by Yavor Dachkov; cartoon by Milko Dikov

Bulgarians forever moan of overwork. It interferes with their partying


We, the Bulgarians, believe ourselves to be the most industrious people on this earth. But if your stay in our country has made you doubt this claim, then last month may have confirmed your reservations. The red numbers in your calendar had prepared you for a break from work on 1 May, Labour Day, and on 24 May, the Day of the Slavonic Alphabet and Culture. According to the calendar, everybody had to be at their workplace on 30 April and 25 May. But they weren't. The whole working population was given two legal, government-sanctioned holiday breaks. The first was from 28 April until 1 May and the second from 24 until 27 May.

Bulgarian governments will often “merge” holidays. If a national holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, the respective Monday and Friday are included in it and are “worked off” on the following Saturday. Just don't get the idea anybody works on those days, especially in the afternoon.

It's a strange thing, particularly for a nation that has such sayings as “He who does not work must not eat”. If this was true you could be forgiven for thinking, when behind with your work because of all this “merging”, that most Bulgarians should already have died of hunger!

Ironically, this old saying was the Communist regime's favourite maxim. The Party used it to conceal the truth – by and large, but the Bulgarians followed another maxim, “I lie to them that I work; they lie to me that they pay me”.

According to official sociological research, the Bulgarians worked efficiently for an average of 3.5 hours a day under Communism. The rest of the time they twiddled their thumbs, built a summer house, made repairs or waited for the woman from the electricity company to come and read their meter, because the employees of such establishments worked from 8am until 5pm. It could hardly be otherwise: when private enterprise is forbidden, a deficiency of goods and services is inevitable. Add the state's poor supervision of workers and you get landed with these statistics.

Democracy came but the “I lie” rule survived and transferred to the private sector. The official “mergers” and “work-offs” are part of it. We don't need permission to call it a holiday: we have birthdays and name days. In Bulgaria you must treat your colleagues to something, preferably starting at midday and usually an alcoholic drink – not particularly conducive to a productive afternoon's work.

So nearly half the year is spent in holiday breaks (and drinks) and recovering from holiday breaks (and drinks). So to help you plan your time more efficiently I am offering a short list of national holidays and the most popular name days.

Each year begins with a sledgehammer hangover. It disappears by 3 or 4 January, when we may do some work, but not much because we have to celebrate Yordanovden on the 6th and Ivanovden on the 7th. There are so many people named Yordan and Ivan, or a derivative of the two, that these days have adopted the status of national holidays. We manage to recover by mid-January, but then come the 17th and 18th, which are Antonovden and Atanasovden, or Anton's and Atanas' days.

February begins with a drink in honour of Trifon Zarezan, the patron of wine and vines. It is celebrated according to the “old” calendar and is repeated on the 14th according to the “new” one which coincides with St Valentine's Day celebrations. The month finishes quickly to make way for the first official holiday break, 3 March, the national holiday marking the country's liberation from Ottoman rule. Five days later, it's 8 March, International Women's Day, which is the older generation's more peaceful reply to the western St Valentine's. Men give flowers to their female colleagues who come to work with new hairdos, bottles and, usually, homemade biscuits. The women treat everybody to them – starting from midday, of course.

Then comes a period without holidays, when we look forward to Easter with its three days off and Palm Sunday, the previous week. There are quite a few Bulgarians named after flowers and plants, so trust me when I tell you that you can't avoid partying.

April and May are a particularly risky time. Holidays are so frequent that they sometimes coincide and “merge”. In 2005, for example, Easter coincided with Mayday and the government gave a long holiday which continued until Gergyovden, or St George's day, on 6 May. If you think it's only the English who like this holiday, then you haven't seen the Bulgarians. For them, it's the day of shepherds, the army and everybody named Georgi or Gergana. But Gergyovden is only a preparation for 24 May which is normally just a single day, not “merged” with the weekend. But the weeks before and after are the time of the high school proms. In Bulgaria finishing secondary school is considered to be more important even than a wedding, so it's celebrated with such gusto that most of the population becomes unfit to work – even if the school leaver is a fifth cousin on the distaff side whom we haven't seen in 10 years!

There are no national holidays in June, July and August. But then everybody takes summer holidays and besides, there is a European or a world football championship every other year. And the Bulgarians love watching football.

September is similar to May. We celebrate Unification Day on the 6th and Independence Day on the 22nd. In the days before the 15th, when the school year starts, all parents take time off because they have to find the right textbooks for their children. Fortunately, those who still celebrate the old national holiday marking the 9 September Communist coup are too old to be in employment now and so don't obstruct other people's work.

It's all quiet until December, with the slight exception of St Dimitar's and Archangel Michael's Days on 26 October and 8 November, celebrated by people named Dimitar and Mihail.

In December, however, you'll find it more difficult to go to work than to miss a holiday. It all begins with Nikulden, or St Nicholas' day, on the 6th and two days later is the students' day. Then all former students go on a binge and for about a week there's practically no one at universities apart from cleaners. By the end of the month the year is as good as over because this is when the Christmas and New Year holidays begin. The government will “merge” them again whenever possible and after a fortnight off work it all begins once more in January.

We live a jolly good life, don't we? If this endless feast has begun to wear you out, you'd better take it easy. Relax and adapt to the local ways. It's not always that bad. This year St George's Day was on Sunday.


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