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Palm Sunday, Bulgaria’s Tsvetnitsa

Palm Sunday is a popular Orthodox holiday in Bulgaria known as Tsvetnitsa, it often falls a week later than in the West and this year it will be celebrated on Sunday, 8th April. In true Bulgarian style, there are many Christian and folk traditions and customs associated with this event, which is called ‘the Day of Flowers’ in Bulgarian.


The Religious Meaning

The Orthodox Church celebrates the arrival of Christ in Jerusalem. As we know from Western Christianity, he had raised Lazarus from the dead six days earlier and as word of his miracles spread people gathered in Jerusalem to welcome him. People were so in awe of him that they laid their clothes and green blossoming twigs on the ground for him to ride over and they called him Messiah and waved palm leaves and shouted "Allelujah! Blessed who comes in the name of God!" The celebration represents one of the twelve main feasts of the holy year and marks the start of Holy Week and the day before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus’ Day.

The Difference in Names

In the Orthodox Church and in some Catholic churches across Europe, people take green budding twigs and pussy willows to be blessed by the priest. Palm Sunday is also one of the major feast days of the Orthodox calendar. Most European countries call this day Palm Sunday, but some call it Willow Sunday because of the lack of palms and abundance of pussy willows taken for blessing. In Bulgaria it is Flower Sunday, although some people do call it Vrubnitza, referring to the willows. Its name of Flower Sunday comes from the time when the Bulgarian Orthodox Church used to be governed from Constantinople, where they used to bless and give spring flowers like lilac and elder to the faithful.

The Bulgarian Celebration

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, people pick willow twigs ready to take to the church service to mark Palm Sunday; in Bulgaria the services begin on the Saturday evening and the church is decorated in green. The twigs of each member of the congregation are blessed and sanctified with prayers. The priests also give more willow branches to the congregation, which they take home and keep all year to bring good health and heal sick members of the family. Bulgarians also believe that the blessed pussy willows will keep evil from the door and for this reason they are placed at the back of the icon picture, which represents the home. After church some people cook boiled mutton, (despite it still being the fast period of Lent), which is seen as a donation to God to thank Him for the good health of everyone in the family.


Palm Sunday

Anyone whose name is that of a flower, plant or tree celebrates Palm Sunday as their name day and in Bulgaria, this accounts for one in ten people. Popular names celebrated are Tzviatko, Margarita, Lilia, Violeta, Yavor, Zdravko, Zjumbjul, Nevena and Temenuzhka. For Sunday lunch everyone serves fish, which is allowed during the fast. In some parts of the country, the blessed willow twigs are woven into garlands and flowers are collected for posies, which they used to hope, in the past, would one day become wedding bouquets.  Some of the men wear willow twigs around their belts because it is thought they will make them strong. Animals are taken to the fields wearing willow twigs and willow leaves are given to the hens with their grain to keep them healthy. Some people stick the twigs in the ground in the garden to ward off ground moles. Songs about flowers telling of their competition to bloom first are also sung at celebratory parties on the Sunday. Many people get up early to dig, water and plant their gardens with flowers. In the olden days, if there were stormy skies, people would hold a willow wreath to the sky and pray for the bad weather to pass.