TAILLESS CATS AND MADMEN MAKING POLITICAL DEMANDS

by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Gabrovo carnival is unapologetically critical to the establishment, and fun

gabrovo carnival 2.jpg

Descendants of millennia-old rites, the scary kukeri, or mummers, are the best known face of Bulgarian carnival tradition. Gabrovo's carnival is its modern face: fun, critical, and colourful.

It usually takes place in the third weekend of May and is a part of an international festival organised by the Gabrovo city council and the town's House of Humour and Satire, probably the only museum in the world dedicated to... fun.

Some troupes make fun of international "leaders of the world"...

Gabrovo's carnival starts when the mayor symbolically cuts the tail of a Gabrovo cat, a nod to the local lore claiming frugal locals used to cut off their cats' tails to reduce the time needed for a cat to enter the house – in order to save heat. The Gabrovo cat is also the carnival's mascot and can be seen all over on logos and promotional materials.

The carnival procession lasts for several hours on Gabrovo's central street, and includes floats, groups of masked children from the town and the countryside, brass bands, guests from abroad and individual participants.

... while others mock locals' often eccentric demands from politicians

Gabrovo's carnival has deep roots. Its original incarnation, Oleliynya, was celebrated in the 19th century at the beginning of Lent. It included Bulgarian traditions such as bingeing on sweet and fatty foods, and dancing the horo when everyone was allowed to ignore the established rules that strictly regulated which people of what sex, age group or marital status could dance together. After 1878, when Gabrovo became a powerhouse of Bulgarian industry and European influence intensified, Western traditions were introduced.

The Communist coup of 1944 put an end to Oleliynya. It took the people of Gabrovo 20 years to revive their carnival. In 1965, the carnival returned to town – but changed in accordance with the new times. The carnival was on a new date that had nothing to do with religion and the old traditions. Satire was allowed as long as no one made fun of the Communist Party.

Nevertheless, the event became extremely popular as, like a true carnival, it served its main function: to provide some relief from the daily grind.

In 1990, Gabrovo's carnival disappeared again. This time it was the hardships of Bulgaria's transition to an open market economy and democracy that put the event on hold. Gabrovo, similarly to most other towns in the country, suffered from economic crises, unemployment and emigration.

The carnival was revived in 1998 with EU funding, and has been growing stronger ever since. Preparations for it begin long before the actual event, and a special workshop spends weeks designing and building the thematic floats. Satire reigns free and participants eagerly mock local, national and international politics, trends, fashions, morals and problems. No one is spared – from Bulgarian politicians whose names and shenanigans hardly ring a bell to foreigners, to international leaders like Vladimir Putin, Joe Biden and Donald J Trump. Thousands of visitors from the city and all over Bulgaria watch, drink, laugh and have fun.

This year's Gabrovo carnival is on 18 May. Its theme is Make Carnival, Not War.

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