Bulgarian Christmas Folk Traditions
Interwoven in the fabric of the Christmas folk tradition are the legends of Christ’s Nativity and an earlier myth of the Sun God. Ritual meals are arranged over straw on the floor echoing Nativity of Christ in the manger. Along with family members a symbolic seat at the festive dinner was provided for Virgin Mary. At the same time a ritual loaf was laid on the table with the name Bogovica dedicated to Sun God. In traditional beliefs, every year he regenerates on Christmas to visit humans on Christmas Eve descending on the boughs of the tree of life with its peak piercing the sky and its roots deep into the earth. The symbol of the tree of life is the yulelog in the hearth. Burning throughout Christmas Eve, the yulelog sends its powerful energy to the reborn Sun. This universal circuit gets in motion to produce a rich harvest. The abundant crops are depicted on the Bogovica ritual loaf. With its oval shape and other sun symbols, bread signifies fertility and wellbeing: generous fields and vineyards, as well as healthy and numerous livestock. The host ritually breaks up the bread handing pieces to each family member. This ritual is the inception of the festive Christmas Eve dinner. Vegetarian meals laid on the table accomplish the symbolic presentation of fertility – corn, beans, red peppers stuffed with rice, onions, garlic, walnuts, fruit and red wine. The more the dishes arranged on the table, the richest the new harvest, traditional beliefs prescribe.
And also that once the whole family is seated at the table, nobody is allowed to leave it.
Christmas carols echo in the air at midnight. At this point male carol-singers or waits in groups start their tour of the village. In the hours of secrecy preceding dawn they acquire magic powers and emerge as priests of wellbeing. With their vivacious ritual songs they bless the community for fertility, health and good times.
The Christmas carol-singers or waits follow a pattern that is generally observed nationwide. However, there are variations in the carols’ melody and lyrics. In some regions the waits do not sing – they only dance during their village tour. Older men know local Christmas rituals best. In their youth tradition was fully intact. Thanks to their generations the memory of Christmas rites saw a revival in the second half of 20 c. Now old men hand tradition down to the young.
Expressing hopes for better life Christmas rites build a stronger and happier community. People involved come into touch with God, Heaven and Earth harmoniously merged in the Universe.
About one month before Christmas this is the time called “Great Fasting”- the time when we eat no meat. That’s because we want to purge our bodies and souls for the greatest holiday of the year. Christmas Eve is the end of the Great Fasting. On Christmas Eve all the family has dinner together. The hostess prepares nine meals without meat. Some of them are: beans, vine or cabbage sarmi (vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice), stuffed peppers, pickles, walnuts, apples, honey, ushaf round bread etc. The stuffed peppers could be prepared with rice or beans. According to the old tradition the peppers before being stuffed are dried on the sun. The pickles are made of vegetables- carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, small peppers, garlic, and celery, tinned in special sauce of vinegar, oil and salt. There are always walnuts for everyone in the family on the table. To predict what the year is going to be, everyone cracks a walnut. If it is good and delicious, the year is going to be lucky, if the walnut is empty- you can expect bad year. The ushaf is a traditional Bulgarian meal. It is prepared by boiling dried fruits. Each hostess bakes round bread. We put a silver coin in it for luck. The oldest man in the family gives a piece of the bread to everyone. Who gets the coin will be lucky during the forthcoming year. An old Bulgarian tradition s not to clear the table till dawn comes. It is believed that the souls of the dead members of the family come back. On Christmas Eve the great fasting finishes and we can eat meat again. Usually most of the Bulgarians eat pork steaks, kebap, sausages and other meals. The kebap is prepared by cutting in small pieces the pork stewed with onions and pepper. The sausages are made of home made minced pork. Christmas is the time when we think not only what meals to prepare but also how to purge our souls and open our hearts to charity and sympathy for those who are poor and hungry.