Christmas Traditions in Bulgaria
Christmas is almost here and while we are still shopping for gifts, we could barely wait for Christmas eve, meaning that we are mostly excited about all the delicious food, so carefully prepared especially for the night! Most people are excited about the gifts exchange, but we must admit that they come second. Foodies problems, huh. We’ve already shared the most important facts about Easter traditions, so we thought that now is the perfect time to tell you about the Christmas traditions in Bulgaria.
As in almost every Christian country, we also have a Christmas tree, presents and the belief that if we have been good throughout the whole year Santa will bring us the best gifts. Well, at least kids believe in that until they grow up and realize that sometimes it is more fun to be naughty!
All the dishes served on Christmas eve (here we call it “Badni vecher”/ “Бъдни вечер”) should be without meat as it is the last day of the Christmas fasting. The dishes on the table should be an odd number – usually 7, 9 or 11. Each number is symbolic – for example 7 days of the week, 9 months of pregnancy. They could also be 12 which is an exception because it is in honor of the 12 months of the year hoping that they would all be full of blessing as are the dishes on the table. Every dish has a special meaning as well including honey for a sweet life, red wine for long and healthy life, fruits for prosperity.
The table shouldn’t be cleaned at the end of the dinner but left in the same way with the dishes on it for the whole night waiting for the birth of Christ. Another belief is that this tradition honors the people that has passed away. The already deceased family members and relative will join the dinner later and feast on the dishes.
Our favourite traditional Bulgarian dishes like stuffed peppers, sarmi and beans are the first dishes to put on the table. “Sarmi” is a dish that consists of sour cabbage or wine leaves stuffed with rice, vegetables and sometimes meat. The stuffed red peppers usually have beans filling, but it could also be rice. Grandmas carefully prepare the peppers since the summer so they are delicious and sundried.
Sour cabbage is not only popular in Germany. Here we have it with beans or with rice. Our personal favourite is “zelnik” – a pastry-like dish made out of filo dough and sour cabbage. It is warm and soft and can be the perfect breakfast or lunch by itself as well.
The traditional bread that we call “pita” or “pitka” takes a central part on the table and often has a coin hidden in it and the one to find it will be wealthy throughout the whole year ahead. The oldest person on the table or the man of the house is usually the one to break the freshly baked bread and give a piece to everyone. The first piece is kept for the house, the second goes to Mary and the rest is divided between the family. The bread is decorated with fruits and birds made out of dough and symbolizing the abundance and prosperity in the home and the life of the people in it.
Baked pumpkin with honey and walnuts is the perfect dessert for this feast! But you can also try “tikvenik” – a pastry made out of filo dough filled with pumpkin and walnuts and generously powdered with cinnamon. Another staple on the table is the boiled wheat. It is topped with honey or caster sugar, cinnamon, nuts and raisins.
When it comes to drinks two special options stand out. One of them is “kompot” – fruits like strawberries and raspberries are conserved in the summer in jars with sugar and water to create a sweet juice for the long winter months. Another way is to use dry fruits and water to make something between juice and tea, especially for the Christmas eve.
After all the delicious fasting is over, Christmas finally arrives on the 25th of December. Preferably with tons of snow and a hot chocolate to wake you up in the morning. It is time for all of you meat lovers! Pork is usually the main ingredient on the table, oven baked and accompanied with sour cabbage or again sarmi, this time filled with rice and meat. Some families prepare a dish called “Banska kapama” that consists 2 or 3 kinds of meat (pork, beef, chicken) and the side dish is sour cabbage again. We sure love it here around Christmas!
And if that’s not enough of a gluttony you can always top it with Grandma’s cookies.
Traditionally, Christmas eve is the time you share with your closest family members. On the next day, we have a Christmas lunch or dinner when we gather with all the other family members and relatives.
Time for presents! Each family has a different tradition but presents are exchanged either at the morning of 25th or the evening of 24th. If there are kids in the family, they are usually surprised at the morning of Christmas (25th) with gifts, chocolates and money under the Christmas tree.
A special ritual called “Koleduvane” brings some extra joy with Christmas songs. It is our version of Christmas carols. Taking part at midnight between 24th and 25th, this tradition involves only young unmarried men dressed in traditional costumes who form groups and go from house to house visiting relatives and neighbors and singing songs. It is believed that from midnight to the morning, they are chasing the bad spirits and demons by wishing luck, health and prosperity with their songs!
On the 31st of December Bulgarians together with the rest of the world celebrate the upcoming New Year with lots of music, drinking, tasty dishes and gatherings with friends. Colorful fireworks in the sky, music concerts in the center of the city and a folkloric music and dances at midnight. Yes, we have a tradition to dance Bulgarian “horo” – a typical dance where people come together, hold hands and dance in a row.
On January the 1st another tradition takes place – “survakane“ is when a kid takes a cornel branch decorated with wool, dry fruits and popcorn and lightly pats the adults on the shoulders with it while singing songs for prosperity and luck. The adults, on the other hand, give the kid some money and candies.
We love to celebrate as much as we can, so the Christmas celebrations last from 24th until 27th. Some of the days are also called “name days” where we honor our friends who are named after specific saints. Here in Bulgaria, apart from birthdays we also celebrate name days. Basically, it is another reason to meet with friends, drink and get presents. So if you are named after St.Stephen, for example, then you have an extra celebration on 27th of December! Hooray! These days are spread throughout the year but in December and January there is a high concentration of reasons to celebrate.
Bulgarians are mainly Orthodox Christians and to be honest not that religious anymore. But tradition is still a tradition, even when you are keeping it only because of that. After everybody wakes up, families head out to their local church and attending the mass together celebrating the birth of Jesus and the light and love of the holidays.
There are some older Bulgarian traditions, that nowadays are rarely being kept and mostly can be observed in the villages, like getting out in the cold along with the “koledari” (the fellows who keep us safe all night long chasing bad spirits) to dance and sing folkloric music.