On the night of Thursday, May 5 and into the early morning hours of Friday, May 6, many of Turkey’s Balkan and Romani communities will be celebrating Hıdırellez, a traditional folkloric festival reaped in customs and superstitions that are all about setting intentions and actually wishing for them.
Widely celebrated in the Balkans and among the Turkic people of Central Asia as well as in some regions in Turkey, Hıdırellez is actually a holiday celebrating the arrival of spring. It starts on the eve of May 5 and rolls into the next day according to the Gregorian calendar, while in the Julian calendar the date is April 23 and is celebrated as St. George’s Day. The Kakava Festival, which is the Romani community’s celebration of the event, takes place every year in Turkey’s Eastern Thrace in Edirne.
The legend of this celebration is based on the folkloric belief that one day a year the Hızır (Al-Khidr), a holy figure associated with spring and rebirth, and Ilyas (Elijah), who is believed to bring rain, meet on the earth to create an envelope of time over the eve of May 5 to May 6 in which the wishes of those deserving may be granted.
Hıdırellez rituals and superstitions
The history of the seasonal festivities of Hıdırellez pre-dates Islam and is steeped in superstition – which as a disclaimer has no value in Islam according to the belief that only Allah has the will for anything to unfold. Thus, this is not a religious celebration. per se, but more about experiencing a rebirth from the past and setting intentions for the future and the colorful rituals that are traditionally associated with this celebration had Hıdırellez added to UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage in 2017.
Have a clean house
So, what are some of these traditions? First and foremost, the household must be cleaned from top to bottom as the spiritual entity attributed to opening up the envelope for wishes, Hızır, is believed to only grant them to those whose homes are clean. You are not supposed to actually clean the house on the day of May 5, however, nor are you supposed to sew anything. You are supposed to open the windows in the morning and breathe in the fresh air as you begin to set your intentions to make wishes by the next day.
Jumping over fire
In the dark of night, bonfires will be lit for people to jump over the flames in the belief it will pardon them from their errors and will bring good health and prosperity and in other words is symbolic of rebirth.
Written wishes sent to sea
At this time of year, people celebrating Hıdırellez think about their greatest desire and will actually write it down on a piece of paper that they will then send into the sea in the hopes it comes true.
The rose tree is a symbolic reference to Hıdırellez festivities and another ritual is to place a photo or your written wish or to tie a piece of cloth on a rose tree. Or for example, if someone wants to have a baby, they can place a miniature cradle under a rose tree. As per custom, people may also light a candle and circle the tree as they intentionally think of the wish they seek granted. Those seeking health may hang a piece of clothing on a tree, swing from it or lie under it.
Head to the pastures
Many rural villages and communities will hold festivities in the pastures and lay out picnic-style as they believe that the two entities that will meet on the eve will do so in nature. The community will come together to prepare huge cauldrons of rice and beans or stews to also share among those participating and traditional folkloric dances will be performed.
Drums, reed pipes and dancing
As this is a tie of celebrating spring, the skilled wandering minstrels from the Balkan and Romani gypsy culture will be out in full force drumming and playing their “Davul Zurna” and you can be assured that as per Turkish norms, almost everyone around will be joining in by dancing to the beat and even in the streets!
Hıdırellez celebrations in Turkey
The historic remains of the private hunting grounds built for Ottoman sultans now host events such as the Kırkpınar oil wrestling competitions. neighboring Tunca River serves as the destination for many to place their written wishes into the water and douse their face in it. This year, 100,000 visitors are expected to take part in the festivities.
The Ahırkapı neighborhood in Istanbul is famed for its street festival for Hıdırellez, however, due to the pandemic, the festivities were halted in previous years. Traditionally all of the neighborhoods host a carnival-like atmosphere with street musicians and people dancing in the streets. This year, Mask Beach in Beylik düzü will be hosting Hidrellez festivities with a performance by Suzan Kardeş, Turkey’s most famous Balkan vocalist.
In Izmir, the neighborhood of Bornova comes to life and takes on a street festival-like atmosphere for Kakava, while Izmir’s Kültür Park will also host festivities and a Suzan Kardeş concert on Thursday night. On Sunday evening, Kardeş will grace the stage of the Cumhuriyet Square in Edirne’s Keşan district.