religion were tampered down. The arrival of Santa Claus was moved from Christmas to New Year's Eve. Family traditions were kept just there, in the family. And so on.

I was talking with my counterpart at the high school, an English teacher around my age, about holiday traditions, specifically one on Christmas Eve when a coin is placed inside a loaf of bread. The bread is then broken into pieces and passed around. Whomever finds the coin in their piece can expect a year of good luck and good health (Jillian found it last Christmas in Caska). My counterpart, Kristina, told me she's never found the coin. Wow, in 32 years, never once? Well, she explained, her family has only been practicing that tradition for a decade or so, since her grandfather was president of the local Communist Party when she was growing up. While it may have been alright for other families to privately carry on with such things, it just wasn't prudent in her house.

Religion came back into the public space with much gusto following the fall of Communism. Despite this I would never describe Macedonians as extremely religious, at least not in how they demonstrate their faith. Compared to many religious sects and believers in America, Macedonians are quite restrained in their pronouncements. Indeed, any boldness surrounding a religious event usually stems from its social nature. Monday was a perfect example.

Last year we were totally caught off guard by this gathering. This time we were ready. The day was Vodici, a commemoration of the baptism of Christ, and it all happened down by the river. By 9am it seemed most of the town was out, standing on the two bridges, crowding the riverbank and watching from the terraces of nearby homes. We were in that third group, guests of the teacher at Roma center. [If you've been reading this blog for very long, than you will not be terribly surprised by the next sentence.] Our friend's father patrolled the balcony, passing out small cups of warm rakia, or plum brandy, a staple of the region. I took my cup and squeezed into the mass of bodies in search of a better view of the river bank below. The air smelled of rakia breath, unwashed clothes and chimney smoke.

Excitement builds along the river

Just before ten the action began and it was over pretty quickly. A procession was making its way from the church to the bridge and we could follow its movements from our vantage point. Once on the bridge, the crowd parted and allowed the Orthodox priests passage to the railing. A loudspeaker had been set up, but it was impossible for us to hear what was being said. The priest held in one hand a small wooden cross and in the other what looked like a censer. As he began to swing it gently back and forth over the rushing water below, what came out was not smoke but holy water. Just then there was a burst of noise and energy on the riverbank as a few brave souls pulled off their shirts and dove into river. Their leap was timed to match that of the priest dropping the small cross. There was a scramble. The crowd laughed and cheered. A victor emerged and with him a year of good luck.

The crowd below us dispersed, but the group on the balcony was only getting started. More brandy was placed on the table next to something that looked like meat suspended inside a sort of jelly. Yikes. "Oh, I tried it inside," I told an old man who shoved a toothpick full of the stuff in my direction. "Oh, I tried it outside," I told our friend back in the house. I did have more brandy, though. "It's part of the tradition," I told Jillian. She just rolled her eyes. "And it's six o'clock somewhere."

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