Bulgaria, Christmas in

Bulgaria, Christmas in

Christianity is the predominant faith in the eastern European nation of Bulgaria, though the country also hosts a sizeable Muslim minority (13 percent). Most Bulgarians who profess the Christian faith are Orthodox. Like other Orthodox Christians around the world, they fast during Advent, the period of spiritual preparation that precedes the Christmas festival. For the strictly observant, this means avoiding wine, meat, and dairy products for the duration of the fast, which ends on December 25.

Christmas Season

Bulgarians consider that the Christmas season begins on December 20, a day they call Ignazhden. A Bulgarian folk belief teaches that Mary, Jesus' mother, experienced her first contractions on this day. Christmas Day festivities begin on December 24 and extend through December 26. These festivities include special religious observances and frolics that resemble those of Carnival. In addition, bands of boys or young men, known as koledari, wander through the streets, stopping at homes to sing Christmas carols, dance, and offer blessings. People give them fruit, bread, and other treats as a means of thanking them for their efforts. Traditional koledari wear colorful folk costumes and carry beautifully carved oaken staves.

Christmas Dinner

Many Bulgarian Christmas customs pertain to the Christmas dinner. This should be a sumptuous meal, so as to attract abundance in the new year. The woman of the house bakes a special loaf of bread, which the head of the household breaks into pieces, giving one to each family member and saving some for the family's animals. In some areas people observe the tradition of burning incense over the dinner table and over the farm animals. One Bulgarian Christmas tradition requires whoever serves the Christmas pie to set aside the first piece for "Grandpa Vassil." This fictional character stands for any wayfarer, while the custom itself reminds diners that this night above all others is one on which to welcome strangers to share their feast.

New Year's Eve and Day

Bulgarian folk tradition assigns the burning of the Yule log to New Year's Eve. An old folk custom dictated that the hearth first be cleaned with a broom made from juniper. At sunset on New Year's Eve the oldest male in the household lights the Yule log. If it burns through the night, the family can hope for wealth and fertility in the year to come. Bands of male carolers roam the streets on New Year's Eve as well as at Christmas time. These carolers, called sourvakari, carry wands made of dogwood branches. They lightly slap people on the back with these wands, wishing them long life, good health, and abundance. Groups of boys may repeat this custom on New Year's Day. In exchange for this blessing people offer the boys coins, fruit, or candy.

New Year's Day is celebrated with a large meal, which acts as a charm to ensure a prosperous new year. The bread traditionally served with this meal is decorated with emblems representing vines and bee hives. Banitza, a kind of cheese pastry, is a popular New Year's dish. On this occasion bakers place cornel (dogwood) buds inside the pastry. These buds symbolize good luck and good health for family members and livestock.

Grandfather Frost, the Russian gift bringer, visits Bulgaria on New Year's Day. This custom may have been imported during the recent period in which Bulgaria was ruled by the Russian-led Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.)

Further Reading

Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999. Resnick, Abraham. Bulgaria. Enchantment of the World. Chicago: Children's Press, 1995. Stavreva, Kirilka. Bulgaria. Cultures of the World. Tarrytown, N.Y.: Marshall Cavendish, 1997.

Web Site

"Wonderland Bulgaria," a web site maintained by Iliana Rakilovska, Irina Simeonova, Maria Nankova, and Kamen Minchev, furnishes information on the history, population, folklore, and geography of Bulgaria. For information on Bulgarian folk festivals, see: graphy/festivals.html
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