Over a fire  – The carnival Bele Poklade in the Balkan region


Mardi Gras in France, Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day in England, Mesopust in Croatia, celebrated as Maslenica in Russia. Among South Slavs, similar custom is practiced under the name of Bele Poklade –  a movable feast celebrated on the last day or the whole last week before Easter Lent. It is kept in a cheerful and loud way, with abundance of fat food, forgiveness, visiting relatives, burning fires and torches, masquerade and carnival, archaic games, divination about life and death, exorcism against diseases, unclean forces and evil. Those are the last days before the fast, when one can still eat meat (“carnival” comes from the Latin expression carne vale meaning “farewell to meat”). Today some of the most famous carnivals are those in Rio de Janeiro and in Venice, but when you are in Serbia, look what you can experience:

During those weeks, Lozovik – the greatest village in Serbia, situated 70km south of Belgrade, the Serbian capital, between the river Velika Morava and the only state highway- becomes preserver of national treasure and a bulwark of national culture, because the whole community manages to preserve and reconstruct archaic custom in comparison to highly urban centers where a strong influence of Anglophone culture is manifested. Lozovik community, for 2 centuries now, has been a major cultivator of the observed customs both in the past and present days, preparing and conducting the ritual of Bele Poklade for a whole week.

It begins with (re)making handmade ritual masks from pumpkins, wool and feathers and ceremonial costumes from raffia, linen, fleece. Then, on Sunday, the group of youngsters tunes old music instruments, drums and tambours, sacral sticks with rattles, preparing their ceremonial house to house walk.

They look daring, make noise, yell, beat drums and bang sticks on fences and houses in order to expel the evil forces from houses and yards, but most of all to expel evil from themselves. Not only do they look dangerous, but they smell too, smeared with garlic.  As the final encounter with the evil forces, the most effective method of protection is fire, ignited at all major intersections, in which all the impure forces are expelled by the end of Sunday. To show once more their strength, wildness and determination, masked youngsters jump over the great fire – as an act of defeating the enemy for everyone’s sake.

This custom is significant and important as a customary practice for nourishing family relationships, cohesion, and solidarity within neighbourhood and the whole village. It calls for reunion and forgiveness, preserving the tradition, always involving the youngest, who ask from householders to give them eggs, money, cakes and fruits in order to to drive away evil forces and to reduce their actions.

Circumstances in which customs have been created, revived, and observed by wider community tell us more about cultural variety of people, languages, religions and social backgrounds on distinguished area.  No matter how different they may be, folk customs are always denoted by esthetical, scenic, verbal, and nonverbal characteristics, because people have been creating and nurturing them for centuries, filled with emotions and cultural charge. Serbian customs are probably interesting and amusing to other people, both because of differences and similarities that correspond to their own customs. Remembering this year’s Bele Poklade in Lozovik, we became readier to celebrate Easter holidays in a family atmosphere, to reconnect with each other and enjoy life; and above all, to expel negative energy from ourselves.

There are many variations of the same custom throughout Serbia and Balkan region. Somewhere, Poklade is devoted to the cult of the dead and visits to the graveyards, somewhere it looks more like Venetian contemporary masquerade, or pagan ritual that celebrates the end of winter and the beginning of spring, glorifying the cult of the Sun. In carnival atmosphere people turn to unrestrained indulgence in food, drinking, and celebrations wearing masks, contrary to everyday living under moral norms, equally in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions.

Bele Poklade in the village of Lozovik, although at one time forgotten, was again revived and reconstructed. According to the old beliefs, in this large village with less than 5000 people, it keeps evil forces at bay. Farmers here believe that Lozovik is a fertile and rich village, with three elementary schools, kinder garden, never-ending hubbub and great area of cultivable land.

Photo: Goran Jordanski | www.goranjordanski.com


Author: Julija Bašić

Independent Art Curator, Art District NGO, Serbia