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New Year Masquerades

Bulgaria is rooted in folklore and traditional celebrations and the Bulgarians love their masks and costumes. In mid January, parts of the country celebrate the dawn of the New Year with singing and dancing with the largest festival being held in Pernik, near Sofia. The Pernik Festival known as the Surva Festival attracts dancers and performers from all over the country and continues over several days as ornately masked performers scare away evil spirits to welcome in the New Year.

 

Surva Dress Code

The Surva Festival originates back to old pagan customs. Performers and dancers dress in clothes made from animal fur and wear large, frightening masks made from papier mache, brightly painted and decorated with fierce looking faces representing animals or miserable old men and women. The style of the masks varies around the country; in the Southwest Bulgaria the masks are handmade from the bird feathers, horns and animal fur, usually from goats. A lot of imagination goes into the mask making and today some of the masks can weigh up to 20 kg, they are so heavy and unwieldy that they have to be strapped onto the wearer so they don’t fall onto the spectators. As if the weight of the masks was not enough, performers also wear lots of differently sized copper bells, from enormous cowbells to small tinkling bells. The cowbells tied onto belts around each performers waist add to the weight of each costume, but the performers still find the strength to shake them with a vengeance to scare away spirits from the dark side. Some of the dancers do not wear the heavy fur costumes and instead dress in white shirts and a mix of Bulgarian national costumes.

Ritual Dances

The ritual dances play a significant role in the festival and date back to the country’s pagan past. Most importantly they are performed all to replicate the perpetual fight between good and evil. Each dance aims to scare off evil spirits and to bring to life the good spirits ready for the onset of the farming season in March. Each dancer has a specific role to play and many of the dances represent scenes from daily life, whilst some of the dances represent birds in flight.  The dancing is performed in the main square and in the villages, the performers visit each house and perform a ritual to banish evil and in return the householder gives them food and drink.

A Growing Event

The winter masquerade customs take place all over the country at various times of the year and under a variety of names. They are also playing an important role in attracting tourists to Southwestern Bulgaria to witness these events, which for the most part have died out across the rest of Europe. The festival in Pernik attracts around 40 groups of performers from 13 different countries including Ireland, India and Slovenia, as well as 90 groups from across Bulgaria. Many villages in the area also hold their own Surva festivals. The towns of Radomir and Razlog in Southwest Bulgaria also hold impressive festivals at this time.


A Festival by Many Names

Whilst the performers at the festival in Pernik are known as Survakari, in some parts of the country they are called Mechkari, which means bear keepers or Startsi, which translated means old men. The festival is also held in some parts of the country during March instead of January and is known as Koukeri. The principle is the same although Koukeri is more of a welcoming of the new agricultural season, which brings fresh food and fertility.  

In Eastern Bulgaria the tradition is known as Shrovetide or Zagovezni and takes place just before Lent. The masks in these celebrations are closer to human faces rather than scary animals and the celebration focuses on the spring rather than the start of the year. Masques in these areas are made from textiles decorated with beads, ribbons, tassels, braids, and sequins. Some completely hide the face whilst others are more like hats. Dances in these regions are also different and focus on the tilling of the land.

 

Pictures courtesy of  Nenko Lazarov www.imagesfrombulgaria.com