Hidrellez is an annual spring festival celebrated throughout the Balkans and Western Anatolia. While its origins are not clear, most believe it is a syncretistic blend of beliefs from Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and indigenous animistic beliefs, whether Romani, Turkic, or pre-Hellenic in origin.
The holiday has different names in the various languages of the Balkans, though the names can be grouped into two sets: Hidrellez in Turkish, Ederlezi in Romani, Mar Elyas in Syria; Shëngjergji in Albanian, Gergyovden in Bulgarian, Ђурђевдан/Đurđevdan in Serbo-Croatian, Άγιος Γεώργιος in Greek. These reflect two etymologies in turn. The names in the first group are derived from a conjunction of two relatively mystical religious figures: Hizir (al-Khiḍr, “the green one,” in Arabic) and Ilyas (also known as Elijah). As the conjunction Hizir-Ilyas indicates, the holiday celebrates both figures, one from Islamic and the other from Christian lore. The names in the second group mean “Saint George’s Day” in their respective languages.
Hidrellez takes place every year on the night of May 5; Saint George’s Day is May 6 in the Gregorian calendar, April 23 in the Julian.
There was a righteous woman. Hizir one day came to her and told her, as a reward for her righteousness, that in three days all the water in the world would be changed. It would be as drinkable as ever, would keep the plants and the animals alive, but would make humans insane in multiple ways.
The righteous woman went to the pond in the center of town and started collecting water in barrels so that she would have enough to last her the rest of her life after the waters changed. The people in the town came down to watch and made fun of her, started calling her names, and said she was insane to collect water, which was, after all, quite plentiful. She warned them all: the waters would be changed and they would go insane. They said that obviously she was the crazy one.
And then it happened. The waters changed and everyone went insane, except for the righteous woman. She stayed away from town with her barrels of water for a few months.
But she got lonely and went to town just to see whether anyone had survived or if society had completely blown itself apart. She saw all the people who used to make fun of her, but now they were speaking loudly with each other, talking nonsense. Non-verbal sounds, exaggerated gestures, clothing in disarray. She felt sorry for them and tried talking to some of them; every time she tried, they gestured wildly and pointed to their ears, or her mouth. But somehow, despite their insane mannerisms and speech, they all seemed to understand each other. She went back home in sadness.
Finally, a few months later, the loneliness drove the righteous woman to despair. What’s the point of continuing to be sane if there’s no one to talk to, nothing to do? She went back to the pond in town and dove in head first. She became insane. She went to talk to the townspeople again but now she could understand them. “It’s a miracle,” they said. “You suddenly became insane a few months ago; now you are cured.”
Saint George opposed the erection of an idol by the King of Mosul, and was put to death three times, but each time was resurrected. The King then tried to starve him but George touched a dry piece of wood and it turned green and grew into a fruit tree.
Saint George’s Day is when all evil spells are broken. Saint George makes the crops grow and brings morning dew. On the morning of Saint George’s Day, washing hands and face in the morning dew brings luck and plenty for the next year.
On the night of Hidrellez, everyone in the family helps clean the house from top to bottom. Every surface must be cleaned or Hizir will not enter the home. The windows are left open all night as the family sleeps outside on the streets, in parks, after drinking and dancing to Romani horn music. While they are out, Hizir slips inside. They leave the pantries open so that Hizir can bring plenty; they leave purses open so that Hizir can bring wealth.
Families tie colorful ribbons to trees and make models of homes or cars to tie to its branches for Hizir to find. They write their wishes on colorful paper and make them into paper boats to float away on streams to Hizir’s ear.