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There is a day in Bulgaria when the cities and villages seem awash with blossoming flowers. The flower stalls stock more of their seasonal and all-the-year-round blooms than usual, and the number of pop-up flower sellers on the pavements increases. People carrying bouquets and bunches of pussy willow branches are everywhere.

Welcome to Tsvetnitsa, or Flower Day, one of Bulgaria's most beloved times of the year.

Tsvetnitsa – or Vrabnitsa, Willow Day, – is the local name for Palm Sunday, the feast celebrating Jesus's entry into Jerusalem. Early in the morning, priests all over Bulgaria bless branches of willow – a regional substitute for the palm branches laid on the streets of Jerusalem in the New Testament story. Then they distribute them to churchgoers throughout the day; it is believed that having at least one branch of blessed willow at home will protect the household from all evil.

This is why on Tsvetnitsa Bulgarian streets are full with people carrying willow branches, and there are queues in front of the churches. The Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians participate in a century-old ritual: they light a candle in the church, kiss the hand of the priest, and receive from him thew blessed willow twigs.  

Palm Sunday is also a feast of nature's rebirth in spring.

In traditional Bulgarian society, Vrabnitsa was a very important day for girls of marriageable age. On the previous day, the Saturday of Lazarus, they would dress in their best and form a group, going to visit each house in the village. There, they would dance and sing for the members of the household, wishing them health and wealth. In exchange they would receive gifts. It was believed that a girl who had not been a Lazarka for at least one year could not get married. She was also in danger of being eyed by the local dragon, a creature who was generally benevolent to the local community, but who had the habit of falling in love with pretty girls. He would visit her secretly in the night, and as the result she would gradually get sick and die. Or he might kidnap her, making her the mother of his winged children.

Lazaruvane was an important initiation rite for girls, and so too was the following day, Tsvetnitsa. The Lazarki would gather again, make wreaths of blessed willow branches, and throw them into running water. The wreath that reached a given place first meant that its owner would be the leader of the girls' group for the year.

Today, the Lazaruvane is still played out in some villages but, because of the ageing population, it is now performed mainly by Gypsy girls. For generations of urban Bulgarians, this ritual is something they have heard about from their grandparents, or have read about in books, newspaper and Internet articles. No one, however, now participates in the Palm Sunday ritual of wreath throwing. Due to the urbanisation and social changes that swept Bulgaria after 1944 what has remained of the old traditions for Tsvetnitsa is what could survive in an urban environment: the blessing of the willow, and the belief that they will somehow bring happiness and health to the family.

There is another reason for Vrabnitsa's popularity in Bulgaria. The feast is the name day of anyone with a plant or flower related name, of which there are many in the country. The list is long and includes names such as the female Violeta, or Violet; Margarita, or Daisy; and Nevena, or Marigold; and the male Yavor, or Sycamore; Yasen, or Ash-tree; and Varban, or Willow, plus blanket names like Tsvetan and Tsvetelina, meaning Flowering. With the Bulgarian propensity for celebrating name days – another relic of the past, when it was more important to celebrate the feast of your patron saint, whose name you bore, rather than your birthday – it explains why Palm Sunday is so popular in this country.

In 2017, Palm Sunday in Bulgaria is on 9 April.

Palm Sunday Bulgaria

On Palm Sunday even the icons in churches are decorated with willow branches


Palm Sunday Bulgaria

Only twigs blessed in a church. The ones sold on the streets are not accepted


Palm Sunday Bulgaria

Tsvetnitsa is one of the religious feasts in Bulgaria pulling crowds into Eastern Orthodox churches


America for Bulgaria FoundationHigh 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.

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