Combining the celebrations of St Trifon, the local patron saint of wine and winemaking, and St Valentine, the imported patron of love – both being celebrated on 14 February, pales in comparison to what happens on 9 May. Long before and long after that date, Bulgarians argue both in restaurants and on Facebook about what should be celebrated: Europe Day or the Day of Victory over Nazi Germany.
On the surface there seems little point to this controversy. Victory over Nazi Germany and the desire never to repeat the mistakes that led to the rise of the Third Reich are the reason for the creation of the precursor to the modern EU. Why, then, are the two occasions pitted one against the other to such an extent that Bulgarians on the opposing sides label one another national traitors?
It is all in the context. The Day of Europe, 9 May, is seen as the birthday of the EU. On that day, in 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schumann made his famous declaration proposing common coal and steel production between Germany and France. A major cause of wars between the two countries, including two world ones, was no more; the road was paved to a free, united, democratic Europe. It is now a major date in the modern EU, celebrated in the typical EU way with information campaigns and that hint of boredom that everyone now associates with the union's highly bureaucratic machinery, which dulls the sheer awesomeness of the united Europe.
As for the victory over Nazi Germany, Europe celebrates it on the date it happened. The peace treaty was signed on 7 May 1945 and came into force at 10.43pm on 8 May, CET.
Why, then, do Bulgarians celebrate Victory Day on 9 May? Because they, together with many countries of the former USSR, follow the Russian model of calculating the date. When the treaty was enforced on 8 May at 11.43pm Bulgarian time, it was already 00.43am on 9 May in Moscow. As a loyal Soviet ally, Bulgaria marked Victory Day on 9 May for the span of Communism. It continues to do so. Some habits die hard.
Two feasts sharing a day of celebration should not be a problem; many Bulgarians drink wine with their loved ones on 14 February, without finding any contradiction, but in the case of the Day of Europe and Victory Day, the two occasions represent two opposing ways of seeing the recent past, the troubled present and the scary future.
Those who prefer 9 May as the Day of Europe think of Bulgaria as a country which should embrace the liberal, economic, and cultural values of the EU, in spite of all the bureaucracies and sometimes the nonsense. For them, Communism was one of the worst things to ever happen to Bulgaria, and establishing a democratic society with a free market economy is one of the best. The role of the Soviet Union in Bulgaria since the Communist coup of 1944 makes them dislike the Red Army with all its victories. After all, they correctly point out, Bulgaria might have been an ally of Hitler, but it never declared war on the USSR. It was Stalin who declared war on Bulgaria on 5 September 1944, and that was only to spare his troops from entering its territory and backing the 9 September Communist coup. Not a single Soviet soldier was killed in action in Bulgaria while "liberating" it of its own government. Besides, by the end of the year, Bulgarian soldiers were fighting and dying alongside those of the Red Army in the push towards Berlin.
Seen from this point of view, celebrating the victory of an occupying force seems ill-informed, at best.
Those who cherish 9 May as Victory Day think otherwise. For them, the EU is nothing more than a worse version of the USSR, sucking qualified professionals and money out of Bulgaria, while imposing idiotic over-regulation. Communism was one of the best things to happen to this country, they believe. Big Brother USSR looked after small Bulgaria, providing it with security, cheap petrol and a large, uncritical market for its low-quality produce. For ordinary folk, life was not that free, but it was easy, with relative social equality, guaranteed employment and no need to compete with anyone (except for who got to buy the last roll of toilet paper in the empty shop). The Soviets had helped the Bulgarians to get rid of their fascist government, and (overlooking the fact that until 21 June 1941 Stalin and Hitler were allies) Red Army soldiers deserve to be remembered for their sacrifice for the liberation of Europe.
How the two groups celebrate 9 May is also clearly distinct.
While Europe Day celebrations are official, rigid and generally scarcely newsworthy, those of Victory Day are the complete opposite. In the morning, small, colourful groups gather at the monuments to the Red Army, which are still found all over modern Bulgaria. The one in central Sofia draws the largest crowds and most of the media attention. Wreaths are laid, speeches are made, and there are balloons and flowers to the accompaniment of Soviet military marches. The colour red predominates, mainly on banners (often with the Soviet hammer and sickle). White-blue-and-red Russian flags are everywhere, outnumbering the Bulgarian white-green-and-red ones. The past few years saw the increase of the yellow-and-black striped Georgi ribbons, a symbol of Soviet victory that has become increasingly popular in Russia under Putin.
Europe Day is usually attended by state officials. Victory Day celebrations are organised and attended by leftist political parties, both moderate and fringe ones, by NGOs promoting stronger Russian-Bulgarian friendship, and by ordinary citizens. In the past few years, the numbers of participants seems to grow, including not only the usual nostalgic pensioners, but also young people. Dressed in white shirts and black trousers or skirts, imitating their coevals' uniforms under Communism, these teenagers obviously think that standing still as an honorary guard in front of a monument is cool. They seem oblivious to the fact that there were few things teenagers under Communism found more uncool than standing in a stupid uniform in front of a monument.
Other changes in Victory Day celebrations are also visible. The recent whitewashing of the figure of Stalin in Russia has caught on in Bulgaria, too. His portraits are now a staple of the celebrations, and people carrying them eagerly call the man who sent millions of his compatriots to death in political prisons "a great statesman of the kind we need today".
The rising popularity of Victory Day in Bulgaria can be explained in several ways. Euroscepticism. Nostalgia. Lack of information in school and plenty of disinformation on the Internet. Intense media attention. Propaganda from both inside and outside the country.
It could be some of these, it could be all of them. In the end, what matters is that 9 May, a day that should be for the celebration of unity and peace, has become yet another line of division in an already deeply divided Bulgarian society.