by Silvia Choleva; photography by BTA

Despite a century of transitions, the Bulgarians invariably have an odd number of dishes on Christmas Eve

The original Bulgarian Christmas involves Koledari

Bulgaria is no exception to the increasingly globalised Christmas, when people deck the halls with green plastic garlands made in China, decorate fake Christmas trees, adorn their front doors with evergreen wreaths and overspend on presents.

To the casual observer Christmas here may not seem like anything special. Yet the devil is in the details. The first sign that the Christmas holidays have begun is when all work comes to a grinding halt on St Ignatius Day on 20 December. On Badni vecher, or Christmas Eve, and Koleda, or Christmas Day, Bulgarians stuff themselves with local holiday drinks and delicacies like revellers everywhere across the globe. Under Communism, Christmas was just another working day. The Communists shoveled down the throats of millions of Bulgarians their sort of atheism. To prevent any reference to the Nativity, they even renamed Father Christmas to “Dyado Mraz,” or Father Frost, and forced the poor old man to appear on New Year's Eve rather than the week before. “Silnet Night, Holy Night” was banned. This might explain why those, who now observe the Advent fast are few and far between. Others would simply think “why bother?” since most of the local sausage contain little or no real meat anyway.

Just a century ago, however, things were very different. Even nonreligious Bulgarians upheld the holiday traditions. Some of them – primarily in larger cities such as Sofia, Plovdiv, Ruse, Tarnovo, Varna, and Burgas – began to borrow elements of Western Christmas. The early 20th Century witnessed Bulgaria's first Christmas tree. Children also began to sing the German carol “O, Tannenbaum,” translated into Bulgarian as Elhovi les, or “The Evergreen Forest”.

Still, “imported” traditions did not radically transform Bulgarian Christmas. Villagers and city dwellers celebrated in more or less the same way, especially where religious rituals were concerned: fasting, church services, and communion. In villages, however, the Christian holiday was significantly influenced by pagan rituals and beliefs. Villagers saw nothing contradictory in marking the birth of Christ with the slaughtering of a pig. In fact, the Bulgarian word Koleda, comes from the word kolya, meaning “to slaughter”.

But before they enjoy the fresh holiday pork, even carnivorous Bulgarians prepare a vegetarian Christmas Eve dinner. The one constant Yuletide rule requires that the table be decked out with an odd number of meatless delicacies – five, seven, nine or 11 heaped trays of stuffed cabbage or grape leaves, red peppers filled with beans, tikvenik (filo pastry with pumpkin), pitka, or large ritual bread, or oshaf – stewed fruit, compote, honey, walnuts, and boiled wheat berries. Cooks may even set a blood pudding boiling on the stove, but no one would ever dream of sampling it until the arrival of Christmas Day, when blazhnoto, a collective term for anything that has meat and butter, will finally allowed. Darkness quickly falls as the house fills up with the mingled scents of the coming feast. The eldest in the household would burn incense in every room and even in all the barns to chase away evil spirits.

From that point on, all activities focus on attracting good luck to the house. The family gathers around a low round sofra, or table, to help the wheat ripen faster. The oldest family member would say a prayer, cross himself and break the pitka, which has a coin and a sprig of dogwood hidden inside. The first piece goes to the Virgin Mary, the second to the house, and the third to the elder himself; the remaining pieces are distributed according to age. The fortunate person who bites down onto the coin or the dogwood will enjoy good health and luck in the following year – if he doesn't break his teeth in the first place.

During the meal no one should get up, and leftovers from the feast must remain on the table until the next morning to ensure fertility and health. The badnik, or Yule log, would burn all night. In the morning, those who believe in its magical powers would gather up the ashes and use them as medicine in the new year. It remains a mystery what they would cure, but they are obviously viewed with great respect as some of them would also be scattered in the fields and vineyards to ensure a bumper crop of wheat, an abundance of grapes, and, of course, plenty of wine.

At midnight the village streets would come alive, filled with groups of young carolling bachelors known as koledari. All night long they merrily make their way from house to house, singing and blessing people, livestock and fields alike. Later on Christmas Day, having overeaten on fresh pork, the koledari would again gather for a bit more fun. The local girls make special ring-shaped buns that would be auctioned off; each young man tries to outbid his peers to buy one for his sweetheart. This flirtatious wheeling and dealing culminates in a large horo after which they all return home with pork, pickled cabbage, sudzhuk, and banitsa filled with lucky charms, as well as wine and rakiya.

City folk would also celebrate Christmas with an odd number of veggie dishes, but they would have access to some goodies villagers can't get. These would typically include raisins, figs, homemade liqueur and cake. A hand-embroidered cloth, kept especially for festive occasions, adorns the table. Candles, evergreen boughs, and the household's finest porcelain and crystal would be a must.

City dwellers enjoy their wine, rakiya, and fortune-filled banitsa just as much as their country cousins, but they would go to church oftener. However, bear in mind that for Orthodox Bulgarians Easter is the more important holiday, meaning you will always be able to get a pew. Secular holiday entertainment in the city is considerably more refined than the auctioning off of young ladies' buns. Urbanites visit friends and family on the season's many name days, exchange Christmas gifts, or volunteer for charities. Instead of the traditional koledari carol Stani nine, gospodine, or “Get up, master of the house,” sung in villages, city streets ring with Elhovi les and the Bulgarian “Silent Night”. One long-standing Bulgarian Christmas tradition is fortune telling for the year to come. If Christmas Eve falls on a Monday (as it will in 2008), then winter will be cold, autumn dry, and spring and summer rainy. This adds up to a bad year for grapes and honey – but a good recipe for those in power.

Anyone in Bulgaria who has lived through a Christmas under Communism, would associate the holiday season with bananas and oranges. The explanation is very simple: state-imposed shortages meant none of these “exotic” fruit would be available during the year. The government, however, would try to make everyone happy by “releasing” limited quantities of them for New Year. To make sure no comrades were left out, the oranges and bananas would be strictly rationed in two kilos per family. Of course, this led to rampant corruption among shopkeepers, and scheming among customers, as whole families lined up one after the other, pretending to be strangers.

Even under Communism, Christmas was still a joyful time for children as they eagerly awaited the winter holidays in their grandparents' villages. They helped chop down Christmas trees in the nearby mountains, and then decorated them with homemade ornaments. The countryside was a winter wonderland, with metre-high snowdrifts outside and toasty warm stoves inside. Children went to bed early on Christmas Eve and woke the next morning to find their shoes stuffed full of marvellous gifts. At that time sweets were so scarce that parents would hide the sugar barrels from their kids. Dessert would be homemade jam or a thick marmalade referred to us rup, and pumpkin treacle.

Communism did not succeed in stamping out some rituals, especially “folk traditions” considered “positive” and “patriotic”. One such custom is survakane on New Year's Day. Children would deck a tree branch with popcorn, colourful bits of woollen yarn, garlic, dried plums and small rings of bread. They would then set off in search of older relatives to patter on the back and chant “Surva, surva, godina,” a cryptic phrase believed to ensure good health in the new year. According to local logic, the harder the pats, the healthier the man. Afterwards the “victim” would thank the children for this beating with coins and delicious treats.

Many of today's Bulgarians would experience a Christmas identity crisis, however. They want to revive their grandparents' traditions, yet most elderly people have forgotten them. So they are left with a hodgepodge of religion (even though most Bulgarians cannot even cross themselves properly), folklore (everyone superstitiously observes the tradition of odd-numbered dishes), paganism (which is the most enduring), and new Western imports, all topped off by a fake Christmas tree.

Don't be surprised to find that Christmas in Bulgaria is little more than a souped-up modification of the usual Bulgarian drink-and-be-merry. But with a little luck, the pitka will be homemade and you won't be served any shtolen, the infamous German fruitcake.


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