In search of Christmas: Spending the holidays in Bulgaria
|Christmas in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo: SetTimes.|
Each year during Christmastime, I begin a new journey "In Search of Christmas" to discover how Christmas is celebrated in various regions of Europe and to bring these Christmas tidings to you! This year, my Yuletide chronicles take us to the eastern-European nation of Bulgaria to uncover their time-honored traditions. Unlike most European countries, Bulgaria is not known for its festive Christmas Markets [yet], but there are fascinating customs observed here as I have recently discovered in an impromptu interview with a resident and new friend, @Kristian_Mitov. It all started with a simple question on Twitter, "has anyone celebrated Christmas in Bulgaria?" Kristian replied "many times." At that moment, those two words spoke volumes to me and I knew he was going to be able to open a new window into the world of Christmastime in Bulgaria. I must admit I had a lot of fun talking with him especially when some of our exchange got lost in translation as you'll read below. Join me as we discover the sights, the sounds and the flavors of the holidays in Bulgaria.
|Bulgarian Weihnachtsmarkts or Christmas Markets are finally catching on throughout this Eastern Orthodox nation. Photo: IrinaYakimova.|
Before we get started, let me introduce you to Bulgaria. Perched on the western shore of the Black Sea and smack dab in the heart of the Balkan Peninsula, Bulgaria is an Eastern Orthodox nation known mostly for its mountain hiking and Black Sea beaches in the warmer months, and its skier's paradise in the wintertime. Plus there is much history to discover here in its portfolio of churches, monasteries, Roman ruins and museums, not to mention the Eastern Orthodox traditions celebrated of which I knew a little bit about until now.
Christmas traditions in Bulgaria
Back to my interview. My first question to Kristian was how do Bulgarian Orthodox people celebrate Christmas? To my surprise, Kristian replied that Easter is a much bigger holiday in Bulgaria than Christmas but he emphasized "that there are many cool Christmas Eve traditions." I then asked if Bulgarians followed the Gregorian calendar with Christmas falling Dec. 25 or the Julian calendar with Christmas falling Jan. 7. As it turned out, Bulgarian Orthodox follows the Gregorian calendar and so the celebrations commence Dec. 24.
The honor of hosting Christmas Eve rests with the eldest Grandmother and families gather for a feast consisting of an odd number of "fast-food" dishes with no fewer than seven. "Fast food," I asked? Of course I immediately thought of McDonald's but Kristian explained that "fast food" is "fasting" food with no meat, cheese or dairy being served for the 40 days leading up to Christmas. What do they eat? Delicious looking homemade round breads, bean soup, stuffed peppers and pumpkin cake round out most of the dishes served.
Kristian also added that Christmas Eve is known as "Badni Vecher" in Bulgaria because of a special type of wood burned in the fire place called "Badnik." He later added that if I really wanted to celebrate a traditional Bulgarian Christmas, I should find myself a grandmother living in the mountains who has been cooking for the entire day. Doesn't that sound inviting?! And as I found out, I should do just that since most, if not all restaurants will be closed for the holiday.
|Kukeri festivals are celebrated throughout the Balkans. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
"Kukeri" festivals are celebrated throughout the Balkans where the residents don their holiday best, or rather frightening looking costumes with wooden animal masks and bells around their wastes, and march or dance down the streets to scare off the evil spirits. They also bring good harvest, health and happiness to all the people. Mostly seen under the cover of night, they visit people in the homes first and later gather in the squares to dance.
|Balkan residents transform into "kukeri" to fend off the evil spirits. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
|Koledari carolers travel at midnight on Christmas Eve to spread the word of Christ and wishes for peace, health and happiness. Photo: Bashkiria.Bulgaria.wordpress.com.|
But Kukeri are not the only ones visiting the residents to spread holiday cheer, for there is another, the "Koledari." The Koledari carolers are young boys who travel from house to house at midnight on Christmas Eve to spread the word of Christ but also to spread wishes of peace, health and happiness to all. Not only do they bring tidings of good joy, but gifts of food in the shape of round breads, similar to bagels, carried at the top end of a stick called a "gega." Speaking of Koledari, the newly established Christmas Market in Sofia since 2009 is known as the Koledaria and is held in Borisova Gradina Park.
Dyado Koleda or Santa Claus
|While under Communist rule, Dyado Koleda became the secular Dyado Mraz (Grandfather Frost). Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
And finally, the jolly old man in the red suit, aka Santa Claus, is known here as Grandpa Koleda or Dyado Koleda (Grandfather Christmas). While most of the Santa traditions are similar, there was a time during communist rule when Dyado Koleda was secularized into Dyado Mraz (Grandfather Frost) without the attached Christian traditions, and this new version of Santa became quite popular with the communists. Instead of delivering gifts under the cover of night on Christmas Eve, Dyado Mraz ventured out during the day where he could exchange greetings with the little ones. Not until 1989 did the Bulgarians welcome back Dyado Kodeda.
Not-to-be-missed places in Bulgaria
|One of the most popular winter destinations in Bulgaria is the Bansko Ski Resort. Photo: Mathatbat.|
When I asked Kristian where residents and tourists visit during the holidays, he mentioned that the main attraction is skiing in Bansko or Sofia. But there are a few other places to visit as well.
|Pristine trails await in Bansko. Photo: Rat1.|
Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
|The Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia dates back to 1882. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Named after the Russian prince Alexander Nevksy and dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral dates back to 1882 and is the cathedral church of the Patriarch of Bulgaria. Not only is it one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world, it's the second largest on the Balkan Peninsula after the Saint Sava in Belgrade. Once inside, Saint Alexander's interior will take your breath away with its lavishly decorated interior spaces covered in Italian marble in practically every shade and color. Be sure to look up at the interior of the central dome where you'll find the "Lord's Prayer" inscribed in gold. Remarkable!
Located on the outskirts of Sofia, The Boyana Church, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is part of a compound that consists of three buildings with the first dating back to the 10th century. Inside, 13th-century frescoes decorate the interior spaces and comprise one of the most significant collections of medieval art today.
|The 10th-century Rila Monastery was founded by Saint Ivan of Rila but built by his students. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Also on the UNESCO list, Bulgaria's largest and most famous monastery—the Rila Monastery dates back to the 10th century as well. Founded by Saint Ivan of Rila, a hermit who lived in a cave nearby, the Rila Monastery was actually built by his students who came to the mountains to study.
|Baroque Bulgaria is alive and well in Old Town Plovdiv. Photo: WikiMedia.org.|
Welcome to 17th-century Baroque Bulgaria! Built in the 19th century, Old Town Plovdiv is a living museum of more than 150 houses comprise that comprise an architectural collection of buildings from the National Revival period or the Bulgarian Renaissance which took place from 1762 to 1878. It was during the Revival when Plovdiv emerged as as a major economic center and with that, came the wealthy merchants who designed and built elaborately decorated homes which grew more whimsical as the Revival period got underway and the lavishly ornamented with marble, bay windows, Turkish baths and ornate furnishings.
I hope you enjoyed this Christmas journey into Bulgaria and learned something new or discovered that you too share a similar custom or tradition in your homes during Christmas.