Today is Đurđevdan/(H)Erdelezi. The most important festival celebrated by Roma on the Balkans. It will bring millions together in colorful festivities – uniting them across national, religious and often ethnic borders.

From when the sun set yesterday night, millions of Roma from Zagreb to Istanbul, from Skopje to Tirana, have been celebreating their most important holiday. Starting ou preparing the meals of today’s feast. They cut and seasoned lamb and sheep meat that will be grilled from the morning on, cut the vegetables and bake the bread to go along with it.

Rakija, wine, beer and music got and get them in the mood for the great festivities.

Đurđevdan je. According to the Julian calender it is the Patron’s Day of Saint George. The Muslim popular calender calls the day (H)Erdelezi/Hidirellez, marking the beginning of summer.

Both holidays are celebrated by Gadji as well, non-Roma, that is, particularly in Turkey where it also is a popular festivity. The title photograph of this entry by Halbag was taken on the streets of Istanbul.

But by no one is it celebrated as intensely as it is by Roma.

Roma emigrants even export the holiday to their new home. Richard Hebstreit took some photos at a public Hederlezi celebration in Berlin. He plans to show some of that series in an exhibition he’s planning at the end of May.

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Kids dancing on the street during an Ederlezi celebration in Berlin. (c) Richard Hebstreit

With them, several religious and cultural traditions blend together on the 6th of May.

Transcending Boundaries

Catholic Roma from Croatia celebrate it as well even though it’s no religious holiday for them.

Muslim traditions mix with those of Orthodox Christianity, in some cases supplemented by traditions coming from Jewish popular religiosity, incorporating older pagean traditions as well.

The latter also becomes apparent with Serbs.

The Serbian Orthodox Church considers St. George to be the Patron Saint of Serbia. On his day, man Serb families celebrate their „Slava“ in his honor, thus declaring him to be the Family Patron as well.

This is a clear reference to the clan structure particularly rural Serbian society was dominated by well until the end of the 19th century. Clan festivities such as Slave can be considered a faint echo of pre-Christian traditions.

The Serb version of Đurđevdan, however, differs greatly from the way Roma celebrate it.

While Serbs celebrate the day within family structures Roma celebrate it as a whole and in public. They come to central places and squares of their home towns and villages to celebrate, sing and dance.

Everybody who wants to is welcome to join, regardless of whether he or she is Rom or Romni or not.

This makes this day the only day on the Balkans that to my knowledge transcends national and religious boundaries and often enough ethnic ones as well, making this day an important cultural contribution by Roma to culture on the Balkans as a whole.

Surprisingly Few Traces in Culture

Regardless of the importance of this holiday there is surprisingly little information about it to be found on the net. Outside of music it seems to have left only a few traces in (popular) culture. There seem to be only a handful of novels and short stories using it as a topic.

One of the key scenes of Emir Kusturica’s film Dom za vešanje/Time of The Gypsies is a poetic hommage to this holiday. One can rightfully call it a masterpiece of cinema culture – inspite of the criticism the overall movie has drawn for te way it depicts Roma.

In a typical Balkan view of Roma Kusturica idealizes them at the same time as reducing them to negative stereotypes on Roma in many scenes of the movie.

The song performed in this scene is called Ederlezi and celebrates Đurđevdan/(H)Erdelezi. It became particularly popular in the Serbocroatian version arranged by Goran Bregović and performed by his band Bijelo Dugme. It still is one of the most popular songs in the successor states of former Yugoslavia.

As described in this piece this version of the song is subject to nationalist and revisionist re-interpretation by right wing Serbs.

In their version of history they ignore or even flatout deny that the song is originally Roma music. This stance is tantamount to cultural expropriation.

A Feast of The Oppressed

The Anticiganism one so often encounters on the Balkans manifests itself in massive discrimination against Roma, forcing the region’s most numerous minortiy to live in poverty almost unimaginable in the West, often renderning them without any social and cultural rights.

This also makes Đurđevdan/(H)Erdelezi a feast of the oppressed. At least on this day the go out into the public as group and document and celebrate their very existence in a spirit of self confidence.

This year the massive poverty among may Roma could even lead to many of them not celebrating it at all in parts of the region.

„I don’t know if we are going to celebrate this year“, Roma activist Brisilda Taco from Tirana tells Balkan Stories. „The economic situation of Roma is so bad many can not afford the celebrations“.

If this central holiday is cancelled this should alarm the European community and make it think about how it can help to improve the lives of Roma on the Balkans and particulary in Albania.

If they can’t even celebrate Đurđevdan/(H)Erdelezi you know it can’t get any worse for them. Help is badly needed.

A German version of this piece was published by Balkanblogger.

Title photograph: (c) Halbag, found at flickr.com and obtained under CC license CC BY 2.0