Bulgarian customs are rooted in antiquity and are closely tied to the country’s history and particular expression of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Dancing on live coals is an ancient Bulgarian ritual still practiced in a few villages in the Balkan Mountains. The ritual in its authentic form is performed on the name day of Saints Konstantin and Helena – 21 May or (3 June according to the old calendar. Fire dancers prepare for their dance by spending hours locked in a chapel, venerating the icons of these two saints while listening to the beating of drums and the music of gaidas (Bulgarian bagpipes), which is a special melody associated with fire dancing, after which they often fall into trance. In the evening they perform their special dance on live coals. During their dance they always hold aloft in both hands an icon of Saint Konstantin and Saint Helena. Amazingly, they never get hurt or burn their feet.
“Mummers” is another local tradition that also found in other societies in the world. The Mummer games are special customs and rituals conducted most often on New Year’s Eve and at Shrovetide. They are only performed by men, who wear special masks and costumes that have been made for the occasion by each of the participants. The mummers’ ritual dances are said to chase away bad spirits and demons at the beginning of every year, so as to greet the new year cleansed and charged with positive energy.
“Laduvane” is another interesting ritual thatis performed on the New Year’s Eve, George’s Day, Midsummer’s Eve and St. Lazar’s Day. At this ritual young women predict their future in marriage and the men they will marry. They address Lada, the goddess of love and family life, to ask her about their future husbands.
“Lazaruvane” is a ritual related to coming of spring. It is conducted on St. Lazar’s Day, eight days before Easter. The date of the celebration varies, but it is always on the Saturday before the celebration of Palm Sunday. On this day willow branches are picked and used to decorate the doors of houses on the following day. Then the young maidens in the villages pick flowers to shape as garlands on Palm Sunday. On Saturday maidens gather in the home of one of their number and dress in festive clothes decorated with flowers and sprigs. Then they walk through the village from house to house, offering blessings for good health and rich harvests. They are invited in and given small gifts. Probably the most important symbol of Bulgaria is the ritual of making and giving martenitsas for health and happiness at the beginning of March. For Bulgarians this is a symbol of the year’s renewal, again intended to promote health and successful harvests.
Especially well-respected in Bulgaria are traditions related to the circle of life – birth, christening, wedding, and funeral. Saints’ name days are also highly respected in the country, the most famous ones being St. John’s day, St. George’s Day, and St. Dimitar’s Day.
The holidays that are most honored by Bulgarians are undoubtedly Christmas and Easter – when the generations all celebrate together, united by the feeling of belonging to the harmonious Bulgarian family. Also especially highly honored are the first Sunday before Lent, the second Sunday before Lent, Mother’s Day, All Soul’s Day, and Lent.
While traveling around the country, tourists will become acquainted with various rituals and customs, many of which are typical only for specific regions in Bulgaria.
Bulgaria has a rich and century-old cultural history. With the adoption of Christianity in the 9th century, Bulgarian culture became an integral part of the European culture, but nevertheless its authenticity is preserved till nowadays.
There are many Bulgarian traditions and celebrations that often get a “Really?!” reaction from foreigners. Many of them originate from pagan times or have Christian roots, and have been strictly followed for centuries. Bulgarians tend to be very proud of their traditions, culture and heritage. Their love for it is reflected in everything from food and songs to dances and jew. Lets see some of them again but in detail.
- National Day Of Bulgaria – 3th of March
On this day, remembered in history as Bulgaria Liberation Day, the people of Bulgaria pause for a tribute. The first time of marking March 3 occurred in 1880, in honor of Enthronement of Russian Emperor Tzar Alexander the Second – Tzar Osvoboditel, meaning Tzar Liberator. Since 1888, March 3 has become Bulgaria’s Day of Liberation and it was pronounced a National Holiday in 1978. Since 1990 the date March 3 is included in the list of Bulgaria’s official holidays, according to a parliamentary decree.
- Jordanov Day or cross-searching in the cold waters, celebrated on the 6th January.
It is one of the most ancient Bulgarian holidays. The original interpretation of the holiday is that on this winter day, God came down to Earth, whilst Jesus Christ was being baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, and pronounced him His son.
The tradition entails a priest ritually throwing a cross into a river, lake or any water basin, and all the men wishing to be healthy over the coming year jumping in the ice cold waters to look for it. Old beliefs dictate that if the cross freezes whilst in the water, the year will bring fertile crops.
- Martyr Triffon Zarezan (Pruner) Winemaker’s Day – celebrated on the 14th February.
This is a vine-dresses’ day – first pruning of the vines. It is traditionally the Winemaker’s Day in Bulgaria. The patron saint of the winemakers is St. Trifon the Pruner, and this celebration marks the death of the winter and the birth of the spring, via appreciating winemakers and vine growers.
The original tradition says that the more wine that flows on this day, the more generous the next harvest will be. So, drink on!
- Baba Marta – 1st of March.
One of the most highly valued customs in Bulgaria is called Baba Marta (literally, Granny March, related to a grumpy old lady whose mood swings very rapidly), starting on the 1st of March and celebrating the beginning of spring. This is an old pagan tradition that remains almost unchanged today. Family members, relatives, friends, and colleagues give each other white and red tassels,called martenitsa, with wishes of health, luck and happiness. You normally wear on your wrist. Martenitsa are only taken off when you see a stork or a blossoming tree, which symbolise the messengers of the arrival of the warmer season. Martenitsas are still often hung on fruit trees and livestock in rural areas.
- Name days.
They are paid a lot of respect in Bulgaria, almost as much as birthdays. Name days are associated with Eastern Orthodox saints and many people are named after saints. A big family meal takes place on the particular saint’s day in order to celebrate the name day. According to the tradition, guests are supposed to come uninvited and the person who has the celebrated name is supposed to be prepared to treat everyone. The person having a Name Day usually brings confectionery to the office for colleagues to share. Today people prefer to invite their guests at home or at a bar or a restaurant. The celebrations are similar to those of birthdays, but usually the food, the music and the feel is somewhat more traditional, and sometimes even religious.
- Palm Sunday
Known in Bulgaria as Tsvetnica is the holiday of flowers and trees, celebrated on the last Sunday before the Christian Orthodox Easter. On this day, everyone named after a flower or a tree celebrates their name day with a big family gathering and a meal. For centuries people have believed that it is a day of the forests, meadows and fields.
Saturday of Lazarus – Dancing to the accompaniment of ritual songs for the Day – a ritual dedicated to the fields, pastures, forests and young girls: Lazarki, performed for health, happiness and fertility.
- Easter traditions.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Easter traditions vary from the common Easter traditions: they involve egg colouring, egg breaking and Easter breads. Tradition directs that the eggs are coloured on the Holy Thursday before Easter Sunday, and the first coloured egg is always red, symbolising Jesus’s rise from the dead. Then the rest of the eggs can be painted in all colours and often a wax candle is used to draw on them. The egg breaking custom takes place before the big meal and it involves all the family members tapping their eggs against each other, after each person has chosen a colourful egg. The person with the last unbroken egg is said to have a whole year of luck to look forward to. The typical Easter bread in Bulgaria is called kozunakand it is a sweet bread, sometimes with raisins in it.
- St. George’s day (Gergiovden).
It is celebrated on the 6th of May, although some calendar changes brought by the Orthodox Church (all dates for celebration of the saints have been changed some time ago).
Saint George the Victorious (“Pobedonosez”) was cannonized by the Church because of what he has done. He is usually painted on an icon as riding a white horse, holding a lance in his hand, stabbed in the throat of a beast – the dragon (“lamia”). According to the legend, a dragon used to attack the shepherds and their sheep and each time the dragon used to steal a sheep or a lamb. The shepherds were desperate. Then St. George appeared and killed the dragon. Since that day, the shepherds celebrate St. George everyyear and make a “kurban” – slaughter of a lamb (sacrifice for St. George). In every house of a village, a lamb is slaughtered. Before that some flowers are put on the lamb’s horns and even a prayer is read. All village gates (doors) are covered with flowers. Early in the morning, people go to the river to wash themselves. On this days, people has to check their weight (“pretegliam se”) – it has been the “only” day of the year when people checked their weight. There has also been a tradition that people goto a swing (“lyulka”) on that day.
St. George’s day (Gergiovden) has been pronounced (some years after the Liberation of Bulgaria) as the Day of the Army – the Bravery day. The main Army parade used to take place on this day. Recently, this festivity has been restored.
- Christmas Eve – 25 of December
in Bulgaria is celebrated with a meal consisting of an odd number of dishes which follows the forty-day Advent fast. This vegetarian meal includes grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Walnuts are a necessary component to the Bulgarian Christmas meal. Each member of the family cracks one in order to determine their fate for the next year. If the walnut is a good one, it is said that the year will be successful. Bad luck is predicted for the person who cracks a bad walnut.
Another Bulgarian Christmas Eve dinner tradition involves hiding a coin in the loaf of Christmas bread. The person who finds the coin can also expect good luck in the year to follow.
The Christmas Eve dinner table may not be cleared until the next morning to provide sustenance for the ghosts of ancestors who may come back to visit before Christmas morning.
- The New Year’s Eve chasing away of evil spirits
Bulgaria is very legendary in terms of its celebrations and festivities, and the same aspect is very much perceptible in the New Year celebrations as made in the country. New Year in Bulgaria is also called as St. Basil’s Day or popularly as ‘Survaki’. The tradition of chasing away the evil spirits of the past year dates back to pagan times, and is nowadays an exciting event for children in Bulgaria. Before New Year’s Eve approaches, children prepare (with the help of their parents) a survachka, which is a tree branch, decorated with all kinds of coloured threads, dry fruit, dry peppers and popcorn. The kids also learn a few verses, which they recite whilst beating the backs of their family and relatives (lightly of course) with the survachka. The symbolism in this ritual is that through lightly beating the backs of their loved ones, the young ones chase the evil spirits and misfortunes of the passed year away, wishing them only fortunate events during the approaching year. In an act of gratitude, the elderly ones give sweets and coins to the kids. New Year celebrations in Bulgaria are more prominent and grand than Christmas celebrations, which are comparatively silent. At the time of New Year,people with a smile on their faces are all around the town, showing their enthusiastic and exciting participation in New Year celebrations made at different places. Usually they move out of their houses with their friends and families.Some other organize house parties, with only close friends and family people being invited.Sourvakars – Boys going from house to house, wishing people a Happy New Year by slapping them ritually with a survachka – an ornamented twig, for health and prosperity.
- Fire dancing.
More famous in Bulgaria as nestinarstvo, can be seen in villages around the area of Bourgas –a city in the SE of Bulgaria.It is usually performed on the square of the village in front of the whole population on the day of Sts. Constantine and Helen or the day of the village’s patron saint. The ritual is a unique mixture of Eastern Orthodox beliefs and older pagan traditions from the Strandzha Mountains.Traditionally, the right to perform the ritual would be hereditary and the head nestinar may be succeeded only by his or her son or daughter, and only when he or she is too old or ill to continue performing it. The head nestinar’s house is sacred, because it houses the stolnina– a small chapel where icons of several saints are arranged, as well as a sacred drum used specifically for the ritual and believed to cure the drummer if he is ill. After sunset, the crowd would build up a large fire and would dance ahoro (a traditional round dance) until the fire dies and only embers remain.The dancers, who are most often women, perform a dance on hot glowing embers whilst in a trance state. The tradition implies that the fire dancer is chosen and guided by the saint of the holiday, whose icon is being held while dancing on the embers. Often during the traditional dance, the fire dancers are said to be able to connect to the saint and through this connection they can interpret omens, give advice, foretell the future, or communicate with the dead.
Kukeri is a traditional Bulgarian ritual to scare away evil spirits, with costumed men performing the ritual.
This event takes place twice a year in Bulgaria – the days around New Year’s Eve and on the holiday of Sirni Zagovezni (celebrated seven weeks before Easter).The participants in this ritual are calledkukeri. They traditionally visit the peoples’ houses at night so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.” They are dressed-up men in handmade costumes and masks, all made of wood, leather, fur and copper and bronze bells hang off them. After going around the village they gather at the square and they dance, play games, make jokes, jump, jingle the bells and roll on the floor. Some of the masks the kukeri wear have two faces: on one of the sides the face is good-humoured, whilst on the other it is grim and sinister looking. This represents how the good and the bad inevitably coexist in this world.
The outcome of these dances and games are that the evil spirits that the winter had brought have been chased away and only good is to be expected from now on.
- Throwing away the umbilical cord
Another old custom many Bulgarians still perform is the throwing away of the umbilical cord after childbirth in a special place. Around 2 weeks after the umbilical cord naturally separates from the baby’s body, the parents should throw it at a special place whenever they want to – there are no traditional time limitations. Originally, the umbilical cord is thrown away at a specific place that predetermines the fate of the child. For instance, if thrown in a school, the baby will become a teacher, if thrown in the sea – a sailor, if thrown in a church – a priest. Nowadays many people still folow this custom.
- Making a toast when drinking liquor.
When toasting, raise your glass and lightly clink it with all the others present, while looking the people with you in the eye (to not look them in the eye is rude) and saying, “nazdrave” (good health to you). Repeat this with all present.