With the western version of Christmas increasingly resembling an egoistic festival of greed (or I am being a bit too harsh?), it’s nice to know that countries like Bulgaria – country in the southern part of Europe) – can still offer something in the way of wacky traditional ritual. Many Bulgarian yuletide customs are full of Christmas symbolism, while others date back to a more distant, pagan past. Nowadays many of those are mixed together, creating something really unique.
Nevertheless, don’t get tricked – if you are visiting Sofia, the capital city, it might be pretty hard to find a burning budnik or meet some koledari’s (you’ll get to know what are these in the article). More modern Christmas version pops on every corner there. Nevertheless, Bulgarian families, even in big towns, still keep many of the old traditions.
Meet the koledari’s
Christmas carols echo round Bulgarian villages on Christmas Eve, with groups of male carol-singers (koledari) beginning their tour of the neighborhood at midnight. On arrival at each house, the carol singers perform a carol for the host, recite a prayer, knock back a glass or two of wine, the stick specially-baked loaves on the end of their crooks. It is traditionally believed that the carol singers acquire shamanic powers in the hours before dawn, bestowing good health and well-being upon the community. Which is as good an excuse for a sing-song as any.
The koledari tradition isn’t strictly adhered to in big cities like Sofia, but you shouldn’t be surprised if carol-warbling kids coming knocking on the door after midnight, wishing you happiness, health and wealth in return for a sweets or biscuits.
Burn budnik to be rich
The budnik is an oak or a pear-tree log felled by a young man to keep the fire burning throughout Christmas Eve. Traditionally the log was smeared with holy oil and wrapped in the white lined cloth, thereby ensuring magic-weaving powers. The ask of the burned budnik was kept aside to be scattered over fields and vineyards, ensuring a rich harvest in the coming year.
Eat vegetarian on the Christmas Eve
This symbolizes the end of the pre-Christmas fast, which begins in November 15. Traditionally Bulgarians prepare as lavish a variety of dishes as possible on Christmas Eve, believing that whatever is found on the table on this day will be even more abundant in the coming year. Ultra-traditional families will ensure that dining room is ritually doused in incense before the meal begins. A place at the table will be left vacant for dead relatives (and the table will not be cleared for the night because this is when the deceased come to eat).
The dishes eaten on Christmas Eve must be vegetarian and must add up to an odd number. Likely elements of the menu include cabbage leaves filled with rice and herbs, red peppers stuffed with rice or beans, baked pumpkins, turshia (pickled vegetables), and oshav – a compote made from different fruits and walnuts. A special ritual loaf known as bogovitsa or bogova pita (the Pie of God) is baked from pure wheat flour which is sieved three times. Usually round and richly decorated on top, the loaf conceals a silver coin which brings good luck to whoever finds it.
Fortune slips on Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner usually features pork (traditional Christmas offering being a pig) or another main meat dish. Great importance is attached to the Christmas banitsa (cheese pie), which contains fortune slips made from corbel. The banitsa is turned around three times and everyone takes the piece in front of him or her. A portion of the pie is set aside “for the Virgin Mary”.
Survakane – time for the kids
By a tradition on January 1, children go from door to door with survachki – corbel twigs decorated with dried fruits, popcorn, colored wool and coins, which they use to tap their hosts on the back, wishing them health and prosperity. They might also sing a new-year ditty, whose words go something like this:
“Happy, happy New Year,
Big ears of wheat in the fields,
Big bunches of grape in vineyards,
Yellow corn on the cob,
Red apples in the garden,
House full of silk,
God bless you for the next year,
For next year and forever!”
So all in all, Bulgaria can be the perfect travel destination for the Christmas holidays. What is even better, next to Sofia – you can find a beautiful Vitosha mountain with skying facilities. Even if there’s no snow in the city – there will be some for sure in the mountains. If you are willing for a greater skying resort – there are some not far from big cities.
By the way, to experience Christmas traditions in the best and most traditional way – you should be invited to a family or get an option of traditional tour, offered in rural areas. Ancient village of Koprivshtica can be the place to start looking for one.