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Christmas Traditions In Bulgaria

Christmas traditions in Bulgaria - Christmas is a huge celebration in Bulgaria and one that is rooted in religious Orthodox beliefs and pagan folklore. 

During the Communist era, Christmas was not celebrated openly as a religious festival because Communist doctrine barred the following of a religion and celebrations tended to centre around New Year‘s Eve rather than Christ's Birthday.  After the fall of the Communist regime, Christmas was "reinstated" as a religious festival.

The Fast before the Feast

What is known as Advent in the West is a period of fasting for many Bulgarians. November 14th marks the last day of eating meat before the onset of the Koledni Posti or Christmas fasting on November 15th and the period lasts for 40 days. The fasting follows the Old Testament notion of purify the body and mind in preparation for a major feast in the name of God. During this period, you must follow a vegan diet and refrain from eating anything related to animals; this means no meat, milk, Bulgarian yoghurt, cheese or eggs. Pregnant women, children, the sick and the old are permitted to consume milk products and on St Nicholas Day (December 6th) you can eat fish. You are also allowed oil and wine but not on Wednesdays and Fridays. The fast becomes even stricter during the week before Christmas and Christmas Eve is the strictest night of all.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve or Budni Vecher as it is known is the most important day of the festive celebrations. The house is cleaned from top to toe in preparation for a fresh start into the New Year and incense is burnt to banish bad luck and ill omens. Bulgarians then celebrate by inviting friends and relatives into their home for a great feast. In some parts of the country only an odd number of dishes is served, traditionally seven or nine, yet in other areas twelve dishes are served with each one representing a month of the year. In accordance with the traditional rules of the 40 day fast, each dish is usually prepared without animal fat or meat; although young Bulgarians tend not to follow such strict fasts opting more for the omission of more practical things like alcohol and cigarettes. Typical dishes include Sarmi, pitka bread, sweet Banitsa and peppers stuffed with rice and beans. In strict Orthodox homes, the meal is served on a tablecloth placed on the floor, only the family elders are allowed to sit on stools and the rest of the family sit on the ground - the idea being that this teaches people humility. Other people decorate the table with straw to signify the nativity scene.

Bulgarians believe that the mood on Christmas Eve sets the tone for the year ahead. The Banitsa cake served in every household contains a charm, which is said to bring great prosperity for the coming year for whoever is lucky enough to find one. Predictions for the New Year are cast in an amusing manner; in some households walnuts, which are placed in a bowl in the centre of the table are cracked to determine the weather for each month of the year ahead, or whether there will be a wedding or a birth or a good harvest. If the walnut is fresh and tasty the prediction will come true, if it is black and gnarled the prognosis will not be good.

Close to midnight everyone leaves the house to attend mass at their local church. What remains of the Christmas Eve feast is left out in the belief that deceased friends and relatives will come and dine when everyone is away or sleeping.

Christmas Day

Midnight on Christmas Eve the fast ends and on Christmas Day, animal fat and meat is reintroduced into the diet and another grand fare is produced. This meal consists of pork kebabches, kuftetas and dried sausage. Presents are exchanged and in villages across the country, young men dressed in ornately embroidered shirts, fur hats and leggings call at each house to sing songs and bring good luck. The men are known as the Koledari or the Christmas Committee. Some of the men carry a stick to bang on each person's gate and add to the festive din.

Other Christmas Traditions in Bulgaria

During the advent period and right up to Epiphany on 6th January, there are only certain days when a couple can get married in church. If you are Bulgarian and want a Christmas wedding, then you have from December 26th to January 4th in which to do it.

In place of the vegan diet many modern Bulgarians choose to give up a part of daily life like TV, parties, sex, cigarettes or alcohol. It is a very personal choice and reflects their desire to become closer to God.
In many households, the Yuletide log, the nativity scene and ritual bread play a key role on Christmas Eve. The Yule log or Budnik should be a three-year old plum tree, chopped down by a boy who carries it home and sets fire to it. The belief is that it will burn throughout the coming year.