Bulgarian traditions

IN DEEP PURPLE

A small, neat bag filled with dried lavender is an ubiquitous souvenir in many Mediterranean countries. It should be in the portfolio of Bulgarian souvenirs too, along with the vials of rose water.

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LA VIE EN ROSE

A plant that everyone knows but few have seen in real life: by selecting the oil-bearing rose as its unofficial symbol, Bulgaria has made an odd choice. This particular variety does smell divine but is not particularly beautiful. Its attar is vital for the global cosmetic industry, yet its production and sales make a tiny spec in the Bulgarian GDP.

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OF MUMMERS AND MEN

Winter has been a critical period for traditional societies in Europe since times immemorial. People, of course, were aware that the turn of the seasons would eventually bring back spring, sun and food. They knew that the slow, imperceptible change would start when the days are short and cold, and the nights are long and bleak. Despite this, they would crave some reassurance that spring would indeed return, the snow would melt and the plants would thrive again.

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ST NICHOLAS DAY, SOZOPOL STYLE

In Western Europe, the 6th of December, or St Nicholas Day, is a time where the first whiff of Christmas gets felt. After all, the saint with his white beard and penchant for bringing gifts to good children is the draft of the modern Santa Claus. 

In Bulgaria, St Nicholas Day is equally important although in a different manner. Seen as the patron saint of sailors, fishermen, merchants and bankers, the saint is celebrated by many people who carry the different iterations of the name Nicholas and their families. A particular food is also associated with this day. 

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DARK SIDE OF BULGARIAN ROSE

You have already seen it: in Bulgaria's official logo, on fridge magnets, boxes of Turkish delight, cosmetics, Facebook and Instagram posts, and any tourism promotion material imaginable. The oil-bearing rose is one of Bulgaria's most recognisable national symbols, a fragrant and humble flower that thrives in one particular region and powers a global luxury market.

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BULGARIAN EASTER EATING

In 1956, Chudomir, one of Bulgaria's finest satirists, wrote in his diary: "Sunday, 6 May. Both Easter and St George's Day, but there are neither roast lamb nor red eggs at home. Traditions are fading away, the nice old feasts are being forgotten, disappearing with our generation." Just a few days before this entry, a young and seemingly harmless politician, Todor Zhivkov, had replaced Stalinist dictator Valko Chervenkov as the head of the Communist Party. The years of Stalinism, with its disregard for traditions and religion, were over, but people had yet to feel the change.

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WATERMELONS, WATERMELONS, WATERMELONS

Bulgarians use the expression "to carry two watermelons under one arm," which roughly translates us "running after two hares." But when you see the enthusiasm with which Bulgarians consume watermelons in summertime, you might easily think that carrying two watermelons under the armpit is the norm. Tarator, the ubiquitous albeit slightly unusual for Western palates cold soup, still keeps its reputation as the best way of dealing with the summer heat, but watermelons come a very close second.

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BULGARIA'S FIREWALKERS

Police checkpoints, scores of cars parked along the roadside and throngs of people crowding between stalls selling candyfloss, kepabcheta and cheap Made-in-China toys: on 3 June, the village of Balgari looks much like any Bulgarian village during a country fair.

Balgari's fair, however, is unlike any other. When darkness falls over the village square, barefoot men and women will dance on live coals.

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FACING CHRISTMAS IN YAMBOL

In the dull winter light of 25 December, the grey streets of Kargona neighbourhood in Yambol look drab as usual. This is a suburb of low houses and sidewalks blocked by parked car, bare trees, dust and cheap stores, a defining feature of much of Bulgaria outside hipster cafes and flashy shopping malls in the big cities. Yet, come Christmas, Kargona is like nowhere else in Bulgaria. There are scores of people who would rather celebrate in the streets than stay at home and watch TV, overeat, engage in family arguments or try to mitigate generations-old feuds.

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WHAT'S YOUR AUNT TO YOUR NEPHEW ANYWAY?

Happy families may be alike, unhappy families may be unhappy in their own way, but in Bulgaria all these come with a twist: a plethora of hard-to-pronounce names for every maternal and paternal aunt, uncle and in-law that can possibly exist.

Ask any Bulgarian how their recent family gathering went and the answer will probably sound something like this: "A disaster. My Badzhanak got into an argument with my Tashta, my Strinka showed up with her annoying Vuyna, then my Shurey got completely tanked and my sister was really upset."

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BULGARIAN EASTER

How to celebrate like locals without getting lost in complex traditions

Easter in Bulgaria, which this year falls on 28 April, is one of the best times to get to know the country and its culture. The weather is generally good, spring is in full bloom and travelling outside the big cities is a pleasure.

To make the best of the Bulgarian Easter, you should have some understanding of how do Bulgarians celebrate it.

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TRADITIONAL MUSIC AND DANCE

As you hold this book in your hands, a Bulgarian song travels in outer space. The song in question is "Izlel e Delyu Haidutin," a traditional Rhodope tune sung by Valya Balkanska. It was put on the Golden Record of Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts by Carl Sagan, in 1977, in his attempt to acquaint extraterrestrial civilisations with the Earth's culture. Bulgaria's folk music is incredibly varied and, with its compound metres and irregular times, may sound unusual to Western ears. Some of it, like Valya Balkanska's master opus, is slow and heavy.

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HAIL TO THE SUN

Bulgaria, however, is also the home of a feast that is unique to it yet in the best case scenario is no older than 35 years.

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. Everyone is happy.

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KOLEDARI BRING CHRISTMAS TO YAMBOL

The 45 years of forced atheism and fast urbanisation during Communism, combined with the post-1990 influx of imported traditions via movies, media and merchandise, achieved what would have seemed impossible only 100 years before. Repression and outside influences succeeded in killing the traditional way in which Bulgarians celebrated Christmas.

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THE DAY OF THE COCK

The cock was carefully chosen in the autumn and put on a special fattening diet, and now the proud bird struts around the yard like a king surveying his domain. Its days are numbered, however, because on the second day of February it is going to play the lead role in an ancient ritual.

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THE TRUTH ABOUT ROSES

The Austro-Hungarian archaeologist, geographer and ethnographer Felix Kanitz, who visited Bulgarian lands 18 times between 1860 and 1883, could not complain of a lack of gratitude. His detailed map of Bulgaria was used by the Russian army in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and won him a medal from the emperor. It was also used at the Congress of Berlin in June 1878. Present-day Bulgarian history books and academic works still quote Kanitz's accounts of the Bulgarian way of life and traditions at that time. There is a street in Sofia named after him.

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BULGARIAN EASTER

"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.

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BG MARTENITSA MADE IN CHINA

The only thing that he must have known at the time would have been that he had successfully led his people across the Danube. He had defeated the Byzantine Empire on its own territory and had to deliver the news of his victory to the rest of the Bulgars waiting on the northern bank of the river. He did so by sending a carrier pigeon. But while the bird was still in flight, the Byzantines intercepted it and shot arrows into it.

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KUKEROVDEN

At the carnival in Rio you'll go Ah!, that's certain, while in Venice you'll go Uhm! when you meet the mysterious ladies behind Neo-Baroque masks.

Instead of Ipanema chicks, however, at the masquerade in Bulgaria you'll be confronted by wild, prancing kukeri, or mummers, with cowbells tied to their belts and horns on their heads. However, the sexual charge of the mummers' games is stronger than in Rio or Venice – because it is much more overt.

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BULGARIAN CHRISTMAS

Bulgaria is no exception to the increasingly globalised Christmas, when people deck the halls with green plastic garlands made in China, decorate fake Christmas trees, adorn their front doors with evergreen wreaths and overspend on presents.

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