A mix of pagan customs, Christian traditions, and modern concepts
Written by Andrea Vushkova, edited by Scott Green, photos by Anastasiia Dehtiarova and Andrea Vushkova.
Ah, Christmas. That time of the year is upon us again! If you are spending it in Bulgaria, here is a rough guide on what to expect.
Bulgarian Christmas festivities of the past 30 years are nothing like the celebrations before 1989. Ask anyone above the age of 40 and they will dive into an enthusiastic and nostalgic tale of how the winter holidays were the only time in the year when they could eat oranges and bananas. True story. Also, Christmas wasn’t loudly celebrated, since religious holidays were not exactly the number one priority of the BCP (Bulgarian Communist Party). People mostly acknowledged New Years and kids received their presents from Diado Mraz (Grandfather Frost) on 31 December.
Nowadays however, the Christmas holiday is bountiful and pretty similar to the rest of the world. Let’s see where Bulgaria stands on the checklist of mainstream Christmas:
- Crazy shopping for presents: check.
- Christmas tree, decorations, and lights: check.
- Participating in charities: check.
- Crazy shopping for all kinds of food: check.
- Big lunch/dinner: check.
So far so good. But don’t think that everything here looks as if it’s been taken out of “Home Alone” or “Love Actually”. This article is, after all, about Bulgaria, so let’s find out what distinguishes the Bulgarian Christmas* from the mainstream movie one.
First things first. The Bulgarian name of Christmas is “Koleda.” It’s not clear where it derives from, but all the theories connect its etymology to pagan words. It either comes from “kol,” the root word for “wheel, circle,” or from the Latin “calendae,” meaning the first day of the month.
A common misconception is that Bulgarians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on 7 January, like Serbs, Ukrainians, and Russians. A lot of my foreign friends get confused because the dates for Easter are usually different for Catholics and Greek Orthodox. For Christmas, however, we are on the same page: 25 December.
Bulgarians go vegan (before it was cool)
Are you shocked? Considering how much meat we usually eat? I get it, but don’t worry, it’s just for one day. Unlike Catholicism, Greek Orthodox Christianity considers Christmas Eve the culmination of the Christmas fasting. Since not everyone is a devout believer in surviving the entire 40 day fast, we symbolically have a modest dinner on December 24, with no animal products whatsoever. This tradition also has its foundation in the past, when people could not afford to eat meat, milk, and cheese on a daily basis, and saved these products for the big day.
The name of Christmas eve in Bulgarian is “Badni vecher,” and it derives from the Slavic word “badeshte”, meaning future (and “vecher” means “evening”). The dinner has to consist of an odd number of dishes. The most typical are vegan sarmi, peppers, stuffed with baked beans, bean soup, pickles, oshav (stewed dried fruit), banitsa with pumpkin, and nuts. Additionally, everyone has to choose a walnut and see the forecast for their year ahead, depending on the quality of the nut they find inside.
The main accent in the Christmas Eve dinner is the ritual bread. Whoever makes it, hides a coin inside, and whoever finds it, will have a lucky and happy year. Funny story: last year I tried to make that bread, but messed up the recipe and put 2 tablespoons of salt in it (instead of 2 teaspoons). My family had to use their best acting skills to pretend it’s not that bad!
The ritual before dinner is for the oldest person to make a cross figure with incense in their hand. Then he/she breaks the bread and saves one piece for the dead, and one for the house. The rest of the pieces are distributed to the family members, going from the oldest to the youngest.
On the night before Christmas every house should be visited by “koledari”, our version of carolers. They sing traditional songs and aim to expel the bad spirits before the big day. The creatures they sing against are vampires (not sparkly ones like Edward Cullen, obviously) and malevolent goblins from our folklore, the so called karakonjuli (I dare you to pronounce that word!).
Another Bulgarian tradition is to have a “badnik” – a log from a pear or oak tree for the fireplace. Men used to go to the woods and chop it in the morning of 24 December, and it’s officially lit in the evening. The badnik symbolizes the light and hope for future prosperity. The log is put out with wine the next morning (I know, what a waste).
Of course, as you can imagine, these traditions are not really followed in big cities, but some smaller towns and villages keep them alive.
Every family has their own way of organizing this day. In my family we sleep until late, we have a big brunch with the Christmas cookies I usually make in the weeks prior and panettone (A traditional Italian cake. I don’t know why, we just like it).
Some families celebrate with a Christmas lunch, but my family and I prefer a Christmas dinner. We take a walk during the day and gather around the table in the evening. Usually we eat a stuffed turkey. The true Bulgarian tradition however, is to eat pork with cabbage on Christmas. In the past people were looking after a pig and “fattening” it, so that they can eat it for the holiday.
In my family we exchange gifts before dinner on Christmas day, however it’s a matter of personal choice. Some people get to this part on 24 December.
The aftermath of all the food, excitement, and presents is left for the third day of Christmas. All in all, this holiday is a good reason for families to have some quality time together. I hope you will have the chance to spend this Christmas with your loved ones! Even if you don’t, find a welcoming Bulgarian, and it’s guaranteed you will have a lot of fun learning about our traditions and trying our food. Despite the cultural differences, the Christmas message all around the world is the same: spread the love!
Merry Christmas and a jolly holiday season from the Open Sofia team!
* The Bulgarian Christmas is actually the name of the biggest holiday charity in our country. Every December since 2003 Bulgarian people have been donating money for the medical treatment of children in need. The campaign has always been under the patronage of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria.