Strange, stunning and sometimes seriously fun
When Bulgarians worry about the influence of globalisation on their culture, the preservation of their traditions is one of their main concerns. While it is true that some of the rites that are a part of life in Bulgaria have been affected by globalisation and mass culture, this is hardly the first time when they have been threatened with extinction.
Unlike globalisation, with its omnivorous taste for spectacle and the commercial, Communism affected centuries-old Bulgarian traditions in a more direct and severe way. Some of them were banned, and others were depleted of their oxygen when the rural communities that practised them dissolved under the pressure of rapid urbanisation. Many old traditions were turned into spectacles in the 1970s and the 1980s, aimed at boosting nationalist sentiment and the Bulgarians' sense of uniqueness. This trend continued after the collapse in 1989 of the regime, as people were torn between their desire to restore the traditions of their forefathers and the fact that many of the genuine rites and their meaning had been lost, along with the communities that had created and practiced them.
Despite this, it is still worth exploring those traditions that are still alive in Bulgaria. There is a caveat: not all of them are Eastern Orthodox or ethnic Bulgarian. Many are part of the life of the Muslim community and/or Turks and Roma people.
Christmas in Yambol
A priest blesses a band of Yambol koledari before their dance
For most Bulgarians nowaday, Christmas is all about presents and Santa Claus, plus the obligatory odd number of vegetarian dishes for dinner on Christmas Eve, but one Bulgarian city has preserved a tradition that has long become extinct elsewhere in the country.
To Western eyes, koleduvane is just like Halloween trick-or-treat: a group of youngsters walk from house to house and receive gifts, yet the original koleduvane was different. Only boys and young men took part and there was no tricking involved. They would go out into the streets at midnight on Christmas Eve, knocking on each door and shouting "Christ is born, oh, Koledo!". They would sing and dance, wishing health to the household and the domestic animals, wealth and a successful harvest. The hosts would thank them with sips of wine and rakiya, money, smoked meat, nuts, popcorn and other food.
Koleduvane survived well into the middle of the 20th century, but urbanisation and modernisation decimated the tradition. Some villages around Yambol, in eastern Bulgaria, revived the rite after 1989, with the inevitable changes to adapt to modern times. Now koledari are often trained men and they dance in broad daylight, on 24th December, as a part of the Koledari Dance Festival.
Some elements of the tradition remain genuine. Koledari still dance the traditional buenek horo, clinking the spurs on their boots and singing with deep male voices, to keep the flame of this ancient rite alive.
Gayda players at Gela Village
On the first weekend of August, Gela, a tiny village in the heart of the Rhodope mountains, welcomes scores of kaba gayda players and thousands of spectators eager to hear one of the most mesmerising types of music in the world.
The kaba gayda, or low-voiced bagpipe, is a peculiar instrument found only in the Rhodope. It was not designed for lively horo dancing, but to match the human voice. Without it, the slow and moody Rhodope traditional songs would be impossible. To the ears of the uninitiated listener, most of the songs sound the same, but one melody is instantly recognisable – and performed ad nauseam during the Gela event:Izlel e Delyu Haydutin. This song became famous when in 1977 it was included in the Voyager spacecraft's golden discs with sounds from the Earth to introduce our planet to extraterrestrial civilisations.
Those who take to the stage in Gela are of all ages and come from all over the Rhodope, Bulgaria and further afield – one year a musician from Scotland took part. The kaba gayda, like every other gayda, was traditionally played only by men, but today there are many girls and women who have mastered it and come here to display their talent.
The competition takes place on the Saturday and ends with a concert, while Sunday is a time of informal fun and large family gatherings spreading out from Gela.
If you want to visit, book hotel rooms in Gela, Shiroka Laka or Pamporovo well in advance, or bring a tent.
Alevi gathering on 1 May at Hizir Baba shrine
The Alevi are a Muslim group with distinct beliefs, festivals and shrines. They are theoretically Sunni, but practise a more liberal form of Islam. To what extent they are different is hard to say, as they keep the details of their religion and traditions secret from outsiders. What is known is that Alevism is heavily influenced by Christianity and other religions.
Women do not cover their heads and the community does not have mosques, praying in members' houses instead. Praying and paying respect at the graves of prominent men, reverently referred to as baba, or father, is the most visible part of Alevism. These so-called saints are often associated with Christian saints, which is why some feast days coincide, and both Alevi Muslims and Christians gather together at their shrines.
In Bulgaria, the Alevi community have a number of such shrines, the best known of these being Demir Baba near Isperih and Ak Yazili Baba near Balchik, in Bulgaria's northeast. Fewer people are aware of the existence of the shrine of Hizir Baba, in the village of Dolna Krepost, in the Rhodope. It is located at the foot of one of Bulgaria’s most popular tourist sites – the rock city of Perperikon.
Less affluent people sacrifice cheaper animals
On 1 May, thousands of people gather around the shrine to commemorate Hizir Baba. Many of them bring the so-called kurban animal, usually lamb, that is sacrificed in accordance with halal rules, and is then cooked and shared with the whole community.
In rural Bulgaria, masked men clad in animal hides would dance in the streets between Christmas and Lent in a centuries-old ritual designed to bring back spring and ensure the fertility of nature, animals and humankind. In different regions of Bulgaria the men would wear different costumes, dance at different times of the year and were known by different names. Today they are all commonly known as kukeri.
The aim of kukeri all over the Bulgarian lands was similar – to cause chaos in the villages with their wild behaviour, dancing and filling the air with the clang of the heavy cowbells hanging on their belts. Their groups had two leaders. The chief kuker would dance, waving a red staff, and chase women in the streets in a not so subtle pantomime aiming at improving the local community birth rate. The other was the King. Dressed in "royal" attire, he would ritually plough and sow the centre of the village, to help nature restart the circle of life.
The kukeri dances died out when Bulgaria became an urbanised Communist country and the young people left the villages for jobs in the cities. Eventually, the tradition was revived here and there, but as a modernised, tamed, and somewhat sterile symbol of Bulgarian-ness. Today, many Bulgarians are proud of their uniqueness, although similar traditions can be found all over Europe and even in faraway Japan.
If you want to see crowds of kukeri, you can attend the two big festivals dedicated to them: Surva in Pernik, which usually takes place in January, and Kukerlandia in Yambol, which is held in February or March.
This tradition is a UNESCO Intangible Heritage, and with reason. The nestinari dances are as spectacular as people dancing barefoot on live embers can be.
The only place where you can see this is the village of Balgari, on 3 June, the high day of Ss Constantine and Helena, the patron saints of the rite. Despite the Christian veneer, it is evident that the nestinari dances are a remnant from pagan times.
The nestinari believe that Ss Constantine and Helena protect them from the embers' heat
The dances are only a part of a more complex set of rituals performed by the local community. On the morning of 3 June, the icons of Ss Constantine and Helena are taken from the small chapel in the centre of Balgari, where they are kept year round. They are brought to local springs, believed to be sacred, and are washed, as if they were people. Then they are returned to their chapel.
In the afternoon, a bonfire in the centre of Balgari is prepared.
By evening the village square is already full of people. The nestinari are inside the chapel, meditating for what will happen next. They believe their hearts and minds will be entered by none other than St Constantine himself, who will provide them with guidance and strength.
When the dancers leave the chapel, they walk to the mesmerising music of a drum and bagpipe, to the village church dedicated to Ss Constantine and Helena. The procession goes round the church three times and then stops at the fire, which has by now been reduced to a pile of glowing embers.
This is when the most spectacular part of the rite begins. The nestinari start dancing around the fire and at irregular intervals one will lift the icon above their head and nimbly cross over the live embers.
The whole ceremony takes about half an hour.
The tradition is unmistakably pagan. Ss Constantine and Helena, two saints associated with large-scale Christianisation, were probably picked as patrons to the nestinari to do away with the association with the old pagan gods: the Great Goddess, who commanded darkness, and the Great God, the master of light.
The nestinari tradition is probably millennia old, but it became virtually extinct after the Communist government banned it as a “dark superstition”. They then revived it as yet another way to boost nationalism, and the rite was revived again after the regime collapsed. It is now a far cry from the genuine tradition, but is a huge crowd-puller for Balgari.
The Bulgarian nestinari are not the only ones who walk on live embers in the Balkans. In Greece, around Thessaloniki, the so-called anastenarides do the same. They are the descendants of Greeks from the Strandzha, who left the mountain in the 1920s and brought the rite with them.
The Pomaks are Muslims who speak the Bulgarian language as their mother tongue, and live mainly in the Western Rhodope. Ribnovo stands out in the community with its penchant for preserving the old ways of living. The women in the village, for example, still wear the traditional baggy trousers and colourful aprons and kerchiefs in the same style as their grandmothers.
The bride is getting ready
The Ribnovo wedding is the most spectacular tradition preserved in the community, and its most impressive part is the bride. Instead of a white gown and veil, a Ribnovo girl marries in traditional costume, a red kerchief on her head and her face hidden under a thick layer of white cream, covered with colourful sequins.
Villagers appraise dowry
A Ribnovo wedding usually takes two days. On the first day, the girl's family displays the dowry it has prepared for the newlyweds' house for all to see – from beds and TV sets to linen and tableware. In the evening, the girl has her hands and feet covered in henna.
The newlyweds dance the horo with their guests
On the next day, the groom, his family and friends form a procession to the girl's house. They carry long planks where all the presents they have prepared for their in-laws are on show. When they reach the girl's house, an elderly woman covers her face with a thick layer of white cream and sequins. Then the bride is taken to her new home where an imam performs a Muslim wedding ceremony.
Some people say that at one time all Pomaks in Bulgaria used to marry in the same way, and similar traditions have been recorded as well in North Macedonia and Albania.
Circumcision is an important part of a Muslim boy’s life, and in some places with a Muslim population in Bulgaria huge mass celebrations are organised for the boys, their families and the whole community. If you stumble upon one of them by chance, you might easily take it for some fair or carnival, as the boys who are going to be circumcised are dressed as miniature sultans.
The boys are dressed like sultans
People gather in the central square to dance and listen to live Gypsy music. Old and young men wrestle, naked to the waist, their oiled bare skin glistening in the sun.
The only thing that shows you you are witnessing something more unusual is the beeline made by boys' families to the building where a doctor is performing the circumcisions.
There is some traditional oil wrestling as well
This tradition is celebrated by modern Bulgarian Muslims with particular gusto not only because of its importance for the believer’s life. Under Communism, they were forbidden to circumcise their sons. Some did it anyway, and the memory of this has increased the feeling that the event is special for them.
St Todor Feast and Bride Market in Mogila village
The gathering on St Todor's Feast serves two purposes: to allow relatives and friends to meet and the young to socialise, and to indulge in horse trade, a traditional business in the Kalaydzhii communityThis tradition is controversial. Each year, the members of the Kalaydzhii clan of Bulgarian Gipsies, who usually live scattered around Bulgaria, gather on the Feast of St Todor at a large meadow beside Mogila village, to meet relatives and friends, and to trade horses and… brides.
A road divides the meadow in two. On one side, horses and donkeys in all states of health are being sold. On the other side of the market, teenage girls parade in slightly provocative dresses and bold makeup. They are accompanied by their grandmothers – squat, businesslike ladies in traditional costume. The young men who are looking for a spouse circle round, eyeing up the girls. When one of them shows an interest in a particular girl, the grandmother leaps into action. She boasts about her granddaughter's many qualities: age, beauty, virginity, and housekeeping skills. The negotiation of the price takes time, and is kept far from the eyes of onlookers. The amount of money varies. Some boys pay 10,000 or even 50,000 leva for their girl, while others pay much less.
The gathering on St Todor's Feast serves two purposes: to allow relatives and friends to meet and the young to socialise, and to indulge in horse trade, a traditional business in the Kalaydzhii community
Selling people is not considered acceptable in modern society, but according to the Kalaydzhii community the negotiations and the payment are only for the sake of tradition. No-one would marry their daughter to a boy she disliked and the money paid for her is spent on the new family's home.
This tradition was established in the past to help young Kalaydzhii find a spouse within their clan, as the separate families lived far apart and communication, let alone the chance to meet and flirt with other young people, was hard.
The prospective brides are dressed to impress
Today, the tradition is slowly dying out, along with its controversies, and is increasingly being replaced by social media and other types of online communication.
Eastern Orthodox Easter
Easter is arguably the most impressive Eastern Orthodox religious tradition in Bulgaria, and rightfully so. It combines private and public activities and blends them into something truly memorable.
The after-midnight service continues into the small hours
It all starts on Palm Sunday, when queues form in front of churches. People arrive to light some candles for the wellbeing of their families but, most importantly, to take home a bunch of blessed willow branches. These symbolise the palm fronds Jesus was met with upon entering Jerusalem and are believed to bring health and good luck to the family.
On the next day, the so-called Strastna, or Holy, Week starts. Theoretically, it is the time when believers relive the passion of Christ. In post-Communist Bulgaria it is more the period for practical preparations for the feast. There are strictly denoted tasks for each day, and failure to observe them will bring bad luck.
Great Monday, Great Tuesday and Great Wednesday are assigned for cleaning the house. Great Thursday is the day when Easter eggs are coloured. On Great Friday any sort of work is strictly prohibited (the day is a bank holiday). Those who are more religious go to church, where they crawl under a table representing the grave of Christ – for good health.
Bulgarians lit one another's candles
On Great Saturday tradition requires that women go to the cemetery, burn incense at the graves of their relatives and give out bread and coloured eggs so that the souls of the dead may rest in peace. Nowadays few Bulgarians do this. It is also the day when Easter sweet bread is kneaded and baked in households which do not rely on bakeries. Half an hour before midnight on Great Saturday Bulgarians take a few eggs and go to church for the main celebratory mass.
After a ritual in which the priest drives Satan from the church, he steps outside and the congregation follows him with lit candles. At midnight the priest lights candles and greets the congregation by saying, Hristos voskrese, or "Christ Is Risen." The answer is Voistina voskrese, or "Indeed He Is Risen."
Then they walk around the church three times – in theory. In practice, there is congestion at the door when everybody tries to get out at once. While some of the parishioners are already making their third turn around the church, others are still stuck inside.
Churchgoers take the holy fire home from Sokolovski Monastery
When the service is over, people exchange eggs and "fight" with them – they hit each other's eggs trying to crack them. The person whose egg is the strongest will have good health and luck throughout the year. However, the egg that was dyed first is taken back home and kept until the following Easter.
The 40-day Lent ends on Great Sunday and, no matter whether they have observed it or not, Bulgarians eat eggs, sweet bread and, if they can afford it, roast lamb.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, Epiphany is the day when St John baptised Christ in the River Jordan, and God's three entities (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) appeared together.
In Burgas, the cross is thrown into the Black Sea
Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany in a loose re-enactment. A priest blesses an open body of water, and then throws a cross into it. The young men of the community jump in. Whoever finds the cross first will be blessed, healthy and lucky throughout the year.
In Bulgarian traditional culture, Epiphany is known as Yordanovden, or Jordan's Day. It is dedicated to water as a means of physical and spiritual purification.
The horo in the Tundzha River, in Kalofer, is the most popular Yordanovden activity in modern Bulgaria. It is being presented as a centuries-old tradition, but in fact was invented 20 years ago
The ritual was not performed under Communism, but after its collapse was quickly revived, helped by a media hungry for spectacular and bizarre events to report on. The fact that many people called Yordan and Yordanka celebrate their name day on Epiphany only helped the revival of Bulgarian interest in the day of 6 January.
Some need a gulp or two of the local wine before jumping into the icy waters on Epiphany
Inevitably, the way Bulgarians celebrate Epiphany has changed, reflecting the times. Today, many of the young men shivering on the banks of a river or at the seashore, ready for the priest to throw in the cross, do it for the adrenaline rush and the opportunity that participation in such an extreme experience provides to brag about on Facebook later. The famous horo dance in the icy waters of the Tundzha River in Kalofer, which for years was a small, local affair and a rite of passage for the young men of the town, is now a huge media circus that is all about what contemporary Bulgarians see as "patriotism" and less about the true meaning of the ancient purification ritual.
On the night of 30 June and 1 July, people gather by the sea. They spend the night drinking and listening to music, and when the sun begins to rise, they play Uriah Heep's song July Morning.
This, in short, is Dzhulay or Dzhulaya, or July Morning, a tradition unique to Bulgaria. The feast is about 40 years old.
You will be excused if you are not familiar with this particular band or song. Few people nowadays are, except in Bulgaria. Due to some serious lagging behind in pop culture under Communism and the nostalgia of those who were young back then, Bulgaria is probably the last place in the world where the names of the band and their 1971 track still ring some bells.
Who first celebrated Dzhulay and when is open to speculation and at least two theories circulate.
According to the first, the first Dzhulay was celebrated in 1980 by a bunch of friends who were about to begin their two-year-long compulsory military service.
According to the second account, a Varna hippie serving in the military was on fatigue duty on the night of 30 June. While he watched the sunrise on the morning of 1 July, Uriah Heep's song was in his head. After he was discharged, back in Varna, he introduced the idea to some friends, in 1985.
The rock concerts in Kavarna are no more
As the popularity of the event grew, the Dzhulay went mainstream and in the early 2000s, it moved to the rocks at Kamen Bryag. In 2004, the rock music-loving mayor of the nearby town of Kavarna, Tsonko Tsonev, invited John Lawton, Uriah Heep's frontman, to perform the band's emblematic song during the sunrise. People were ecstatic. Lawton became a fixture in the celebrations. Sadly, there are no more concerts in Kavarna for Dzhulay. In the 2010s the town got a new mayor who replaced the concert with a festival of Russian song.
The Dzhulay tradition moved back to its old, unorganised self, just as in the days when it was born.
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