The red thread around a baby’s wrist speaks more about Balkan origins than the birth certificate. Being born in the Balkans implied not only overcoming real predicaments, but a lifelong battle with supernatural fiends as well. In addition to the utmost joy, pride and merrymaking associated with the arrival of a newborn, special attention had to be paid to the protection of the baby’s health and fortune. While Balkan girls are nowadays struggling to choose the right nuance of pink and blue balloons for gender reveal parties, grannies-to-be are secretly developing the strategies to ensure proper nutrition and development of a baby as well as good fate. If you are visiting a Balkan baby, do not be carried away by fluffiness, but plan the visit properly and mind the gifts you bring.
The only thing worse than having a crying baby and sleepless nights is having a crying baby, sleepless nights and guests at home. The forty-day period after the birth of a baby is in the Balkans called ‘babine’. While nowadays this period is intended for physical and mental recovery and adaptation of the parents to a new member and routine, in the past the first days of life and parenthood were considered a perfect reason for family gatherings and celebration. Apparently, during the first forty days, new mums and babies were considered the most vulnerable and susceptible to the influences of evil forces. For that reason, relatives and neighbors used to eagerly offer their ‘help’ and spend days and nights celebrating in the house of the newborn and ‘supporting’ the new family.
The third and the seventh night were of the utmost importance and during these nights the guardians of mums and babies had to stay awake. More precisely, it was believed that on the third night supernatural beings visit newborns and decide on the destiny of the babies. There were two ways to avoid spells and misfortune, some parents used to take the baby to another household, so the baby’s destiny could not be determined, while other parents would leave small gifts beside the baby’s head (e.g. garlic, basil, etc.) and tie a red thread around the baby’s wrist. The small presents would amuse the fairies and they would foretell a better future for the baby. This superstition is the root of modern gift-giving.
Furthermore, when scheduling a visit to a newborn the routine and peace of mums and babies was secondary to the modus operandi of the fairies. In that sense, well-meaning relatives would not visit a newborn on Wednesday, Friday, during lent or at night. Especially not at night. Witches were believed to fly at night and therefore neither babies nor baby clothes were allowed to be outside at night.
As mentioned, presents are still now an inseparable aspect of visiting a newborn. A bare-handed visit was not only impolite, but also dangerous for the luck and development of the baby. The gifts that used to be brought for mums and babies had both nutritional and superstitious purpose. Firstly, all the presents had to be placed in an untied bag, otherwise the baby’s tongue would also be tied and the baby would not start speaking properly. Regarding linguistic competences, fish dishes were highly undesirable presents – fish is a soundless animal, so the child could also be mute.
Additionally, some presents were more appropriate than others: roasted chicken with the head was crucial. Bringing a beheaded chicken to a newborn could cause the child to run like a beheaded chicken through their life, which would not be good either for the child nor for the family. The meat was logically accompanied by homemade bread. The bread had to be round in shape and prepared without yeast, as the yeast could cause obesity and bloating of the child in the future. Only kids and unmarried men should break the bread. The gender of the child who bites the bread first used to indicate the gender of the next baby in the family. The first piece of the bread had to be preserved in the cradle to boost the baby’s health and immunity.
Cheese pie as a part of the menu was meant to ensure the masculinity of boys and attractiveness of girls. The baby boys gifted with a pie would be surrounded with beautiful young ladies, while the girls would be more attractive and interesting to the boys.
A meal without a dessert is an incomplete meal. For that reason, mums and babies were given a delicious cake, too. The flavor and design of the cake were less important than the shape. Namely, the cake had to be round in order to ensure a proper life cycle of the baby. Angles of the cake could be the cause of a rough life. In terms of beverage, milk and homemade brandy were considered acceptable. The food was not given directly to the baby, but the new mum was expected to taste all the food that was brought, sip alcohol and spill the milk over her breasts in order to boost lactation, logically.
Inedible and more memorable gifts were money and golden coins. The money had to be intended for a particular purpose in the baby's life - such as for books, pens, etc. The money given to girls was also meant to invoke marital happiness and a rich husband. Another inedible, but important gift was a strand of thread which was meant to ensure the beauty and density of the hair of the girls and the quality of moustaches of the boys.
The enlightenment of the modern era irrevocably eradicated most of the past practices, thus rendering the first days of parenthood more pleasurable. However, old-fashioned customs aimed at the provision of good fate and luck are as laughable as designer clothing for babies and photo shootings catering for the standards of social media. Each generation abounds in trends and misconceptions and therefore the primal beliefs of our Balkan ancestors are not to be ridiculed. The reminiscence of amusing customs has a profound significance for the reverence of the forefathers and their struggles to sustain families. The vague argumentation for the anachronisms hides the purest emotions and enormous efforts meant to strengthen family ties. Therefore, the acquisition of modern knowledge should help young generations to rationally embrace the invaluable heritage of family-centeredness and care for the dearest ones.