First sunday before lent (Sirni Zagovezni) (a movable date, it depends on the cycle of the Easter holidays)
According to the official church canon the period of the Easter fast continues for seven weeks. Bulgarians call the first week of the fast "sirnica", "sirni pokladi" or "proshka" (forgiveness), because the Orthodox religion allows the consumption of buuter, cheese and eggs. The consumption of meat stops the previous week known as Mesni (meat) Zagovezni.
The Sirni Sunday is rich with rituals. Before lunchtime the newly marreid go visit their first witnesses and elder relatives - parents, brothers and sisters, friends. They kiss their hand and ask forgiveness, because in the evening when they sit on the table they should have reconciled and taken forgiveness from their relatives. "Forgive me!" - that is what the young peole say when they bend to kiss the hand. "May God forgive you, you are forgiven!" - the elder bless. In the evening the whole household gathers around the table, full of fishmeals, cheese and eggs pasrty, milk and of course white khalva. The youngest members of the family are eager for start of the traditional "hamkane" or "lamkane". They sit on the floor, making a circle. The grandmother ties a piece of the khalva, a piece of cheese or of a boiled egg with a red woollen thread. She ties the other end of the thread to the ceiling beam or to her distaff. Then she swings the khalva around the sitting children who keep their hands behind their backs. Each of the children tries to bite the swinging tidbit with its mouth, which turns the ritual into a noisy and funny game. Then the grandmother sets the thread on fire and by the way it burns she predicts if the year to come will be fertile. The ashes from the burnt woollen thread are kept as a remedy. After dinner the men go out into the yard and shoot with rifles announcing the beginning of the Great fast.
Very important things in the tradition are the putting on of big bonfires and the jumping over them in which the main participants are the bachelors and the elder boys. During the whole "sirna week" they gather branches and corn leaves which they carry to the high places outside the village. They pile the branches and the leaves around a high pike and they put the head of a rooster that has been slaughtered during the Mesni (meat) Zagovezni on top of the pike. The young people from different nieghborhoods compete with each other and try to make the highest piles. In the evenuing of the Sirna Sunday they set the bonfires on fire and they have different names in the different parts of Bulgaria - "oratnici", "olelii", "kurkovnici", "oidelelii" or "urbalki".
In Strandja the lads carry big wicher baskets with burning straw in them on pikes. That is why the tradition is also known as "Pali kosh" (burn the basket). They have made in advance by themselves special kinds of arrows made of hazel and cornel tees. The arrows are called "chavgi", "chilki", "pernici" or "susamnici". They are shot away with the help of a split hazel tree - "mashalgan". The arrowa are set on fire and directed by the lads to the home of the lass they love. The action is accompanied by phrases that sometimes get a little too cynic: "If you, old man, don't give me the lass I will set your beard on fire!" The bachelors and the boys jump over the fire and play around it until the morning comes. This is done to protect the house from fleas, the summer from rain and for a fertile year. In the evening when the bonfires are burning everyone goes out to the square for the last boys-and-girls horo. To make the hemp and the other crops grow tall the peole play the horo wildly and bouncy. Horoes are not allowed to play until Easter, during the Great fast.
Ritual table: Fish meals, cheese and eggs pastry, milk and white khalva.
Second sunday before lent (a movable date, it depends on the cycle of the Easter holidays)
The second Sunday before lent (Meat Shrovetide) is always celebrated on sunday 8 weeks before Easter. This is the last day until Easter when meat dishes are served. And here the name of the day comes from. Traditional dishes for this day are pork meat, chicken, cheese pasty(banitca). Fest and different games are organized all week long until the first Sunday before lent because after this day they are stricktly forbidden. On Saturday before the holiday a mass called "Great All Soul's Day" is celebrated. Also a common memorial service is held. In memory of the dead cheese, eggs ans wheat are served.
Bodorodichni Zagovezni (The Virgin Mary's Shrovetide) - 30 july
The Virgin Mary's fast is two weeks long and ends with the big Christian holiday the Assumption, known to the Bulgarians as Goljama Bogoroditsa or Goljama Chjorkva (big church). According to the tradition the Mother of God is honored as a patron of families, children and natality. That is why at the day of her holiday women decorate the icon of the saint with flowers and put gifts - clothes, shirts and money. This is done in order for the women to get pregnant and give birth easily, for the health of the young mothers and the children. Women give each other decorated ritual breads and loaf. The day which is in the middle of the Virgin Mary's Shrovetide is called Transfiguration of God (Sotirovden). According to the tradition the first ripe grapes are picked on this day. It is carried to the church to be sanctified by the priest. Afterwards the women give away the grapes along with some other fruit, which is done for health and wellbeing.
All soul's day
That day honors the souls of relatives that have passed away. Usually All Soul's Day is before The second Sunday before Lent, St. Spas' day, St. Dimitar's day or St. Michael's day. In some regions that day is celebrated on Christmas, St. Todor's day, St. George's day or Virgin Mary's day. According to the tradition the relatives of the deceased visit their graves, pour vine and incense on them. Afterwards they treat the people that are present with boiled wheat and food and they say "May God forgives them".
Lent is a forty-day period before Easter. Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. Lent originated in the very earliest days of the Church as a preparatory time for Easter, when the faithful rededicated themselves and when converts were instructed in the faith and prepared for baptism. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days. Lent has been observed in the church since apostolic times.
The last day before Lent (called Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, or Fasching) has become a last fling before the solemnity of Lent. For centuries, it was customary to fast by abstaining from meat during Lent, which is why some people call the festival Carnival, which is Latin for farewell to meat. The Great Lent always begins on Clean Monday, the seventh Monday before Easter, and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday—using of course the eastern date for Easter. The Lenten fast is relaxed on the weekends in honor of the Sabbath (Saturday) and the Resurrection (Sunday). The Great Lent is followed by Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, which are feast days, then the Lenten fast resumes on Monday of Holy Week.
According to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, this period of time is known as the Great Lent, and Sundays are not skipped when counting. So, Lent begins on what is known as "Clean Monday," the seventh Monday before Easter, and ends on the Friday before Palm Sunday.
This is a custom that can be seen only in some villages between Strandzha and the Black Sea, around Bourgas. It is observed on the holiday of St.Konstantin and Elena , and sometimes on some of the local village fairs and the church/patron saint's days. A basic element of the custom is the dance in fire ( glowing embers). The whole village takes part in the celebration but it is only the fire-dancers that participate in the ritual dance. They are chosen by the saint who is patron of the holiday. The dancers are able to "see" his face, to "hear" his voice and his spirit is transferred in them and on his behalf they can interpret omens , give advices and scorn people.
Fire-dancing is inherited. Only the head fire-dancer is the one to pass the strength and inspiration to the other fire-dancers. Head fire-dancer could become only the son or the daughter of the present one and only if he is either too old or after he has passed away. The head fire-dancer house is s sacred one because there is the so called "stolnina" or "konak"/"rasting place",which is a very small chapel where the icons of st.Konstantin and Elena are kept as well as those of the the Virgin Mary , st.George , st.Pantaleimon , and some wood-cuts from the Holy Sepulcher and red pieces of cloth decorated with a sun. There is also the sacred drum which sets the beat of the dance. It is also believed that the drum has magical powers and it can sure the one who carries it if he happens to be ill. This drum is not to be used in any other case.
On the very day of the holiday after the service in the church, the people make their way to the "konak" led by the head fire-dancer and the priest. There the head fire-dancer censes the icons and the other fire-dancers and passes to them the spiritual strength and inspiration of St.Konstantin. They start beating the drum and play a special fire-dancing song on a pipe. Some of the fire-dancers get "caught" (a state of religious trance) and start dancing with the saint's icon in their hands. After that everyone sets off for the spring which bears the name of the saint and there they set up a big feast with prepared at home boiled mutton. After sunset they all return to the central square where they build up a big fire around which they play a horo to the accompaniment of the pipe and the drum. When the fire goes out and turns into glowing embers , the fire-dancers start dancing on them. The fire-dancer dances bare-footed on the embers and while he is dancing he may see and foretell the future.
Mummers, Kukeri (Mummer's games)
On New Year's Eve and Zagovezni in Bulgaria special rituals called Mummer's games take place. The Mummer's games are performed by men only. They put on special masks hand-made by each of the participants.
Most of the masks are constructed by wood. Different colored threads are glued on it as well as pieces of multicolored fabrics, mirrors and other shiny elements. The masks representing a ram, a goat or a bull are considered the strangest. Their necessary part of the Mummer's games proves the thesis that the origin of the mummer's games is connected to the ancient Dionysius' games. The impact that the masked mummers make gets even bigger by the sound of the copper and bronze bells that hang on them.
Some of the masks have two faces. On one of the sides the nose is snub and the face is good-humored and on the other the nose is hooked and the face is ominous. Those masks symbolize the good and the bad which coexist in the world and are inevitable. A very important thing for the symbolic of the masks is the color of the decoration. The red is the most used one - a symbol of the fertility of the reviving nature, of the sun and the fire; the black color embodies the earth and her goddess mother and the white is a symbol of water and light.
The mummer's games aim to scary and sweep away forever the evil spirits and the weird sisters with the help of the special magic dances and the scary masks, so that the crops for the next year are rich.
In some villages in the night before New Year's Eve the ritual "camels" is performed. The supply of the ritual requisite is among the most important things in the preparation. The main thing in the ritual is the ancient idea of reincarnation and that is why the mask is very important as a main characterizing component. In an exquisite way the masks show a great craftsmanship and fantasy. They are carefully saved and are refreshed each year. There is a tradition in the choice of specific materials as well as in the faces, the symbols and in the way the masks and the clothes are made. Each epoch brings a new character in the ritual.
"The camel" is made of two willow trees each a meter, a meter and a half long. They are put together in both their ends with two small perpendicular wooden sticks. The two willow trees are also put together by a few bent hornbeam or cornel-tree sticks. The skeleton is covered with a caparison. The head of the "camel" I covered with a piece of leather or weasel fir. They also put bells on the front side and on the back side of the "camel" and a tail on the back of it. The camel is carried by a young man dressed in a national costume with white socks, black strings around the socks and sandals. The young man should be healthy and strong so that he could play the camel and beat other "camels".
There are men called "dividzhii" dressed in coats with the firry side turned inside out. They have leather belts around their waists with bells on it. They put a mask on their heads. The mask is made of frieze decorated with colorful threads, ribbons and laces. They have a wooden sword in one of their hands and a mace in the other. In the past only unmarried men were allowed to take part in the ritual, but nowadays married men can participate as well.
After the Christmas singers go out in the yard the "dividzhii" and the "camel" called Mary come out and start playing. They talk a little and do different rituals. The people that participate in the rituals should not be recognized by the other people in the village so that the year is fertile and the games are successful. The masks gives them the opportunity to do things that otherwise might seem inappropriate. The masked men jump, jingle with the bells, roll on the ground, sharpen their swords with the frieze and make jokes. They rock and fall on the ground to represent the weight of the ears of corn. They roll on the ground to gain power from it so that they are healthy. The jingle of the bells chases away all the bad things. The bells are always used in different rituals in all cultures as protection from magic.
"The camel" falls on the ground and the dividzhii start sharpening their swords saying: "my camel comes a long way and it needs money for new shoes or otherwise I'll have to kill it". The host gives a piece of sausage and some money. The "dividzhii" put the shoes on the camel by holding the frieze to its foot and hitting it with the sword. But the "camel" is still on the ground because it's sick and needs medicine - a piece of meat so it can get better. The dividzii rub the meat against the animal's body and it gets on its feet. This "death" followed by "reincarnation" symbolizes the death of nature during the winter time and its coming back to life in the spring time. The ritual murder which is often seen in carnival games could be seen as an act of magic.
The visit to all the houses in the village is made only at night time, because they should not see the sun when they are outside. After they have gone around the whole village the Christmas singers, the "dividzhii" and the "camel" gather together on the meadow early in the morning where all the people from the village have gone. They entertain them with games and dances. They jump high so that the crops are tall, jingle the bells and wave their swords and friezes. The camels separated in two groups fight each other and the results of the fight show how good the New Year will be. They believe that if blood drops on the ground the year will be fertile. The ritual ends with a big horo in the centre of the village. They make a feast with the food and the money they have gathered during the carnival.
In the plays and the dialogue between the masked men you can sense grotesque and parody and if the participants are good actors the plays can be not only entertaining but aesthetic as well.
In the night before St. Vassil's day the troop goes from house to house making jokes with the hosts. They receive money and bread. During the visits whenever they meat people on the streets, strangers or people gathered for the show the mummers make comic and even cynical jokes and play different games. The spectacles joke and tease them all well. The parade is noisy and funny. The games are full of joy, conflicts, different costumes and persons, comical plays and improvisations. It is a real national celebration full of freshness, humor, satire, a theatre in the open in which both the spectacles and the people making the games are performers. Laughter has special magical powers so people laugh to influence the flora and fauna. Quite often the function of magic is full of theatric elements. That is why a lot of researchers think that the mask games are in the beginning of theatre itself.
The Laduvane takes place on the New Year's, St. George's day, Midsummer and St. Lazar's day.
With this ritual the young girls foretell who the lad they are going to marry will be and ask Lada, the goddess of love and marriage to show them what he will be like. On this day the girls bring water from the spring or the well in a white cauldron. This water has different names depending in the day in which the ritual is performed - quiet, untouched or colorful. After they bring the water the girls gather in a house and each of them leaves her ring or a bunch of flowers with a ring around them, or a bracelet in the cauldron. They leave the cauldron under the roses or some other kinds of flowers during the night under the stars. In the morning one of the lasses or a young child dressed as a bride takes the rings and the flowers out of the water and the rest of the girls are singing short songs. They sing about a fore-coming marriage, happiness in the marriage, social status and qualities of the future husband: "a ripe and over-ripe quince" (the girl will be old when she gets married); "alone you are on a stone" (she will marry an orphan); "a yellow veil gathers splinters" (the girl will get married). Each girl takes some oats from the cauldron and puts it under her pillow. They believe that whoever the boy they dream about that night is that will be the one they are going to marry. Their health during the next year is foretold by whether or not the water is freezing in the cauldron. The celebration ends with a big horo.
The pregnant woman is defined as difficult, heavy, not empty, full, in a situation, etc. Until it is not obvious the pregnancy is kept in secret because it is believed that if people know that in the first days and months of the pregnancy the women can easily loose their babies.
The pregnant woman usually does the entire house and field work if she can but there are also a lot of forbidden things which aim to make the birth easier, ensure a normal pregnancy, the health of the woman and the child. Those restrictions usually lack in rational explanations - the pregnant woman should not kill a snake, should not eat rabbit meat, should not kick a cat or a dog, should not look at an icon for a long period ( in some places this restriction has the opposite meaning - the woman should look at icons so that the newly-born is beautiful), etc.
In many parts of the country it is considered that the pregnant woman brings bad luck, that is why she should not jump over the thill of the cart (this would be dangerous for the oxen), the hunters do not bring their game in her house because their rifles may go bad, etc. In other regions she is considered a bringer of happiness and luck.
The woman who has given birth is called - a woman in child-birth, a lying-in woman and a young mother and the birth - gaining and yield. The act of giving birth was kept in secret. The pregnant woman is isolated in a basement, a sheep pan or a barn and no one takes care of her as it comes to comfort and hygiene. They take care of her only if the delivery is complicated - the woman drinks the water that her husband used to wash his hands and a tea from a special herb. When she gives birth at her home the navel string is cut with a reaping-hook by the grandmother (who helps in the delivery of the baby) and the first diaper is the shirt of the father.
There is a common fear that on the third day after the birth the young mother may be overrun by navjatsi. The bed is encircled by a rope as a protection from the navjatsi, a broom or some onions are left nearby, the place is incensed, etc. The mother and the child are completely isolated after sun set - the doors and the windows are closed so that no light could come out. All those precautions are taken in the next forty days.
The mother and the child are considered to be under the protection of the Mother of God (she stands nearby during the delivery) and there is a ritual to knead bread for the God's Mother.
The newly-born is first put over the fireplace so that it grows healthy. The next thing is the breast-feeding (a sieve that has bread and onions is held over the head of the mother and two loaves of bread are put under her shoulders so that the child could always be well nourished). They put herbs that bring health, a silver coin and an egg in the water of the first bath. A typical thing is the putting of salt over the baby on the third day after its birth, done so that its sweat will not smell bad.
The young mother is considered unclean and that is why she does not touch the fire, she should not go near water springs or wells should not wash the diapers for some time, should not knead bread for a month after the birth. It is believed that if something is taken out of the house that has a newly-born in it the milk of the mother may get dry.
One of the solemn after-birth rituals is the so called second bread.
On the fortieth day after the birth the mother goes to a purging prayer along with the child and the grandmother.
It is believed that the weird sisters come on the third night after the birth - the fortune predicted by them could not be swept away.
The baptizing is among the most important family holidays (ten days after the birth). The ritual takes place in the church and the most important people are the grandmother and the god-mother.
There are rituals connected to the different important moments in the life of the child up to the years of its wedding - the first tooth, the first step, the first work that he does by himself, etc.
Baptizing, holy baptizing
The baptizing is the first sacrament that welcomes to Christianity every person who has decided to join the group of the religious. The cross that the priest puts over the baptized shows he has to accept all the challenges patiently. The three tours that he makes around the baptismal font show the joy of the unification with the faith. The lock of hair that the priest cuts off shows that he becomes God's servant. The lightened candles that everyone present at the baptizing is holding symbolize God's enlightenment.
The sacrament of the baptizing is done only once and therefore it is as unique as the birth itself.
The choice of the person who is going to lead the new Christian to the faith is very important. He becomes his godfather and is considered as a spiritual father of the child. Along with the parents he takes care of the child and is supposed to guide him to a righteous life. These are the people that bring a big white towel, a white cloth for cleaning the face and a soup for the ritual. For the health sake of the child the parents bring bread, candies and cookies into the temple.
The godfather gives his godson a little gold or silver cross which is consecrated during the ritual and has to be worn the whole life as a symbol of the Christian faith.
Life cycle: Marriage, Getting married, Wedding
The Bulgarian national wedding is one of the most symbolic and traditional celebrations and the different customs show the centuries of history and the specific Bulgarian lifestyle and culture.
The matchmaking is very important in the wedding. Matchmakers go from the house of the groom to the house of the bride-to-be late at night. The late hour of those visits is connected to what Bulgarians consider formality - the house of the lady should keep its good name even if the answer of the lass is negative. The matchmaker shows what his intentions are by closing the door with his back turned to it, and then he sits next to the fireplace and starts poking the ashes. Usually the parents do not agree on marriage from the first visit of the matchmaker that's why they should come at least twice. As soon as they reach an agreement they start treating themselves. This treat is called "tavern" and is considered as a confirmation of the agreement. The young couple receives blessings and good wishes for a long and happy marriage. Another important thing is the wedding ring that bride-to-be gets during the matchmaking.
The wedding continues with a number of traditions in the lad's or the lass' home. In the lass' home the preparation of the wedding breads starts. The wedding breads are not only made for the purpose of feeding the guests but also as symbolic images which have magical effect on the future of the couple. They put one of the lad's rings and one of the lass' bracelets in the flour. The parents of the girl who prepares the bread should be alive. The wedding breads have a lot of beautiful images in relief. They are called "the best man's bread", or "the bride's bread", or "wedding bread", or "dove's bread" because of the images of birds on it made by dough.
The wedding banner is made either in the bride's or in the groom's home or in both of them at the same time because the two homes are getting united by this marriage. The banner is white or red or both with a flower, a golden apple on top and a bunch of basil bound together by a red thread. People believe that those objects are magical powers that they give health and well-being and protect from magic. The handle of the banner should be cut off with one strike only so that there is only one marriage for those people. In some regions the bride decorates a small wedding tree which she gives to the best man receiving a bribe in return.
An important part of the wedding is the combing of the bride's hair which symbolizes her becoming a married woman. This ritual comes from the ancient Slavs and the hair that freely goes down the shoulders represents freedom. The Slav girls wore their hair down and did not cover it with anything and after the wedding they braided their hair which meant that they are no longer girls but women. The process of undoing the braids, washing the hair and braiding it again takes place at the day before the wedding and that is the last night of the girl in her father's home. The replacement of the woman's kind of braiding with the girl's one is closely connected to the sexual act in the groom's house. That's why during the combing the atmosphere in the girl's house is gloomy. Her friends try to persuade her not to give up her maidenhood.
The ritual that corresponds to the girl's combing in the groom's house is the shaving. It is done before he goes to take the bride from her house. This is a big celebration symbolizing the end of his celibacy. During the shaving a cloth is held under his chin so that all the hair goes in it and gets protected from spells. After this ritual they all go to take the bride. The yard door or the door of the house of the bride is always closed when the groom comes to take her. To be let in he has to fight with the bride's brother or to solve some difficult tasks and sometimes even give some money.
Before the groom takes her out of the house the bride covers her head with a thick red cloth so that he could not see her face. When she comes out of the house everyone sings a song for goodbye:
"А pine is bending over,
A girl is saying goodbye to her family:
- Good bye, family
Good bye sweet mother
You held me under you heart
For nine months
And on your arms for three years!"
In the groom's house the mother-in-law welcomes the bride with bread, butter, honey and salt. She is considered the new woman in the house that is going to take care of the household. The bride has to put a tree in the fireplace to become part of the new home. In the morning the bride goes outside under a fertile tree and takes the cloth away from her head and puts it on the tree. On the first day of her marriage she starts doing the house work and in this way becomes a part of the new family life.
After all the wedding ceremonies are finished the young people are officially considered a married couple that starts its own life.
There is ritual that after the death of the ill man a certain kind of bread is prepared and is eaten, in health's sake, by the people attending the funeral. It is believed that it is after that when the soul goes out of the house and starts making circles around the chimney. After that another kind of bread is prepared - a well-done one, it is eaten as well and after that the soul starts for its long travel. The windows or the doors are usually open, the cups are turned upside-down and the mirrors and the portraits are covered with a cloth.
The body is washed with soap or just water with basil in it "for a good smell". The eyes should necessarily be closed or someone else may die as well.
The dead man is dressed in clean clothes, usually new ones and is covered with canopy - a white cloth; it is believed that in this canopy the dead man appears to the God. The dead lads or lasses are dressed in wedding clothes.
There is a common belief that in the grave the dead men have the same needs as the living ones and that is why apples, bread and dry fruit are put in it. A common ritual is the putting of money in the dead man's pocket, a ransom for the next world.
There are a lot of rituals done to protect the dead man from becoming a vampire - a cross, garlic, an icon or incense are put near the body. The announcement of the death is done by the toll of the church bell. The dead man is loudly wailed over. It is considered a fearful and wrong thing to not wail over the dead man.
Everywhere the dead man is put in a coffin (a box, a trunk). Before the dead man is taken out of the house his relatives say their last good-byes to him. The cemetery is usually near the village and the grave is called the house or the home of the dead. Everyone that attends the funeral tosses some dust over the coffin and says: "May he rest in peace" or "God rest his soul" . When leaving the cemetery or when they arrive home the relatives wash their hands so that they wash away the bad.
A cross put over the grave on the head's side. A table is put on grave on the fortieth day. Other commemorations are done on the third and on the ninth month as well as in the first and third year. The mourning can be seen in the clothes and in the behavior. The mourning women wear black clothes, black head clothes and wear no jewelry.