England's biggest holiday is only a runner-up in Bulgaria
The Bulgarian name for Christmas, Koleda, still bears traces of the holiday's pagan origin: the Roman festival Kalendae, celebrated on 25 December, the day when the new sun was born. Despite some minor differences, both Anglican and Orthodox Christmases have gradually lost their religious significance. They have been commercialised and, for many, are now just another excuse for a shopping binge.
However, despite what traditionalists may say, this is not such a dramatic development and in both countries Christmas still remains a family holiday. In Bulgaria, since the Communist coup of 1944, urbanisation and migration to larger towns and abroad have led to the scattering of families. Christmas is one of the rare occasions for family reunions and meeting old friends. But while, for the British, preparations for the holiday include sending heaps of seasonal greeting cards to friends and relatives, Bulgarians spend their time on the phone arranging when to celebrate with their cousins and when to meet up with their school friends. That is why Bulgarians spend the days from 24 to 26 December moving from one table to the next.
An English Christmas would be unthinkable without the famous Christmas pudding, but in Bulgaria there is no one single dish associated with Christmas, rather a variety of dishes are served on Christmas Eve. There must be an odd number of these, usually seven or nine, and they must not contain meat, as the evening is the final period of the 40-day Christmas fast. Dishes you can expect to see on a Bulgarian Christmas table are homemade pita bread, sarmi, made from rice with various fillings wrapped in vine leaves or cabbage leaves, beans, nuts, dried and fresh fruit, and pickles.
The beans are normally what everybody at the table gets most excited about. Being able to cook them well is a matter of pride, and, in my view, very few people can boast the perfection of the London bohemian Theo Lirkov. This late Bulgarian immigrant could make such marvellous beans that his home in Clapham Common was often filled with people who had travelled from all over London, neighbouring counties, and even abroad, with the sole purpose of tasting them.
Besides the food and drink, both nations celebrate Christmas with a decorated tree. But while the English borrowed this tradition from the Germans in the mid-19th Century, in Bulgaria this happened several decades later.
In recent years, globalisation has led to the amusing replication of Christmas symbols. Thus, many Bulgarian doors will sport Christmas wreaths and mistletoe branches -usually plastic and acquired from a pound shop selling made-in-China goods.
There are other reasons for this, apart from the world's commercial trends. Under Communism, the totalitarian government put serious effort into tearing the "new Socialist people" away from religion. Christmas was forgotten and the establishment promoted New Year instead. The Christmas tree became the New Year's tree, presents were exchanged on 1 January, and Father Christmas became Father Frost, like his Soviet counterpart.
In Communist Bulgaria, Christmas and all other holidays that smacked of religion were banned. Stooges informed on their neighbours for making Christmas dishes, and people got in trouble for going to church on Christmas Eve. The Communists promoted New Year as the biggest seasonal holiday instead
Consequently, today you can hazard a guess at your Bulgarian friends' political views based on whether they refer to Father Christmas or Father Frost, and when they give their Christmas presents.
Having been through industrialisation and Communism, the celebration of Christmas today has almost nothing to do with the way it was celebrated by the old Bulgarians, who lived in a traditionally rural society. Only the older generation has preserved desultory memories of the rituals which were conducted to ensure fertility in the coming year.
When Christmas Eve, or Budni vecher in Bulgarian - the name is derived from the verb bdya, or to "keep watch, stay awake" - ended and midnight struck, the village streets filled with koledari. These groups of young men and boys visited each household and sang songs wishing the family good health and a rich harvest. In return, they received bagels, fruit, sweets and coins.
Today these carollers are found mainly in villages. What's more, they are usually members of the local amateur dramatic society. The only old tradition to have survived unscathed is related to the morning of 25 December. Then, the yard of each house in the village resounds with the dying shrieks of a pig - Bulgarians mark the end of the fast with pork chops, fresh black pudding and pork liver fried with onions.
In practice, though, nowadays hardly anyone fasts and those who keep a pig prefer to perform a heavily modified form of sacrifice several days before Christmas Eve. There is a down-to-earth reason for this: they want to give their undivided attention to the new wine and rakiya, without which the Christmas holidays would be unthinkable in Bulgaria.
Over 2,000 years after the birth of Christ, it seems paganism is still alive and well.
8 oz. currants; 8 oz. sultanas; 8 oz. stoned raisins; 8 oz. muscovado sugar; 4 oz. grated beef suet; 4 oz. fresh breadcrumbs; 4 oz. ground almonds; 4 oz. blanched almonds, chopped; 4 oz. mixed candied peel; 6 oz. cooking apples, peeled and finely chopped; 8 oz. Plain flour; finely grated rind of 1 lemon; finely grated rind of 1 orange; 2 tbsp. lemon juice; 3 fl. oz. stout; 4 eggs, beaten; 1/2 oz. ground mixed spice; 1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg; 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon; pinch of salt; 5 tbsp. Brandy.
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl with 2 tbsp. of the brandy. Pour the mixture into a greased 3 1/2 pint pudding basin and cover with a double layer of greased, greaseproof paper or aluminium foil, pleated in the middle to allow for expansion. Tie string under the rim and across the top to make a handle. Place a trivet in the base of a large saucepan. Lower the pudding into the saucepan and fill with enough boiling water to come two-thirds of the way up the sides of the basin. Boil gently for eight hours, adding more boiling water if necessary. When the pudding is cooked, pour the remaining brandy over the surface and recover. To reheat, boil gently for 3-4 hours.
Beans a la Svetogorski
For this wonderful recipe by Theo Lirkov, perhaps the best-known Bulgarian emigre in London over the past four decades, you will need 1 lb. dried beans; 1 onion; 8 crushed cloves of garlic; 2 celery sticks; 4 tomatoes; 2-3 carrots; 1 pepper; 1-2 chillies; 0.5 pt. olive oil; 1 tbsp. paprika; 1 bunch of parsley; some mint or pennyroyal.
Start your preparations the evening before your guests arrive by soaking the beans in cold water for eight hours. Chop the onion, celery, pepper and carrots into small pieces. Drain the beans and place them in fresh water. Put them over the heat. When the water boils, replace it again with new water, covering the beans by an inch. When this second batch of water boils, add the onion, celery, pepper and carrots. Right after them, while the beans are still boiling, add the olive oil, crushed garlic and whole chillies. Turn down the heat and leave the mixture to simmer. Shortly before the beans are cooked, add large chunks of tomato and cook for 10-15 minutes. Add the paprika, cook for another 2-3 minutes, then add the finely chopped parsley, and finally the mint or pennyroyal leaves. Remove the beans from the heat and leave for one or two minutes to let them "wed with the parsley and mint". Add salt to taste and serve with fresh white bread.