by Ani Ivanova; photography by BTA

Orthodoxy and the West will never agree to celebrate the Rising of Christ on the same day

easter in bulgaria 2.jpg

How are you going to mark Easter and when? If you are an expat in Bulgaria, you have the opportunity to celebrate it twice. On 12 April you can follow Western tradition by hiding decorated eggs. The following Sunday you can join your Orthodox friends – and between a slice of kozunak, or sweet bread, and a plateful of roast lamb, have egg fights.

No matter which part of the world they are in, Easter is a major holiday for all Christians. This is why disagreement about the date on which to observe Christ's resurrection seems strange. For Western denominations, Easter Day is usually a week before that of the Orthodox ones, but sometimes the two may coincide, or be a month apart. The only certainty is that Orthodox Easter comes after – and never before – the Western one.

There is a long list of people to blame for the confusion.

The whole thing began with the disunited early Christian groups, went on to include several practically-minded priests and the calendar reform of a pope, and stalled, possibly for good, when Orthodoxy decided to calculate the date of Easter using a different system from the West.

Long ago, when they were still persecuted by the Romans, the early Christians did not celebrate Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Who could blame them? The new religion needed a more optimistic message to be able to attract followers in the hostile atmosphere, where even the smallest faux pas could make you a martyr to your faith in some Roman arena.

Christians began observing Easter as late as the end of the 2nd Century. Due to lack of coordination, however, some groups celebrated it on the day of the Jewish Passover, irrespective of what day of the week it fell on, while others did so on the Sunday following it.

When Christianity became an official religion at the beginning of the 4th Century, one of the first tasks of the clergy was to resolve the controversy over the date of Easter. In 325 the First Council of Nicaea decided that Easter had to be observed on the Sunday after the first full moon, after the vernal equinox. This is the main reason Easter became a moveable feast. The full moon does not fall on a fixed date, so the date of Easter can vary by a month.

The church realised this was a problem. So they decided not to use the date of the astronomical vernal equinox, which can be either 20 or 21 March every year. Instead, they fixed an ecclesiastical date by convention, 21 March. Following this rule, Easter is on the first Sunday after the first full moon following this date.

Yet, this does not explain why different denominations mark the holiday on different dates. The answer lies in their separate calendars – an unexpected consequence resulting from the reform of Pope Gregory XIII.

In the 16th Century all educated men were clear that the old Julian calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar in the 1st Century BC, was no longer adequate. Due to inaccurate calculations, it was 11 minutes 14 seconds behind astronomical time every year. At the end of the 16th Century, this error accounted for an accumulated 10-day difference. Gregory XIII took radical measures and introduced a new calendar, causing people to go to bed on the 5th and wake up on the 14th October in 1582.

According to the new calendar, to correct future differences, every leap year at the end of a century that is not divisible by 400 would have a day subtracted, and thus become non-leap. For example, 2000 was a leap year, but 2100 shall not be.
The Orthodox Church, however, continues using the Julian calendar. At present, it is 13 days behind the Gregorian.

To make things even more confusing, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church applies a double standard. It determines its moveable feasts, such as Easter, using the Julian, and its fixed holidays, such as Christmas, using the Gregorian calendar.

There is more to all this. Orthodox Christians make their calculations in such a way that Easter always follows Jewish Passover.

The explanation for this is in the New Testament. It says that Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead after going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.

When the two festivals coincide, Orthodox Christianity moves Easter a week later. Which is exactly what happens this year. Calculations show that both Catholics and Orthodox Christians had to celebrate on 12 April. But Passover falls on the same day.
The blame for this holiday mess should not go to the Bulgarians alone. The Armenian Church observes Easter using the Gregorian calendar and some Protestants, such as the Pentecostal Church in Bulgaria, celebrate the holiday alongside Orthodox Christians.

Easter eggs Bulgaria

A Matter of Eggs

For Christians, they are a symbol of life's renewal. For Bulgarians, they are a lot more In Bulgaria, no Easter is complete without real coloured eggs. This explains the sight of people carrying two or more cartons of eggs in the weeks before the holiday and the egg dyes prominently displayed in supermarkets. It is also a time when the price of eggs goes up and finding them in the shops may become problematic.

Bulgarians need a lot of eggs. There has to be enough to give to friends, relatives and strangers in the church. To boil that many eggs without cracking them, here is a useful tip: put some salt in the cold water.

Tradition has it that the job of boiling and colouring eggs has to be done by sunset on Great Thursday by the oldest woman in the household. She must dip the fist egg in red dye, a symbol of Christ's blood, and draw a cross with it on the foreheads of the rest of the family, for good health.

This egg is put in front of the house icon to protect the household for the year. Then the egg left over from the previous year is broken. If it does not stink, the year has been good, and vice versa. Afterwards the egg is thrown into running water, usually a river. In the country, the first red egg is buried in the fields to safeguard them from hailstorms.

When the first egg is ready, everybody can join in the colouring process. In the past, people used natural colorants. They made red dye from marjoram, orange from sumac, green from nettles and yellow from walnut leaves and onion peel. Today, everybody uses artificial colouring agents, which are dissolved in warm water and vinegar.

For many people, this part of the holiday is particularly creative. Some even draw wax or pastel ornaments on the egg. The old fashion of imprinting parsley leaves on the shell has now given way to that of decorative transfers.

Once coloured, the eggs are put in a basket, where they remain until Easter Day. Sunday morning is always full of excitement, because this is the time when "egg fighting" begins. Everybody in the family chooses an egg and hits the eggs of the other family members first on the top and then on the bottom side. The person whose egg remains unbroken has been lucky to find boreka or boretsa, or the fighter, the egg with the strongest shell, and this will bring him good health and luck throughout the year.

Easter mass Bulgaria


A day-by-day guide ofhow to spend the week before Easter

Vazkresenie or Velikden literally means a "Great Day" in Bulgarian and for this reason the whole week before the holiday is called Velika, or Great. Officially, this is the time when believers re-live Christ's passion. In post-Communist Bulgaria, however, it is more a period for purely practical preparations for the three-day feast. There are strictly fixed tasks for each day. Failure to observe this tradition will bring bad luck.

Great Monday, Great Tuesday and Great Wednesday are assigned for cleaning the house and putting it in order. Great Thursday is the day when Easter eggs are coloured. On Great Friday, or Razpeti Petak, as it is also called, any sort of work is strictly prohibited, although it is officially a working day, of course. Those who are more religious go to church, where they crawl under a table – for good health and to purge themselves of sins.

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 their dead may rest in peace. Nowadays, Great Saturday is more like an extra day to colour eggs on.

It is also when Easter bread, called kozunak in Bulgaria, is kneaded and baked. Half an hour before midnight on Great Saturday Bulgarians put on their Sunday best, take a few eggs and go to church. At midnight the priest lights greets the congregation by saying, Hristos voskrese, or "Christ Is Risen." The answer is Voistina voskrese, or "Indeed He Is Risen." Traditionally, Bulgarians have to use these greetings for the next 40 days, but today few go to extremes.

After an amusing ritual in which the priest drives Satan from the church, he steps out and the congregation follows him with lit candles. 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 still walking around, others are blocked inside, fuming with anger.

When the service is over, people exchange eggs and "fight" with them – they hit each other's eggs trying to break them and 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, the Bulgarians eat eggs, kozunak and roast lamb.


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