Winter is historically a time for rest after a long and hard working year in the fields of rural Bulgaria.
Having experienced the cold winters here and the daily chopping of wood, to continually feed the ever hungry fire. Snow clearing duties and having to cook by candle light when the electric goes off, is hardly a holiday respite from the other ‘working’ months of the year, but it is obvious, the Bulgarian’s are made of much stronger material, than a Johnny foreigner city boy like me.
Although Bulgarian winter traditions and customs will have regional variations, they are all rooted in ancient folklore and superstitions.Many relate to the preparation for the new year ahead and the hope of good crops, health and of course, prosperity.
Here are a few of the wonderful winter traditions, customs and folklore, many of which are still upheld in the close village communities around Bulgaria.
6th December. St Nicholas Day
A great family occasion particularly for the many who celebrate this popular ‘name day’.
This winter tradition sees the start of the Christmas festivals. Fish is the order of the day and great care must be taken when preparing the meal as no fish scale should be allowed to fall to the ground. Superstition says anyone stepping on a scale will become ill and even die!
Another good reason to eat other meat!
The head of the fish should be saved in the event of a sickness of a child in the family.
9th December Sveta Anna Day
St Anna was the mother of the Virgin Mary and according to the Orthodox Church she is the saint of marriage and motherhood.
The day is also known as Yanas’ conception.
The night before the feast day, witches and fortune tellers can make contact with devils and demons.
The villagers light small fires in front of the houses, usually with horse manure to attract the demons to the fire and ash is scattered around the homes for protection.
Single women used to place wheat seeds in a pot and if they had germinated by the end of December it would mean the girl would marry well the following year.
17th December St Daniels Day
This winter tradition sees the baking of breads by pregnant ladies. After baking they are distributed among the neighbours as a symbol of their fertility.
In the Holy Bible, a story tells of Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den but instead of being eaten alive, the lions only licked his wounds. The story symbolizes defying temptation and God’s power in disarming death.
20th December St Ignacious Day
This is the day that the Virgin Mary went into labour and for Christians it is the start of a 5 day ‘fast’ running up to Christmas day.
24th December Budni Vecher
This is a wonderful family winter tradition still observed and marks the end of the 40 day fasting observed in the Orthodox Church.
It is custom for the lighting of the fire in the home on this day to be done by the oldest male member of the household, the wood, usually a piece of oak or pear would be kept lit throughout the day and night. A handful of wheat or other grain will be thrown on the fire for good health.
The table should be laid out with an odd number of dishes being prepared.
The dishes should contain no meats and prior to sitting down to eat, a procession around the home led by the eldest carrying a scented candle to ward off any demons or bad spirits, is carried out.
On the table or a special place in the room will be a religious icon. A piece of the specially baked Christmas bread is broken and placed next to it in remembrance of family who have died.
All the family will receive some bread and some food can be even kept aside for the animals.
Girls used to place a small crumb under their pillow so they could dream of the man they would one day marry.
Sometimes hidden in the bread will be money.
When the meal is finished everyone should leave the table together, the clearing up would be left until morning to allow the dead to share in the feast later when everyone has retired to sleep.
Mrusni Dni (Dirty Days)
According to ancient folklore, this was the period between 25th December and 6th January. It was a time when monsters and evil spirits were out to play tricks on people and so it was forbidden to go out at night.
Defying the ‘dirty days’ ancient folktale, or completely oblivious to the perils that are out there, waiting for them in the dark shadows. It was custom for young men dressed in their traditional clothes to visit houses around the village singing festive songs.
The Koledari or Bulgarian ‘carol singers would receive drinks and food in return for their hearty singing, wishing everyone health, happiness and prosperity.
27th December St Stephans Day
This is the last Holiday of the year, the 3rd day of Christmas. Younger generations will visit older members of their family on this day to partake in food and drinks and of course a song and a dance.
1st January New Years Day
Expect a New Year early morning wake up call!
This winter tradition is performed by young children between 5 and 12 assisted of course by Mum or Grandma. They will visit different houses around the village and perform the ritual ‘Survakane’.
The child, wielding a stick decorated with tinsel ,popcorn, dried fruit and colourful embroidery will tap you repeatedly on your back while chanting the ‘Survakane’ to wish you health and prosperity for the New Year. You, are then expected to reward them with sweets or money as a thank you.
6th January St Jordans Day
This great Christian holiday is known as the Epiphany. The day Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan.
After worshipping at church early that morning, the priest along with brave men walk down to the lake, river or even the sea.
The priest then blesses a crucifix and throws it into the waters for the men to retrieve it.
The temperatures at this time of the year are well below freezing but thousands of men all around Bulgaria take part in this winter tradition.
According to custom the person who reaches it first and brings it to the surface will be blessed with health and happiness for the ensuing year.
Custom also has it that anyone who celebrates there name day on this day should also take a dip in the icy waters.
7th January St John the Baptist Day
This day ends the Christmas holidays. In some areas of Bulgaria the ritual bathing continues over into this day as it is officially St Johns the Baptist’s Day and is deemed as equally important as Jordan day. Many ‘end of season’ entertainment is put on by villages culminating in dance food and drinks.
18th January St Athanasius Day.
This day is associated with the coming of spring and sun.
According to legend, Athanasius dressed in a white shirt got on his white horse and rode to the top of the Balkan Mountains. Here he ordered the winter to go and summoned the sun and the summer to come.
This is mid winter tradition and it is customary to kill a black chicken and cook it with rice. Sharing it among neighbours would ensure protection against illnesses and saving the wings could be used for healing powers for a back up.
21st January Grandmothers Day ( babaden)
Custom has it that the child will offer Grandma a gift to which she must of course accept. This day is actually midwives day but the literal translation means Grandma Day. The day is dedicated to the health of the child. The midwives would visit the newborn and anoint them with oils and honey.
3rd February Seeds Day
Folklore has it that if a woman is to conceive, she must stand at the centre of the village or where two roads meet and give ‘pinched corn bread’ to villagers. This means, Pinching the dough many times into a cross pattern before baking.
14th February St Trifon Zarazen & St Valentine Day
St Valentine, the saint of lovers, was not celebrated in Bulgaria, certainly not openly, during its communism days and St Trifon Zarazen, the Saint of wine growers was once celebrated on the 1st February after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. Since the end of communism, the Saint of lovers and the Saint of wine growers now share the same day.
St Trifon the ‘martyr’ is celebrated on the 1st February and St Trifon Zarezan ‘the Pruner’ is celebrated on the 14th February albeit the same Saint! This opens the door for some Bulgarians to celebrate the feast of St Trifon twice!
St Valentine, although becoming more popular, particulary in commercial terms, is not really a winter tradition in Bulgaria, so we shall leave him be.
St Trifon Zarazen Day. A Most Favourite Winter Tradition
I love this winter tradition because it marks the ending of winter’s strong grip, the sun sets later in the day, the mornings are brighter and spring is not too far away, oh and then there is the wine drinking party!
Nearly every Bulgarian home has at least one area set aside for growing grapes and St Trifon day is dedicated to the first pruning of the vines of the year.
When the pruning is done all the villagers celebrate with food song dance and of course wine.
The more wine consumed promotes a better yield according to ancient custom, so even if you don’t own a vine you can still help the wine growers by drinking copious amounts of the stuff.
Did I already mention this was my favourite winter tradition?
The Kukeri Festival Masquerade games are one of the most spectacular events in the world and take place in Pernik Bulgaria every year.
This ancient pagan winter tradition goes back to the days of the Thracians and celebrates the New Year.
The Kukeri wear scary masks and dress in goat skins or bright cloths with huge bells hanging around their waists.
The rhythmic dancing and chanting along with the noise of the large cowbells as they parade through the streets are to scare off the evil eye and other bad spirits to ensure a rich and plentiful harvest for the local community.
Its symbolic meanings relate to the awakening of nature, the pre spring rituals represent the wish for good harvests and fertility in soil, animals and human.