The 45 years of forced atheism and fast urbanisation during Communism, combined with the post-1990 influx of imported traditions via movies, media and merchandise, achieved what would have seemed impossible only 100 years before. Repression and outside influences succeeded in killing the traditional way in which Bulgarians celebrated Christmas.
Today, the only true remains from the olden times still found in Bulgarian homes are the uneven number of meatless dishes present on the table on the 24th December, and the home-made bread with a coin hidden inside. Long gone is the huge log, called badnik, that burnt through the night of Christmas Eve in the fireplace. Forgotten too are the elaborate blessings recited by the oldest woman of the household and the ritual of having the dinner on the floor, so that the deceased members of the family could also taste it. Few farmers, if any, bother to interrupt their Christmas Eve drinking and go into the garden, an axe in their hands, to ritually threaten the trees that have failed to produce good fruit in the past year that, if they continue to misbehave, they will be hacked down.
All these rituals were connected with living in a village and within an extended family, but for decades life in Bulgarian villages has changed beyond recognition. Families are far apart, in different cities and countries. There is no more of what Georgi Markov, the dissident writer killed by the Communist regime in 1978, described as: "Of all traditions, rites, rituals and feasts that centuries have preserved in the life of Bulgarians, there is nothing more beautiful, full of meaning and enthralling than the old Bulgarian Christmas Eve."
Almost lost, too, is the tradition of koleduvane.
To Western eyes, koleduvane seems not that different from the trick-or-treat of Halloween: a group of youngsters walk from house to house and receive gifts. There are differences of course. Koleduvane was reserved for boys and young men; girls had a similar ritual in the spring. There was no trick part. Instead, each household eagerly greeted the groups of koledari in the sincere belief that their dances and songs would chase away the demons, vampires and bogeymen who roamed free on Christmas Eve, when Christ was still a young baby in the crib.
Koleduvane is for men only, but village girls used to have a similar rite that took place of Lazarus Saturday
Koledari were seen as crucial for the wellbeing of the community, so young married and single men would form groups of 10-15 people, and start rehearsing their koledarski songs and dances as early as the 20th December. Four days later, at midnight on Christmas Eve, they would gather, dressed in their Sunday best, with large bunches of box-tree on their hats. Then they would go around the village, knocking on each door, shouting "Christ is born, oh, Koledo!" and would sing and dance, wishing health to the household and the domestic animals, wealth and a successful harvest. They had a specific song for each member of the family – the patriarch, the oldest woman, the unmarried girls and so on. The hosts would thank the koledari for their magical protection with sips of wine and rakiya, money, smoked meat, nuts, popcorn and other food. Whatever else they gave away, there were always round breads called kolachi. The koledari collected these on a long staff; it was a matter of honour to have your staff completely full of bread by the end of the night.
The koledari danced until dawn. Then – tired, tipsy and hoarse – they would gather at the home of their leader, the so-called king, for a feast of the food they had collected. They would sell the remains, donating the money to the local church, school or other charity.
Koleduvane survived well into the middle of the 20th Century, with inevitable regional differences. In the western parts of Bulgaria, the koledari group would include an old man dressed in a fur coat with the fur outside, a crone dressed like a bride, and musicians. On the Thracian Plain, the men would wear boots with spurs and clink them while performing a particular dance called buenek.
Once not an young man could not marry if he hadn't been a koledar for at least a year
Today, the koledari dance for health and good luck has been revived in a limited number of villages that have enough men to continue the tradition. However, they dance in the daytime, and not at night, which shows perhaps that the rite has long lost its genuine meaning and is now performed just for the sake of it. If you don't live in a village with a koledari group, an easy way to experience at least some of the spirit of this ancient festival is to attend the Koledari Dance Festival in Yambol. Each 24th December, the koledari groups of the region gather in the centre of the city or in the Kargona neighbourhood and compete for the best dance and song. The event bears all the hallmarks of officialdom – from a mayoral speech at the opening to some highly-stylised performances. But the heavy rhythm of the buenek horo, combined with the clink of spurs and deep male voices, still preserves some of the magic of the ancient koledari, those long gone protectors from evil and bringers of health and wealth.
Music and alcohol are ubiquitous during the annual Koledari Dance Festival in Yambol
The box-tree is the decoration of choice for koledari
Today, Koledari Dance Festival is one of the few public events in economically depressed Yambol that bring people to the streets for some dances and fun
Koleduvane was one of the victims of urbanisation and mass-imposed atheism in Bulgaria. Only the elderly now remember the ritual as it once was: a night of songs, dances and traditional blessings spend on the village streets
High Beam is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.