Theory and practice of one of the most enjoyable holidays in Bulgaria
"We are Christians and we have to obey our Boss's orders," Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said in his unique style at the end of last year, while doing something that had not happened in this country for decades. He made Good Friday an official bank holiday.
The immediate effects of this change will be felt by anybody who decides to spend Easter in Bulgaria (this year it coincides with the Roman Catholic Easter, on 4 April). As early as noon on Maundy Thursday there will be long tail-backs of buses and cars full of people on their way out of the capital and the big cities to visit their relatives in the country or go on vacation. Those who have chosen to spend the holiday in a comfortable hotel away from the hustle and bustle of city life will have to book for four rather than three days.
So much the better. One of the best places for your getaway from the stress of everyday life is Borovets, just 60 km out of Sofia. More famous as a winter destination because of the skiing facilities it offers, Bulgaria's oldest mountain resort is equally pleasant in spring. Mist wafts over the hilltops, the fir trees exude their fresh pine aroma in the still cool air and the birds are singing their hearts out. The other advantage of Borovets is that it boasts the only hotel in Bulgaria that is part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World chain. Just think of it: a 50-minute drive from Sofia will take you to the Hotel Yastrebets Wellness & Spa, with its exquisite mountain restaurant, classic piano bar and state-of-the-art spa. The hotel has a long-standing reputation as a family relaxation destination, so you should hurry up if you want to book a suite with a fireplace or a chalet in the Finnish village next to it.
Easter is an excellent time to travel around and get to know Bulgaria and the Bulgarians. Spring is at its height and everyone is in a good mood. This is also the time when you can observe something uncommon among Bulgarians, who are not otherwise the devoutest of Christians: queues in front of churches. Plovdiv is particularly suitable if you want to experience this. The old part of the city has a Bulgarian Orthodox, a Greek Orthodox, an Evangelical and an Armenian church.
If, however, you don't feel like staying in a big, noisy city you can book a room in the Corner Hotel in the nearby town of Stamboliyski. Less than 20 km, or 12 miles, west of Plovdiv, it is easily accessible from the Trakiya Motorway. The Corner Hotel stands amid a wonderful green garden and offers room service and a mini bar. The restaurant's second level is suitable for a meeting or a bigger party and if the weather is nice, you can have your lunch or a glass of Bulgarian or French wine in the garden.
Somewhat surprisingly, the celebration of Easter in Bulgaria has preserved a lot more of its traditions than Christmas has. While the latter was practically banned under Communism and today suffers from a rather heavy Western influence, Easter has managed to retain its identity. Even the aggressively atheistic Communist regime could not destroy it completely. It is true, though, that there were plainclothes State Security agents lurking around most churches to make sure that only pious old grannies went in, and anybody who flouted this unwritten rule risked a close encounter with the political militia.
Nevertheless, like their predecessors, the people of Communist Bulgaria coloured eggs, baked kozunak, or sweet bread, and roasted lamb for Easter. This practice was not forbidden. What is more, the shops sold egg dyes and readymade kozunak, although due to their great popularity both goods were hard to find.
Bulgarians carry Holy Fire on Easter
In Bulgaria, the Easter holidays begin with Lazarovden, or St Lazarus' Day. Since the holiday always falls on the Saturday before Palm Sunday, the best thing you can do is leave the big city and head for a village. Only the small settlements still keep alive one of the most attractive Bulgarian customs: lazaruvane. Once, the participation in this ritual signalled the invisible boundary separating the girl from the maid who was ready to get married. The lazarki girls gathered in groups and, dressed in their Sunday best, went around the houses. They danced the horo and sang songs for the head of every household, his wife, children, fields, sheep and so on. In return, they were given eggs. In general, this tradition is preserved to this day, although the girls do not wear their newest clothes (which they keep for the disco), but national costumes.
Lazarovden is celebrated in villages only, but the following day, Tsvetnitsa or Vrabnitsa, or Palm Sunday, when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem, is practically a national holiday. You can hardly find a Bulgarian who does not have at least one friend or relative with a "flower name," such as Tsvetomir, Margarita, Liliya or Yavor. Churches are filled to overflowing with people queuing to light a candle or take away a bunch of consecrated willow twigs. The twigs are then made into a wreath, which is taken home and put by the family icon (if there is such) or by the door. It remains there until next year's Tsvetnitsa, when it is replaced with a new twig.
During Holy Week, the number of Bulgarians who decide to observe Lent, even for a brief time, increases (however, most of them cite health rather than religious reasons). The pre-holiday excitement begins growing on Maundy Thursday. Tradition has it that the wife should get up early on this day and dye the eggs before dawn. The first one is always red. She rubs the children's foreheads and cheeks with it and takes it to the church for the Easter service. Like the willow twigs, it remains in the house until the following Easter.
In recent years, working women have preferred to colour their eggs on a more convenient day: Holy Saturday.
On Good Friday, there are again queues in front of the churches. In each of them, covered with flowers, stands a table wrapped in a shroud, which is the symbol of Christ's dead body. Don't be surprised to see young and old unselfconsciously kneel and crawl under the table on all fours three times. People believe that this purges them from the sins they have committed over the past year.
The Saturday night service attracts the greatest interest. Even the smallest churches are overcrowded and a large part of the congregation has to stand outside the church doors for the entire celebration. The atmosphere is not particularly devout, as you will note, most people preferring to chat to their friends instead of listening to the priest. When at midnight he announces Hristos voskrese, or "Christ is risen," they answer Voistina voskrese, or "Indeed he's risen" and the bells begin ringing, everybody lines up in another long queue to kiss the church icon and the priest's hand and light their candles from his.
Afterwards, the worshippers go home, taking care to keep their candles alight on the way. Before they enter, they draw a cross above the house door with their smoke. Only after that can they indulge in what constitutes half the appeal of Easter: they sit down with their relatives and begin feasting on kozunak and roast lamb, "fight" with Easter eggs and lap up more homemade rakiya than is sensible.
You might easily come to the conclusion that, for Bulgarians, Easter is nothing more than another excuse to feast with friends and family. And you would be right, in a way.
However, Easter is also the day of one of the boldest political acts in recent Bulgarian history. It happened in 1860, when the Bulgarians were still subjects of the Ottoman sultan. Being Orthodox Christians, they were under the supremacy of the patriarchate in Constantinople, which was dominated by the Greeks. For four centuries, since they fell under Ottoman rule at the end of the 14th Century, most Bulgarians had not minded this. In the mid-19th Century, however, Bulgarian intellectuals and some of the rich merchants increasingly began to realise that the domination of the Greek bishops was against their interests, not least because the services were held in Greek and few of the worshippers could understand them.
The tension between Bulgarians and Greeks came to a head at Easter 1860, April 3rd. During the Easter service at the Bulgarian St Stephen's Church in Constantinople, the priest, Ilarion Makariopolski, did not pray for his superior, the Greek patriarch, as he was supposed to do. Instead, he blessed only the sultan.
This small act was of key importance. It showed the Greeks that the Bulgarians wanted their independence – and the church taxes they paid. Ten years later, the sultan recognised the existence of the independent Bulgarian exarchate and, hence, of the first Bulgarian political organisation after nearly 500 years under foreign rule.