8 Amazing Traditions
Coming from Bulgaria!

8 Amazing Traditions Coming From Bulgaria

The Bulgarian state was founded in 681 and up until now it has been one of the few countries in Europe which have kept its ancient name and centuries-old traditions. They are the ones keeping the spirit of a nation. Traditions preserve through the centuries national crafts, beliefs, and folklore. A people without traditions is like a man without a soul. Our country has been dominated by many other nations but has kept its identity due to its traditions. And its cultural identity is truly unique because it combines pagan and Christian holidays and intertwines them into an intricate system of beliefs, customs and feasts. Every significant period in human life is reflected in Bulgarian customs.

1. Lazaruvane (Saint Lazar's day songs and dances)

Lazaruvane is an old Bulgarian custom, which is performed to welcome spring. It is celebrated on the day of St. Lazarus – the Saturday eight days before Easter. Lazaruvane symbolizes the growth of the girl – how she gets older and transforms from a child into a young woman. It was considered that a girl, who performed this ritual, is ready for marriage. 

Lazaruvane

Preparation for the festival begins in the days of Easter Lent when the dancers gather to remember old and learn new songs for the celebration. No songs or dances are allowed during Lent, and entertainment for young girls is limited, therefore these meetings are greeted with joy and fill the girls with tremulous expectations.

2. Carnival against the evil spirits: Kukeri

There are various Mummers in Bulgaria; they even have different names in the different regions – kukeri, survakari, pesyatsi, dervishi, startsi, etc. Mummery is among the most vivid Bulgarian customs. It is derived from the ancient pagan past of the Bulgarian people and is associated with the pursuit of the people to affect nature by means of magic and the supernatural.

The Bulgarian Tradition of Kukeri
Man dressed as a Kuker. Photographer: Evo Danchev

What unites them are their rituals, their large masks, decorated with bells and leather, and the purpose of their rituals – to chase away the evil spirits, to purify the society and nature of evil spirits and bring prosperity, good harvest and health. Only men can wear mummer costumes. According to the tradition in some parts of the country, there is even a requirement for them to be bachelors. The leader of the company, however, must be a married man.

3. Easter in Bulgaria

The Bulgarian Orthodox Easter traditions vary from the common Easter traditions: they involve egg colouring, egg breaking and Easter bread. 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. 

Colourful painted eggs. Photographer: Rasa Kasparaviciene

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.

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4. Chasing the cross into the freezing waters: Jordan's Day

After the festive liturgy the priests, accompanied by hundreds of people start a festive procession from all churches. They go to the nearest river and the priest throws a cross into the water. It is believed that the one who succeeds to take out the cross from the water will be happy and rich all year round. So a lot of enthusiastic men jump into the ice-cold waters of the river and try to catch the cross. After that people continue celebrating all day long.

Yordanov Day
Men leap into the river in pursuit of the cross. Photographer: Nikolay Pandev

Another Jordan’s Day tradition is the icy round dance. Rather than chasing a cross, this involves men dancing in a freezing river to traditional Bulgarian tunes. This custom is best associated with the town of Kalofer, though it has been practised in other places as well.

5. Nestinari (Fire Dancers)

Nestinarstvo, or the ritual fire dancing on live coals, is an ancient Bulgarian custom, which has both Christian and pagan elements. It is believed to originate from the Thracians, and more accurately from their sun worship. Only fire dancers (Nestinari) can dance over the coals – people, dedicated to the mystery of the ritual. In some villages, fire dancing has been hereditary, but in others, fire dancers came from a so-called fire-dancers community. Dancers can be both men and women.

Nestinari
Moments before the fire dancing. Photographer: Nikolay Pandev

Although fire dancing is associated with perennial ritual practices, its peak time is on 3 June, when Bulgarians celebrate the day of St. Constantine and St. Helena (old calendar). These saints are considered patrons of fire dancers. On the day of the holiday ritual icons of both patrons are covered with special decoration and, with a solemn procession, they are brought to spring and sprayed with holy water. In the evening the dancers, led by the Churchwarden, head to the chapel of St. Constantine, where they incense, light candles and pray before the icons.

6. Baba Marta - Welcoming spring with the colours red and white

Baba Marta Day is celebrated in Bulgaria every March 1st, coinciding with the transition of winter into spring. Baba is Bulgarian for “grandmother” and Marta is “March”, so it is “Grandmother March Day,” or “Granny March Day,” in English. The tradition is for people to buy or fashion red- and white-coloured gifts made of string, called martenitsa (plural martenitsi). Martenitsi are usually fashioned into a thin bracelet and given to friends as a way to keep away Baba Marta (Bulgarian: Баба Марта), who is, according to legend, a very bipolar woman who controls whether or not spring and good weather coming soon. Those wearing a martenitsa (Bulgarian: мартеница), which can also resemble a woven ornament of a man or woman, called Pizho and Penda (Bulgarian: Пижо и Пенда), are spared the old woman’s wrath of more winter.

The colours of martenitsi are always red and white, and there are varying answers as to why; basically it is a wish for good health and prosperity to the recipient for the rest of the year. On the Pizho and Penda, the male doll is usually distinguished by its dominating white colour, while Penda, the female beauty, is usually primarily red.

Showing how a basic Martenitsa can be made*

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7. Valentine's Day? We celebrate wine instead: Trifon Zarezan

On the 14th of February, Bulgarians celebrate the holiday of vine-growers and wine-makers, known as St. Trifon Zarezan (Trifon the Pruner) – the Bulgarian patron saint of vineyards. Trifon Zarezan is the traditional Bulgarian wine celebration that marks the time of year when vine-growers trim back their vines. The holiday marks the dividing line between the outgoing winter and the onset of spring – the transition between the dead winter season and the invigorating powers of the following seasons. There are many rituals performed to ensure vitality and fruitfulness. The first pruning of the vines for the season is the main ritual performed on February 14, when people gather in the vineyards outside the villages.

The Bulgarian Tradition Triphon Zarezan or Saint Triphon

Men set out to the vineyards to prune the vines, while women bake festive bread loaves in their houses and prepare roast chicken stuffed with rice. They put these and a flask of wine in a woollen bag and see the men to the gate. Women also knead special round loaves – a symbol of the fertile field and generously hand them out to neighbours and relatives.

8. Christmas Eve - 24th 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.

Christmas Eve

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.

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