Bulgarian Christmas: Orthodox Christian Traditions

Photo from Zajenata

Denitsa Raichkova/Staff Writer

Christmas is one of the brightest Christian holidays in Bulgaria. The best Christmas feeling is being surrounded by the warmth of your home and your loved ones while gazing at the snowy scenery outside of your window. Christmas in Bulgaria is celebrated in a unique way, in accordance with the Eastern Orthodox Church’s traditions. 

The first Christmas custom is held on St. Ignatius Day, which is celebrated on December 20. According to folk traditions, whoever first enters your house on this day will shape the nature of the upcoming new year. If the first guest is virtuous and hard-working, then the new year will bring prosperity and well-being. If the guest possesses negative qualities, then the new year will have some negative characteristics. 

The next Bulgarian Christmas tradition follows on December 24. The day is known as “Christmas Eve” or “Little Christmas”. Personally, Christmas Eve is my absolute favorite day of the year. My family always goes skiing throughout the day and meets for a traditional dinner. Christmas wouldn’t be the same without snowy mountains and family fun. 

According to old folklore beliefs, Mary went into labor with Jesus on St. Ignatius Day (December 20) and gave birth on December 24. However, she announced it on the next day, as traditionally every mother would do for her first childbirth. Traditionally, the Christmas Eve table consists of meatless and humble meals in odd numbers (7, 9, 11) and is characterized by beans, stuffed cabbage rolls (sarmi), sweet pumpkin pie (tikvenik), oshav, stuffed peppers, zelnik. Red wine is also present on the table. It symbolizes the blood of Jesus Christ. 

The oldest man in the family says a prayer, breaks the ritual bread cake (pitka), and gives a piece to all members of the family who are present at the table, starting with the oldest. It is believed that he plays the role of a bridge to the ancestors. The cake, also called “bogovitsa” is round and symbolizes the cyclical nature of life. A coin is baked inside the bread cake as a symbol of prosperity. It is decorated with dough shapes depicting crosses, a plow, ripe ears, animals or fruits – symbols of prosperity and fertility. Whoever finds the coin inside their bread piece will experience happiness and prosperity during the new year. 

Finding the coin inside my piece of the ritual bread cake gives me a positive outlook on the new year. Even though it is an older tradition, it still brings me joy every year. Seeing a loved one receive the coin also warms my heart because I know they will have an amazing year. 

After dinner, the table is not cleared, since it’s customary to leave the table as it is overnight. Spirits of loved ones are welcome to visit before Christmas morning. I always loved the sentiment of honoring the souls of our deceased relatives. I truly believe they appreciate that we still hold them in our hearts. 

Koleduvane is the third important traditional Bulgarian custom that takes place after midnight. The term “koleduvane” comes from the Bulgarian word for Christmas and means performing Christmas carols while giving blessings. It is a men’s ritual that involves young men and their older leader singing Christmas songs and giving good wishes as they go from house to house. The essence of this tradition comes from the belief that on the night before Christmas supernatural creatures and evil spirits roam around. These include vampires (Romania is our neighbor), goblins and karakonjuli (google it). The songs and dances during Koleduvane have the power to chase them away. The custom has pagan roots, even though it is part of Orthodox Christian Christmas traditions. 

Christmas is celebrated for 3 days. Christmas officially begins on December 25 when Jesus Christ is born. In the early morning of the first day of Christmas, Bulgarians attend festive liturgies in their local churches for health and prosperity. On Christmas Day, a large festive meal is prepared but this time it contains meat, normally pork. A 40-day long pre-Christmas vegetarian fast is finally over. Meat dishes, lavish bread pies with meat or cheese, stuffed chicken, pork, fried meatballs, sauerkraut, etc. are placed on the festive table. Families gather together and enjoy the holiday season while celebrating the birth of Jesus. 

According to popular traditions, the house is festively decorated for Christmas with a Christmas tree, lights, pine twigs, and other winter ornaments. Exchanging gifts on Christmas morning is extremely common but it is not an inherently Orthodox Christian tradition. Santa Claus is part of modern traditions and brings presents for the children. In Bulgarian, his name is translated to “Grandpa Christmas”. American cultural presence is influencing Bulgarian contemporary culture. Nowadays, an American and a Bulgarian Christmas would be almost completely similar. The traditional customs are the only little bits left to make a unique experience. 

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Весела Коледа и щастлива Нова година!


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of PantherNOW Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community

Photo by Zanjenata.bg

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