Traditional Customs of Bulgaria
Bulgarian state was founded in 681 and up until now it has been one of the few countries in Europe which have kept their ancient name and centuries-old traditions. They are the ones keeping the spirit of a nation. Traditions preserve through the centuries national crafts, beliefs, folklore. A people without traditions is like a man without a soul. Our country has been dominated by many other nations, but has kept its identity due to its traditions. And its cultural identity is truly unique because it combines pagan and Christian holidays and intertwines them into an intricate system of beliefs, customs and feasts. Every significant period in human life is reflected in Bulgarian customs…
Let us start with the very beginning, the beginning of a life…
Usually, an expectant mother does all household and field work, if she can. However, there is often a number of limitations which have no rational explanation – a pregnant woman cannot kill a snake, cannot eat rabbit, cannot kick a cat or dog or stare at icons. The childbirth is kept in secret. The expectant mother secludes herself into a cellar, pen or barn and is not taken care of as fat as comfort or hygiene are concerned. Care is taken if the delivery is difficult – the mother drinks water from the clean hands of her husband. During the first days, the mother and the child are completely isolated after sunset – doors and windows are fully closed to stop any light from the house to permeate. All those protective measures are applied until 40th day. The 40th day is cleansing – the mother goes with the wise woman and the child to a have a pure prayer. The Christening is among the most significant family feasts (10 days after the childbirth).
Engagement and wedding are the two main stages in the customs related to wedding.
The small and big engagements exist almost everywhere. At the two meetings the material requirements of the two families are discussed at length and gifts are exchanged. All engagements are public, with music, feasts, relatives and friends present. The wedding starts long before the fiancée is taken to wife. The brother-in-law, the spiritual parents (krastnitsi) and the sisters-in-law are among the leading figures, together with the young couple. The feasts are opened by inviting the guests with a baklitsa (wooden wine vessel). The dressing up and veiling of the bride are the last things to be done before she leaves her father’s house. Newest clothes and finery are obligatory. Many rituals are related to the bride’s welcoming to the groom’s house. The first intercourse between the newly married is done at night in a special room. Eavesdropping is common in order to guess whether a boy or girl will be conceived. The end of the intercourse is announced with rifle shots, the bride’s gown is publicly shown and blaga rakiya (mulled brandy) is drunk. The bride is unveiled and her wreath is taken down early on Monday.
Death and Funeral Customs
The belief in the deadly omens is very strong. People are convinced that one’s destiny is predefined at birth but the end of life will come unannounced. Windows and doors are opened, plates are turned upside down, mirrors and pictures are covered. The body is washed or at least cleaned and basil is put in the water “for nice odour”. Eyes should never be left open – it is a sign of another imminent death. The dead man is dressed in clean clothes, usually new, and is shrouded by a white cloth in which he is believed to appear before God. Putting money into the dead man’s pocket so that he buy himself off from the hereafter is common practice. Death is announced by infrequent tolls of the church bell. The dead man is mourned loudly by his relatives. They wash their hands to clean off the bad leaving the graveyard and reaching home. A treat is given on the grave on the 40th day. The clothes and conduct of the relatives express the mourning. Mourning women wear black clothes, black head clothes and no adornment.
Fire Dancing – Nestinarstvo
All the actions – from preparing of the feast to the ritual circling of the village with the icons of Konstantine and Elena and the nestinary tupan (drum) – are designed to chase away illness, to ensure health and rich crops for the people and to cleanse them from sin.
The nestinarstvo is known around the Eastern borders of Thrace. Until the Balkan war, it was spread in most villages in Strandzha Mountain.
Nowadays, the custom is observed in the village of Bulgari, Michurin region and in the village of Novo Panicharevo, Bourgas region.
The Nestinary are famous for their dances and walking into the fire. On the break of the day of the feast the priest serves a holy liturgy. In the evening a fire is set with dry firewood prepared in advance. After the fire is shoveled, the nestinary start shaking, go into trance and enter one by one into the fire with the special nestinary music playing. Whoever enters first, takes the icon and dances holding it. The nestinary dance into the fire for not more than two minutes. Sometimes, during the fire dance, the nestinary predict what will happen to the village or to a person who does not honour St. Konstantine. Sometimes the dances are continued the following evening.
During New Year and Zagovezni (Shrovetide), special rituals take place in Bulgaria called Kukeri games. In the Kukeri games participants are only men who put on special masks everyone makes for himself. Most of the masks have wooden construction. Multicoloured threads are attached to it, as well as multicoloured cloths, little looking glasses, shiny pieces and other elements. The masks representing rams, goats and bulls are considered most ancient. The effect of the masked kukeri is strengthened by the sound of the copper and tucheni (bronze) bells hanging from their clothing. The colours of the decoration are also symbolic. Red is predominant – a symbol of the fertility of the newborn nature, of the sun and of the fire; black impersonates the earth and the mother goddess and white is the symbol of water and light. The Kukeri games seek through processional dances and scary masks to scare and ward off evil spirits and witches and ensure rich crops during the coming year.
Lazarouvane is a poetic maidens‘ custom performed during the first half of spring. Maidens come in lively lazarski ornate costumes to express by old tradition good wishes to people’s labour. Lazarouvane is an ancient custom.
On this day the maidens adorn themselves. They show themselves to the people of the village on the square and around the houses as a sign that grooms can come for them already. The parents of young lads also come out on that day to see which maiden to choose for their sons. The lazari group visits all the village people to bring health to every house. One the road the lazari sing. They sing for the ploughman, for the shepherd, for the blossoming spring, for the health in every house. They wish that the beehives grow and new lambs are born into the sheep pen. They sing their ritual songs and play processional lazari hora (traditional dances). Those songs and dances are honouring the feast of youth and of the small child – the messenger of new life.