December 24 – Бъдни вечер – Budni vecher: Christmas Eve or Small Christmas.
December 25 – Коледа – Koleda: Christmas.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Christmas season starts on November 15 and continues until December 27, Saint Stefan’s Day.
A more unusual “cleansing” is the removal of bad spirits. To accomplish this, the female head of household walks around the home and yard with burning incense, to chase those spirits away. This tradition began long ago when people believed unseen beings lurked in dark corners. By ridding their homes of both dirt and spirits, families can greet the new year clean and full of positive energy.
Christmas Eve. The year is coming to a close. It’s a time of festivity for Christian and non-Christian alike. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Budni vecher marks the end of forty days of fasting from meat to purify both body and soul. In preparation for the holiday, families thoroughly cleanse and tidy their houses, because on Koleda, Christmas, traditional beliefs prohibit sweeping, washing, cleaning, and any kind of household work. An old superstition says that even sewing isn’t allowed, to prevent family members from going blind.
Other traditions people perform on this day also have special meanings. Among these are cutting a budnik or Yule log, selecting food for the evening meal, and blessing families with incantations and songs.
~ Origins ~
People in antiquity believed the winter solstice brought beginnings, rather than endings. Up until this date, the Sun was a dying god, his light shining less each day. On the solstice, however, the Sun was reborn as a new god called Mlada Boga or Young God, and daylight once again increased.
Various religions celebrated the solstice in their own way. In the third century A.D., Emperor Aurelian combined these celebrations into a single festival called the “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” observed on December 25. Eventually, the early church designated this day as the celebration of the birth of Christ, and “Young God” came to refer to Jesus rather than a pagan, or non-Christian, deity.
During the solstice, people in antiquity believed the heavens and Earth were at their closest points and merged, renewing natural energies. With the release of this power, vile spirits and the souls of the dead had free rein to mingle with people. These unsavory beings desired to bring chaos to the world by preventing the return of light, that is, the rebirth of the Sun God. People therefore performed rituals to protect families and crops.
~ Rituals in Practice ~
Instead of describing each ritual in detail, we invite you into the home of a fictional family, so you can celebrate with them. Let’s now meet Maria and Georgi, who live in Emona, a small village in Bulgaria along the Black Sea. They have two children: eight-year-old Nikolay, whom everyone calls Niki, and his fifteen-year-old sister Rada. You’ll also meet Baba Marta, Georgi’s mother, who lives with the family. The children adore her, and love to listen to her stories. And we can’t forget the children’s puppy, Balkan. He’s a Bulgarian Shepherd, also called a Karakachan.
Early in the morning, Rada makes a fortune bread. She mixes flour into the wet dough with a spoon, then glances at her mother who’s sitting at the kitchen table. “Did you used to make the pitka when you were young, before you were engaged to Dad?”
Maria looks up from writing on slips of paper. “Yes, I always started the dough. My mother told me that having the yeast’s fermentation on my hands ensured everyone in the house could eventually have children.”
“I thought that’s why you touched the fruit trees with the dough.”
“True, we do that so women can conceive, but the ritual ensures our land stays fertile, too. It’ll make sure our apple and plum trees have plenty of fruit, our garden has lots of vegetables, and the grapes in your father’s vineyard are fat in the fall.”
Rada continues mixing the dough. “I like making this. Maybe I can do it all next time.”
“That would be helpful. I have to finish the bread today, but you can make the tikvenik later.”
“Sure.” Rada adds more flour to the dough. When it’s firm enough to knead with her fingers, she says, “You can take over now, Mom.”
“Thank you. I’ve finished writing the fortunes for the pitka. Will you wrap them in foil?”
“After I read them. I want to see which one I might get.”
Maria trades places with Rada and works the rest of the flour into the dough. She sets it aside to rise, then goes outside. Rada joins her.
With the sticky dough still clinging to her fingers, Maria touches the fruit trees in their yard and prays, “Lord, please give us a bountiful harvest this year.”
“Is asking God’s help part of the ritual?”
“No, but it doesn’t hurt. Before you were born, every time I did this, I asked Him to let me have children.” Maria grins at Rada. “And here you and Niki are.”
Once inside, Maria cleans her fingers, then kneels at the fireplace. She grasps a hot coal with tongs and drops it into a pan on top of tamiyan. The fragrant scent of incense fills the room. She carries the pan to the next room. Niki tags along, clinging to his mother’s apron as she walks through each room.
He looks into dark corners and pushes smoke toward them. “Are you sure this will chase away bad spirits?”
She pats his head. “Yes. You can sleep well tonight and think about what St. Nicholas will bring you tomorrow.”
Satisfied she’s cleansed the house, Maria heads back outside where more spirits linger. Niki scrambles from window to window, watching as his mother walks around the house. When she returns, he rushes toward her. “Mom, I saw black shapes running away when the smoke got near them.”
“Really?” She arches her brows, then places the incense on a low table, where the family will eat the evening meal. “I hope I got rid of them all.”
In the forest, Georgi carries an axe over his shoulder. He looks for a young, straight oak. Last year, he felled an apple tree that no longer bore fruit. He trudges toward an oak and walks around it, inspecting the trunk. “Yes, this will do,” he says. He chops it down, but doesn’t allow the section he’ll use as a budnik, or Yule log, to touch the ground, so its magical power doesn’t seep into the soil. At home he carves a small hole into the trunk’s long side with a chisel and hammer. He leaves the trunk on the porch and goes inside to relax before finishing the ritual.
When the sun sets, Georgi prepares the budnik. He pours incense, oil, and wine into the hole. Then he plugs it, wraps it in a white cloth, and brings it inside. Upon entering, he calls out, “Do you glorify the Young God?” To which his family replies, “Yes, we glorify the Young God. We welcome him.”
Georgi removes the white cloth, then places the log into the fireplace with the plugged end on top.
Niki comes over and sits on the hearth. “Can I help?”
“Sure. You can take the plug out, while I get matches to light the budnik.”
Niki grasps the plug and yanks on it until his father returns. “I think it’s stuck.”
“I guess I put it in too tight.” Georgi wraps his hands around Niki’s. The two pull together until the plug pops out. He hands his son a match. “You can light it.”
Niki peers into the hole, then sniffs it. “It’s like what Mom burned earlier. Will this keep spirits away, too?”
Georgi chuckles. “No, it’s to make sure everyone stays healthy. When the budnik burns, it sends energy toward the sun. In return, the sun protects us.”
“Isn’t the sun already hot enough? It doesn’t need more energy.”
“It’s a different kind of energy. The budnik’s fire symbolizes the sun’s heat, light, and ability to ensure life. We let it burn all night so its energy helps with the sun’s rebirth at the solstice. You can ask Baba to tell you one of her stories about the sun being reborn every year.”
Maria inserts the foil-wrapped fortunes into the pitka when the dough has risen, then she places the pan into the oven. Soon its mouth-watering aroma drifts throughout the house. While the bread bakes, Rada removes filo dough from the refrigerator for tikvenik, a pumpkin banitsa. Maria gets the ingredients to make sarmi, stuffed grape leaves, and oshav, boiled dry apples and plums.
Niki rushes over, with Balkan behind him. “Let me help, too.”
Maria points toward the cupboard. “You can get mixed nuts, honey, apples, plums, and dried fruit, and put them into the dishes on the table.”
He rubs his finger over the colorful design baked into the clay bowls. “These are the ones you bought in the market this week.”
“That’s right. We all got something new for the house, so we’ll have good luck.”
Niki retrieves the requested items, and eats a few nuts while he pours them into the bowl. He counts the dishes for the feast, starting with the ones he placed on the table. “One, two, three, four, five.” He looks at Rada rolling up the tikvenik log. “Six.” Then he turns toward his mother and counts the sarmi and oshav. “Seven, eight.” And finally he looks at the oven and breathes in deep. “Nine.” He points at each item, counting them again. “Only nine this year?”
“No, silly, twelve,” Rada replies as she ruffles his hair. “I’ll take out red wine, olives, and garlic later. We used to have only seven or nine before Baba moved in, but you were too young to remember that.”
“Why does it matter how many we have?” Niki pops more nuts into his mouth.
Maria answers from the sink, where she’s washing grape leaves. “We make sure we have seven, nine, or twelve dishes because those are special numbers. Seven is magical, nine is how many months a baby grows, and twelve signifies the months of the year.”
Niki peeks into the oven when Rada checks the bread. “The dough grapes on top of the pitka are so golden. Why do we have grapes on top anyway?”
“You have lots of questions today,” she says. “That’s what Dad does for work. Since he grows grapes, we decorate the pitka with them.” She places the bread on top of the stove to cool. “Farmers decorate theirs with ploughs, like your friend Yordan’s family. My friend Helena prefers to have a cross and other religious symbols on top.”
Niki sticks his nose close to the bread. “Mmm. I love this.” He moves out of the way when his sister puts the tikvenik and sarmi into the oven. “And both of those, too. Next year I want to help.”
“You can help now by telling Dad and Baba we’ll be ready in about half an hour.”
“Can I help Dad with the straw?” He jiggles from foot to foot.
“Go check,” Maria says. “I think he’s resting in his room.”
Niki dashes away, returning moments later, handfuls of straw clutched close to his chest. “I’m helping Dad!”
Georgi and Niki spread the straw in front of the hearth. Over the straw, Georgi sets a sinia, the low, wooden table Maria had placed the incense on earlier.
“Dad?” Niki sits on exposed straw. “Why aren’t we putting the cloth down like we did last year?”
“It was too difficult for Baba to get up from sitting on the floor. Remember?”
Niki puts his hand over his mouth to stop the laughter because Baba enters the room. He kisses both her cheeks when she sits in her rocker. “I know why we put straw on the floor.”
“You do?” She pretends she doesn’t know why. “Please tell me.”
“It’s because Jesus was born in a stable.”
“That’s right.” Baba rocks in her chair. “And do you know what we do with the straw afterwards?”
“Umm, burn it around the fruit trees?”
“Not quite. Your dad will scatter some under the fruit trees, and burn the rest in the vineyard.”
Niki looks at his dad, then back to his grandmother. “Why does he do that?”
“He puts it under the trees so they’ll produce more fruit, and he burns some in the vineyard to protect the grapes from hailstorms.” Baba leans forward and motions for Niki to come closer. She whispers, “And do you know what your mother did when she had you in her belly?”
“No,” he whispers back.
“She lay on the straw before your father took it away, so you’d be born healthy.”
Niki stares at his mother. “Mom, is—”
Maria puts her finger to her lips. “Niki, you can help set the table. Everything’s ready.”
He skips over and picks up the nuts, eating another one.
When they finish setting the table, everyone sits on three-legged wooden chairs.
Georgi breaks the bread into chunks, wraps the first piece in a white cloth, and sets it aside.
Niki reaches for it. “Can I have that one?”
“No,” his father says. “That’s for the entire household.” He breaks off two more pieces and
places them on a plate. “This one’s for God and the Virgin Mary, and the other one is for Balkan.”
“Balkan can’t eat it.” Niki pouts. “Why does he get a piece before me?”
“He has to have a fortune, too. You can eat his piece later if you want.”
“Yes, I do.” Niki smiles.
Finally, Georgi passes a piece to every family member, beginning with Baba, then Maria, Rada, and finally Niki.
Niki smashes his piece, looking for the foil-covered treasure hidden inside. “I hope I get the coin so I’ll be the luckiest one this year.” He unwraps the foil and sighs. “Nope. It’s a fortune. ‘You will grow tall and strong this year.’ Yeah! I’m going to be as tall as Dad.”
Baba breaks in. “Did anyone get the coin?”
Everyone says, “No,” at the same time.
Niki wiggles in his seat. “Can I check the others, pleeeease.”
“Go ahead.” His mother hands him the plate. “Check the house one first.”
After he tears it apart, he shouts, “The coin’s here. Yeah! We’re all going to be healthy and lucky this year. I’m going to eat this piece and save mine to put under my pillow.”
Baba puts her hand on Niki’s. “I hope you have a wonderful dream. Budni vecher dreams are certain to become reality.” She winks at Rada. “And perhaps you’ll dream of a nice young man.”
“Baba, no! If I do, I’ll have to marry him this year, and I’m not ready for that.” Rada blushes. “I still want to participate in the lazaruvane this springand wear flowers in my hair, and all the other fun things we do on Tsvenitsa.”
Balkan whines, nosing in between each person.
“Someone should let the dog out while we eat.” Georgi looks at Maria, who arches her eyebrows.
“What?” she says. “You know we can’t get up once the meal’s started. Only the head of household, and that’s you.”
He chuckles. “Of course. We don’t want to chance having bad luck.” He stoops as he walks toward the door.
Niki tugs on his grandmother’s sleeve. “Baba, something’s wrong with Dad.”
“Nothing to worry about.” She smiles at him. “It’s customary to walk bent over if we have to leave the table. It represents heavy grains of wheat on the stalk. We do it to make sure the harvest is plentiful.”
When the family finishes their meal, Niki says, “I’ll help clean up.”
“Not tonight,” Maria says. “We leave food out all night so our ancestors’ spirits can eat their fill.”
“But …” Niki purses his lips. “I thought you got rid of all the spirits.”
“Yes, dear, I did. The bad ones. Our ancestors are good spirits, who protect us, not harm us.”
The Koledari Blessings
Later that evening, Niki’s friend Yordan Dimitrov stops by with his father Adrian. “Niki, I’m so excited to be in the Koleduvane procession this year. Are you?”
“Yes.” Niki puts on his jacket, then grabs his traditional folk costume from the chair. “Let’s go. Bye, Mom, Dad, Baba, Rada. See you later.”
They say their own good-byes and wait for the carolers to return.
“Our little boy is growing up.” Maria sighs.
“At least it’s no longer an initiation rite,” Baba says. “He’s not ready to go out on his own and start a family.”
“No, but my little warrior thinks he has the power to battle spirits that bring winter’s cold.”
Soon after midnight, the parade of boys and bachelors makes its way back to Niki’s house. Niki and Yordan walk in front, shouting, “The koledari are coming,” as loud as they can. They swing their carved walking sticks, which are decorated with flowers and popcorn. Several ring-shaped buns dangle around the top of their staffs. The bags at their sides are stuffed with coins, walnuts, bacon, sausage, and cheese that they’ve received in return for blessings they’ve given at each home. The men also carry a baklitsa, a small, wooden flask of wine, used on special occasions.
As the leader, Adrian knocks on the door and is the first to enter. He raises his baklitsa and recites a blessing: “Health from God. Merriment from us.” Then he drinks a toast.
The koledari gather around him and sing, “Welcome us. We sing for you, dear hosts. We are kind guests visiting. Kind guests, koledari.”
They sing other traditional songs and recite incantations about health, well-being, and happiness for both the house and its occupants. Maria and Georgi give each of them gifts, which the singers add to their nearly full bags.
After the koledari say good-bye, Niki runs back inside as his father is about to close the door. He wraps his arms around his mother and quickly says, “Bye, Mom!” He rushes to catch up with the other singers, who are proceeding to the next house to give their blessings and receive more gifts.
Supplemental Chapter Material
~ FUN “FACTS” ~
Did you know…?
Spirits cannot cast spells using bread and wine because these items symbolize the body and blood of Christ. In fact, these sacred items frighten demons.
Did you know…?
Budnik ashes and embers possess magical healing powers. Scattering them over fields ensures crops are plentiful, and mixing them with feed makes livestock healthy and fertile. In some villages, people sprinkle ashes in a hen’s nest hoping the bird will lay more eggs.
Did you know…?
Cracking a walnut and finding plump meat inside means you’ll be healthy and successful for the year. But, beware, if it’s shriveled, you’ll suffer illness and have bad luck.
To learn more about Bulgaria and its customs and rituals, visit our website:
A rare insight into Buglarian customs and traditions and, like me, there is no need to be religious to find it interesting. 🙂
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So many of the rituals of modern religions were based on pagan beliefs. The Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic, did less to weed them out because they were so ingrained into the beliefs of the people. Instead, they re-defined them.
This is so fascinating. I like the way the rituals are put into context with a fictional family. Makes me realise how bereft of meaningful rituals we are in this culture. A satisfying read and a window into a different way of life.
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Bulgarian rituals are a mix of many cultures. They have many of the Slavic beliefs like their neighboring countries, but the rituals also go back further to the ancient Thracians. Those are the ones I find even more fascinating.