Whether you live in a city or in the country, learn to celebrate like the locals
You're an expat in Bulgaria this Christmas and you want to celebrate the winter holidays with the locals. But you are confused: Why are your usually easygoing neighbours banging on your door in the middle of the night or pouring grain over your head? Why does the whole village suddenly reek of garlic and pork fat? Here's a bit of insight into Bulgarian superstitions and traditions to help you avoid embarrassing cultural faux pas, such as getting up from the dinner table too soon or falling victim to evil horsemen.
If you're in a village, Christmas celebrations will take you to the Revival Period, more than a hundred years back in Bulgarian history. You'll be surprised at how strictly old Bulgarian rituals have been preserved – most of these traditions are a unique combination of pagan and Christian elements, superstition and catechism. Unlike Western Europe, where Christmas festivities begin in early December, in Bulgaria, holiday celebrations start with a vegetarian dinner on 20 December, Ignazhden, or St Ignatius' Day. Be sure to choose your guests very carefully – youmight just "forget" to invite your cousin's annoying boyfriend or that tiresome old uncle, since local belief says that the coming year will resemble the first man who enters the house on that day. This first guest is called poleznik, or the useful one. He or she must bring something to the home and will receive corn, walnuts, beans, dried fruit, a shirt, socks and a kerchief in exchange – thank-you gifts for having come to visit. In return, the poleznik must be willing to be sprinkled with grain for good luck. Also, don't lend anything out on this day or you risk accidentally giving away the household's good luck.
The week from 20 to 27 December is known as mrasni dni, or dirty days – Bulgarian villagers don't bathe, do laundry or clean during this period, in theory at least. The superstitious also believe that during this time evil spirits and karakondzhuli – believed to be winged horses with human heads – roam the streets. The only way to protect yourself is to carry garlic – and this is the reason why most Bulgarian villages reek of garlic during the holiday season. Although garlic won't save you from all the unpleasant surprises of the Christmas season, it will at least keep you safe from the karakondzhuli – and make you oblivious of your fellow villagers' strong odour.
During the day on 24 December, known as Malka Koleda, or Little Christmas, the mladi koledari, or young boys between six and 12 years of age, get together. They go from house to house singing songs and spreading good wishes in exchange for Christmas treats from the homeowners. Christmas Eve is called Badni vecher, because a log of pear or oak wood known as badnik is burned in the fireplace all night. This wood, whose flames do not die out until the log has burned up entirely, is used to foretell rain or drought during the coming year. All areas of the house are also perfumed with incense.
Dinner on Christmas Eve is only for immediate family members and is strictly vegetarian. There must be an odd number of dishes, as well as special hand-kneaded ritual breads. Don't be surprised that once people sit down at the table they refuse to get up again throughout the whole meal – Bulgarians believe that if you get up during the dinner the hens will get up off their eggs too early. If you absolutely must get up – say, to get the salt shaker or run to the loo – then you should bend over like a stalk of wheat heavy with grain. After dinner Bulgarians don't clear the table, but leave nibbles out overnight for the souls of the dead. Unmarried women place their first bite of bread under their pillows so they'll dream about their future husbands.
During the night on Christmas Eve golemite koledari, or big Christmas carollers, come out. These are a group of young men led by a married man. They go around the village from house to house from midnight until the morning in traditional holiday costumes decorated with wreaths of dried fruit, popcorn and raisins. They sing special songs for every member of the family – a ritual known as koledarska blagosloviya, or the Christmas carollers' blessing. In return, villagers shower the koledari with gifts of meat, slanina, or salted pork fat, grain, wine, beans and other foods – the koledari usually bring along a donkey to carry all their loot. When they finish their rounds, the carollers gather at the leader's house to eat and drink up their haul. They also give a portion of the food to the poor. Badni vecher ends when the koledari finally crawl back home after their feast.
On the following day, 25 December, children wake up to find presents under the Christmas tree. After opening gifts comes the most important event of the day – the midday meal. In Bulgarian, Christmas is called Koleda, which comes from the verb kolya, or to slaughter, since Bulgarian villagers traditionally butcher a pig on Christmas. The long Advent fast with its strictly vegetarian diet is finally over, and the holiday would not be complete without pork, just as roast lamb is the obligatory dish on St George's Day. The festive lunch is traditionally made up of heavy foods. Homeowners try to make sure a young woman is the first person to enter the house that day, as they believe this guarantees that all the lambs born that year will be female. Of course, all guests must sip a glass of specially prepared greyana rakiya, or boiled brandy to which two or three spoonfuls of sugar or honey and a pinch of lime blossom are added. After the feast they spend the rest of the day – as well as the next three days and nights – visiting friends and relatives or recovering from the revelry.
In the village the koledari's songs define the holiday's rhythm, but in larger cities the Christmas pace is set by the shopping mall's working hours. Tantalised by holiday sales, city dwellers feverishly compete to find the ultimate Christmas gifts. You'll catch a glimpse of well-preserved holiday traditions only in smaller communities: most urban Bulgarians consider following the old rituals a sign of provincialism. So around Christmas time Sofia's streets are packed with cars fighting for parking spaces rather than carollers going from house to house spreading cheer. In the city, you'll most likely find traditional Bulgarian costumes in the supermarket – on sausage, cheese and rakiya labels.
If this brief introduction to Bulgarian Christmas rituals has inspired you, try your hand at an authentic local Koleda, here are some traditional recipes for Bulgarian Christmas foods.
500 g freshly butchered pork
1/2 stalk of leek
200 ml juice from pickled cabbage
200 ml water
100 ml red wine a pinch of salt
50 ml oil
100 g of kashkaval, or yellow cheese
Cut the meat into small cubes. Wash the leek, carefully remove the outer leaves and cut into rounds. Place the cubed pork in a deep frying pan and add the leek, cabbage juice, water, wine and oil. Cook covered on a burner on medium-low heat. After 60 minutes, use a fork to test whether the meat is tender. Holding the handle of the frying pan in one hand and keeping the cover tightly in place with the other, shake up the dish thoroughly. Remove the cover and grate the kashkaval evenly over the top. Serve warm, placing the shaken pork on each guest's plate and drizzling the sauce formed from the cooking over the top.
CHRISTMAS PUMPKIN BANITSA
A package of filo dough (500g)
700 g grated pumpkin
200 g crushed walnuts
20 g cinnamon
300 g sugar
200 g powdered sugar
150 ml oil
200 ml milk
Peel the pumpkin and grate it coarsely, then steam it with the milk in a covered dish for approximately 10 minutes. Once ready, remove the pumpkin mixture from the burner, and then add the crushed walnuts, cinnamon and sugar. Mix well until the filling becomes smooth. Spread out the filo dough, and taking the sheets two-by-two, sprinkle them lightly with oil and spread the filling evenly over them. Roll the sheets up and place them in a greased baking pan. Bake in a pre-heated oven (heated from above and below) at 180°C, or 350°F, for around 40 minutes. Watch carefully to make sure it doesn't burn on the top and bottom. After the crust becomes a golden brown take the pastry out of the oven and immediately sprinkle it with powdered sugar. Let it cool, and then cut it into long pieces.
CHRISTMAS SLOW FOOD: VEGETARIAN STUFFED PEPPERS AND CABBAGE ROLLS
11 sweet, dried red peppers
12 medium-sized pickled cabbage leaves
500 g rice
100 g raisins
3 ripe onions
1 tsp. sweet red pepper
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. dried thyme
100 ml oil
100 g flour
Soak the dried peppers in warm water. Spread out the cabbage leaves and stack them up. Put the rice in a bowl and soak it in water for five minutes, then carefully pour off the water. Peel the onions and chop them finely. Place a frying pan on a heated burner and add the rice, salt, sweet red pepper, driedthyme and finely chopped onion. Add 200 ml of water, 50 ml of oil and let the rice simmer covered for approximately 10 minutes over low heat, then remove it from the burner. Stuff the peppers with two to three teaspoons of the rice mixture, depending on their size. Once stuffed, roll the peppers in flour. Put two or three cabbage leaves on the bottom of a brightly coloured gyuvedzhe, or clay baking pot, then place the stuffed peppers on top of them.
To make cabbage rolls, take a cabbage leaf, cut off the slightly thicker part that was nearest the stem, put the rice mixture on it, and grasp the leaf from the cut edge. Roll it up gently, tucking in the sides to form a roll and pressing carefully lest the filling come out. After making the cabbage rolls, carefully place them side by side in the gyuvedzhe with the stuffed peppers. Cover them with two or three more cabbage leaves and place a small saucer or plate on top of them. The plate should be slightly smaller than the gyuvedzhe's opening.
Add equal parts of water and zeleva chorba, or pickled cabbage juice, enough to cover the cabbage rolls and stuffed peppers. Add the remaining oil. Cover the dish and bake it at 180–200°C, or 350–400°F, for 90 minutes. Then remove the cover and the small plate inside, turn off the oven and leave the dish inside for a quarter of an hour. Serve slightly cooled on an oblong platter, peppers on one half and cabbage rolls on the other.