Sometimes we all experience things in our lives that we don’t quite know how to process. It is now two weeks later, I still do not know how I feel about the Stara Nova Godina festival in Vevchani. Stara Nova Godina literally means Old New Year and I believe the reference is to when New Year was celebrated according to the Orthodox Calendar, which is two weeks later than the Roman calendar. The premise of the festival (like they need a reason to party) is that according to legend, the Old New Year is when evil spirits come to wreck havoc on the good townspeople of Vevchani and must be scared away in order to protect the town. So the villagers would dress up as the things that scared them most in order to scare the evil spirits away. Fast forward to today and the villagers continue this tradition with interesting results. Apparently, today’s Vevchanians are terrified of Cavemen, Surgery and pregnant wives in addition to some very non-politically correct subjects (like Barack Obama in the White House- hey, thanks guys). The costumes are as wild as the men underneath in this rowdy pageantry of drunkenness, animal parts and bonfires. Huzzah!
My pleasant stay in Vevchani kicked off in the town square as the costumed villagers began to conglomerate for some hot rakija and, of course, a quick oro. Hanging out with the participants of the parade was fun, although my friend Kacey got tricked into eating a lard ice cream cone given to her by a man dressed as an Albanian (like I said-NOT PC). I also got to see the drunken first launch of a group dressed (in blackface) as the first Jamaican bobsled team. The Cool Runnings Crew started their bobsled off at the top of some icy stairs and then rushed to the bottom where they toppled over into the street. Good one guys.
The participants all went to the bottom of the hill in town prepare for the main event of the day, a huge parade, while we waited at the top with some forties of Dab and high expectations. I for one, after seeing just a small sample of the costumes, was full of mirth and impatience. The band struck up a gay tune of wailing clarinets and pounding drums as the first villagers came marching up the hill. The first costumes were of men dressed head to toe in red (they looked a lot like Klansmen honestly) whipping cow tails along the street and carrying baskets. We were told that these are the protectors of the village who capture the demon spirits and expel them in their baskets. Then came a procession of wolf men, an army of Serbs in full warrior regalia firing their weapons into the air, a delegation of Greeks with cabbage heads, a drag belly dancer ensemble, the cavemen brandishing a skinned weasel, and a hilarious troupe of men dressed as pregnant wives howling “No more babies!” and “giving birth” on the street. The costumes were elaborate and the participants included the crowd by grabbing, grinding on us and in one instance smearing a dead chicken across the face of one defenseless PCV. My favorite embellishment was the use of real animal parts as costume decorum. One very astute description of the whole affair was, “”The difference between Halloween and this is that when Americans want to have blood and gore, we use paint and peeled grapes…. here they just kind of cut open an animal and glue animal guts to themselves.” Bravo.
The second day was actually quite a bit more “interactive.” The second day is devoted to a large bonfire in which the participants burn their costumes. The episode is a cathartic representation of destroying the evil that has permeated the town. We began the day by attending a slava (banquet) in town with the parade participants who had obviously not changed, slept or stopped drinking from the night before. A few shots of moonshine later and we were off to the town square to enjoy the bonfire. The bonfire was started (not well, the guy forgot to bring a lighter and tried to use wet hay as tinder) by a man dressed as death. A cross was lit and thrown into a coffin in the middle of town. Then death theatrically ripped off his costume and howled the howl of the damned. The band commenced and all the villagers waiting at the top of the hill stampeded down and swarmed the square! We were caught in a mad oro of stomping and gnashing teeth as the horrifying monsters circled the bonfire to dance. We were prodded, groped, whipped with cow tails and generally terrified by the whirling mess of people. The apex of the entire event, for me, was being whisked screaming and laughing into the oro by a wolf man and a cave person. I stomped along next to them until, suddenly, the cave person forced me to my knees into the mud. Another monster, brandishing a sheepskin on a large spear, approached us menacingly. The cave person bowed his head and I followed his example, still holding hands with the monsters to my right and left. I could smell the stench of the sheepskin drawing nearer. Suddenly, I was pelted about the head and shoulders with the muddy, disgusting animal skin! I grimaced and a tear fell down my cheek as I whimpered…uh…okay, I guess.
We stayed at the bonfire for several hours. Some of the highlights were Brittany being whipped in her open mouth with a cow tail and Jordan’s one on one showdown with death (it ended when Jordan succumbed to eating a pepper… but none of us know why). At one point a six year old stabbed the weasel that the cave men had formerly been toying with through its heart with a spear and roasted it upon the open flame of the bonfire. Then another child did the same with a chicken carcass (possibly the one smeared across Sara’s face the day before) and then they had a sword fight. How children play. We decided to leave when the rakija fueled crowd started to get a little too rambunctious. When they tried to cajole Jordan into the fire by saying it was “traditional” we decided to vamos.
All in all, I will probably be back next year. At certain points, the dead animal parts and disregard for safety was a little difficult to be around. It took a conscious effort not to projectile vomit when I was whipped with a sheepskin and when I accidentally stepped on a raw liver. But it was also a great, hilarious spectacle and I appreciate the exuberance of the participants. The whole town is truly dedicated to this event and the fact that they have continued it every year for 700 years is telling. So if anyone wants to visit me for the 701st Vevchani extravaganza, I promise that you will have quite an experience. I’m just not sure how you’ll feel about it when you leave. I exfoliated.