Bulgarian Folklore throughout the year
A trip to the Balkans in general and Bulgaria in particular is not complete without exposure to Folklore. If there is something that the people of the Balkans have excelled at throughout the ages, it is music, dance, singing, rituals and festivals, masks and costumes. In this context, it is important to note that Balkan Folklore has deep roots in the past, ever since humans were hunter-gatherers and lived in harmony with nature.
With the agricultural revolution, the connection between humans and natural life was damaged to some extent and the replacement was rituals and events marking the blooming of flowers, the changes of seasons, cycles and times of the year. In other words, the rituals and festivals were tools in processing and anchoring the natural energies, which in the past were more available to humans due to their wanderings and their connection to nature and the seasons. The rituals and festivals were associated with the growth and ripening of plants and the life cycles of animals.
With the monotheistic religions taking over Europe, the ancient pagan beliefs disappeared and even this alternative connection with nature was severed. Add to that the industrial revolution and life in artificial conditions that the cities offer, and we will understand how the harmony between humans and Nature was disrupted. But in the Balkans, the ancient tradition of festivals and ceremonies was preserved, finding a home within Orthodox Christianity.
This is the reason why we can find in Bulgaria a unique system of Folklore, customs and celebrations throughout the year, which takes place in the following order: on the shortest day of the year, the Koledari songs take place, at the beginning of January – the water and ice ceremonies Take place, in the height of winter between the end of January and the beginning of March, there are spectacular festivals of masks and costumes The Kukeri and Survaki, at the beginning of spring Baba Marta (“Grandmother March”) brings the tradition of Martinitsa, and with the coming of Easter we have the fire ceremonies, before Easter young girls observe the tradition of Lazaruvane, Easter is associated with the coming of spring and the revival of the earth, after Easter comes a time of celebration The Shepherds of St. George and the ceremonies of the month of May, and at the beginning of June the ceremonies of the Anastanari are held.
In general, the annual cycle of rituals and Folklore in the Balkans revolves around two main events: one is the shortest day of the year, when there are rituals performed mainly by young men to drive away the forces of evil and enable a new beginning, rituals that link to Christmas and the feast of baptism – the epiphany (Baptism). The second is the spring associated with Easter, where there are rituals performed mainly by young women who are ripe to grow and nurture the energy of the New Year.
The musical instruments characteristic of Bulgaria in particular and the Balkans in general are the Kaval, a shepherd’s flute with three parts made of wood, the Gadulka, a violin with one string, the Gaida, the flute of the large type in the Rhodope Mountains and the small type in the Balkan Mountains, and a drum called Tapan ). Of all of them, the flute is considered to be the most typical instrument.
There are instruments related to specific regions, such as the Tamboura, a kind of mandolin that appears in the southwest of Bulgaria – the region of Macedonia, the Zurna, which is a trumpet that appears only in the Pirin Mountains, the small bagpipes that are characteristic of the Dobruja region, and more.
Today, other instruments such as the accordion, clarinet, trumpets, guitar, violin, double bass, as well as drums that have entered Folklore since the 19th century, especially in the regions of Bulgarian Macedonia and Sofia, are often used.
The absolute majority of Balkan dances in general and Bulgarians in particular are called Horo and are done in a circle. The Horo is somewhat reminiscent of the Israeli Hora, during the dance the People hold hands and move counter-clockwise, sometimes leaving the hands and turning independently and then coming back and forming the brotherhood.
There are also dances that are danced in a line or in a semi-circle, as in the ancient ceremonies. The Bulgarians hold hands or hold each other’s belt while dancing, so there is mutual support and they feel as one body. Dances of this kind were a means of supporting the community and the feeling of “togetherness”, especially in times of distress, but also aimed at creating a sense of sharing and an expression of joy.
The Koledari are groups of young men who go from house to house, sing a special song and bless the owners of the houses. The word Koleda in Bulgarian means “Christmas”, the bands sing a song to every visitor to the house, and even to the chickens and goats, in the days before Christmas.
The young boys sing Koledari songs and sift wheat kernels, bless and receive candy and pocket money, similar to Hanukkah money. They search the house for demons, shout, and jump, hit the floor and dance the Kolo.
For the most part, the Koledari are future grooms of the village or City. Sometimes, they are the ones who are supposed to enlist in the army. They go from house to house with wooden sticks and beat the floor while singing. The leader of the Koledari gives the blessing, and he is also the only one among them who is married.
The head of the group is called “Saba”, the Koledari gather at his house on the eve of the Koleda and go about their activities at midnight, walking around the streets and making noise with bells and rattles. One of them disguises himself as a pregnant woman, the rest are disguised as human figures, animals and a mix between the two. Sometimes they are decorated with white, black or red horns, reverse sheepskin, bull’s tail with bells, cowhide and more. Among other activities, they spread cannabis fibers.
In many of the Koledari songs the singers tell about themselves, they call themselves brothers in arms, each of them is a warrior and a rider, imitating their patron, the warrior God – who fights the serpent and brings back the cosmic water that was blocked by him.
Another symbol they use in the songs is the “golden keys”, which open the locked spring of water. The opening is made by a good hero called in Bulgarian Vunak, who manages to get the sheep with the “golden horns” and bring it on his flying horse (reminiscent of the quest for the Golden Fleece).
The good hero Vunak has a central role in the songs; he has the golden keys and is therefore the master of the universe. It recalls the Thracian tradition of God as a man riding in the kingdom of heaven. Another connection to the Thracians is in a name that is often heard in poetry and it is – Bilna, or Binda, or Bimana, an abbreviation of the name of Bendida, a Thracian Goddess associated with the moon and the hunt, and is the equivalent of the Greek Artemis.
The Koledari song is a direct descendant of ancient rites of passage that turned boys into men. In those ceremonies they wore theater masks that represented the journey to the world of the dead, “the other world”, depicted the struggle with its demonic inhabitants and the return. In other words, the young teenagers died temporarily and were resurrected, just like the sun in the short days of the year.
After the Koledari, comes the time of the Survaki and Kukeri. It is a tradition in which young boys or children go around the houses with sticks shaped like Hermes staffs called Survaka. This is a branch decorated with dried fruits, popcorn, and a kind of round pretzel. The power of their singing blesses the house.
The God Hermes had a staff called Caduceus (Caduceus and is one of the oldest symbols in the world that appears already at the time of the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia. The staff is two snakes coiled in both directions in a form reminiscent of DNA and at the end a winged disc reminiscent of the sun. According to Greek mythology the staff was given to Hermes by Apollo and associated with medicine (unlike the staff of Asclepius which has only one snake), in the Middle Ages the Caduceus staff became the symbol of the star and metal Mercury.
In general the Caduceus represents balance; the golden rod is the celestial equator and two serpents are the male and female principles, represented by the solar and lunar orbits. The place where the snakes body is far from the central stick represents the increase of day in the six months from December to June, and vice versa. The Survaka is similar to the caduceus in that its outer frame is two spirals and it symbolizes the tree of life.
The time between Christmas – 25.12 and Epiphany – the feast of baptism on 6.1 is considered in the tradition of Bulgarian Folklore to be a dangerous time. This is the darkness that exists between the birth of Jesus and his baptism, between the time he appeared in the world physically and the time Christ entered it. Since this time is dangerous, the evil spirits that appear during it must be expelled in two ways; One is open and unified – Koledari, and the other is covert, insidious and individual – the Survaki and Kukari traditions.
There are several theories about the origin of the name Surva. One of them is related to the Thracian sun God who had many names, among them Sura or Sureget, hence the meaning of Sur is sun. The Survaki tradition is well known and popular as a ritual that helps harvest, fertility, health and good luck.
The Survaki visit people after nightfall, so that the sun does not “catch” them on the way, the power is present at night and they lose it with the arrival of morning. During the visits, they dance and perform ritual acts in the village square, including sacred marriages and fertility ceremonies. On the visit of the house one must show respect and give the Survaki a gift.
In the ancient pagan belief in all parts of the world there are two elements that are purified, each in a different way. The first is the fire and the second is the water. Naturally, water is perceived as a cleansing and life-giving element, starting with the ancient Sumerian culture, through the emphasis on water in the Persian religion – Zarathustra, and continuing with baptism in Judaism and Christianity. The Thracians also held purification ceremonies related to fire and water, perhaps under the influence of the East, these ceremonies found a home in the Orthodox Christian framework. The purification rituals associated with fire are celebrated in the beginning of the Fatherhood and especially in the context of Easter, the purification rituals associated with water are celebrated in the winter period, and especially in the context of the New Year and the baptism of Jesus on the Christian Epiphany, at the beginning of January (6.1 according to the Gregorian calendar)
On the night between December 31st and January 1st, the women and girls in villages across Bulgaria name, each in turn, a flower that they choose in a copper bowl with water together with a ring or other object of their own. They leave the bowl with the purifying water at night, and the next day collect the flowers together with the object that was left in the water, lift the flower and the object on a stick and loudly congratulate the girl who left it. This ceremony predicts her future marriage. All the girls dance with the copper bowl of water, and there is a special song for this occasion. If the water freezes, which often happens during this period, this is a good sign.
A week later, on 6.1, the day of Jesus’ baptism is traditionally celebrated. This is the day Jesus arrived in Jordan and was baptized by John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove landed on him and he began his work in the world. In the Balkans this day is called “St Jordan’s Day” and according to their belief the River takes on human qualities. And so, half-naked Bulgarians jump into the frozen water in the Rivers, in pursuit of a cross thrown there by the priest. They stand in the water, sing and play, the water cleanses them of their sins and enables a new beginning, when the cross instills holiness on the water.
Slavic months have names of people. The month of March is named after Grandma (or Baba in Bulgarian) Marta, who is a capricious old woman with an unpredictable behavior that needs to be liked. And so on 1.3 there is a holiday in which people give each other gifts in the form of red and white embroidered threads. Sometimes the threads are shaped in the shape of a woman or a man, but mostly these are just threads braided between themselves. The white symbolizes the snow that fell in winter and the red symbolizes the sunrise or the snow of spring.
Martenitsa braids and dolls are given as gifts by men and women to each other, according to custom they must be worn until the first stork is seen in the sky. and then, you have to hang them on the first fruit tree that is around and that will probably please Baba Martha. And so you can find trees all over Bulgaria (such as the wild plum) decorated with red and white threads, and especially trees in sacred places.
In the Balkans there are several rituals related to the lighting of bonfires, which are done on the Sunday before the start of the Easter fast. The fire purifies the person and prepares him to fast. In some ceremonies the participants jump over the fire, or carry torches and light candles.
The bonfire should be as high as possible, since the fire that goes up connects heaven and earth. The heat it spreads around drives away the evil spirits, the sparks of fire are evil spirits that are burned. The people dance around the fire and thereby “cleanse themselves”. After the fire subsides, they go over the fire and clean up for good. In Greece, ceremonies of this kind are called Fanos ceremonies
Lazaruvane ceremonies take place on the feast of St. Lazarus, eight days before Easter and one day before Palm Sunday. At this time, young women wear flowers and go from house to house, blessing the people, thus enabling the coming of the mental and emotional spring (in addition to the physical spring), this is a time of blossoming and revival, fertility and conception.
Unlike the Koledari ceremonies that take place at the height of winter and are attended by men, with the arrival of spring the responsibility for the ceremonies passes to the women. Similar to the procreation process in which the man gives the sperm and the woman raises the fetus in her womb and the baby after its birth, so in this year’s cycle of rituals: the young men give the codes through the dances and songs of the Koledari, and the young women bring the nurturing and refinement into expression, ripening and bearing fruit in the dances and songs of the Lazaruvane.
The Lazaruvane is performed by girls before the wedding just as the Koledari rituals are performed by boys before their wedding. These are beautiful maidens wearing colorful costumes decorated with flowers and on their heads ribbons and flower bouquets. In both cases the participants go from house to house and visit all the people of the village. The Lazaruvane maidens dance, sing and greet the owners of the house and those who live in it with blessings and wishes of health for the blossoming and enjoyment of life with the coming of spring. They abundantly and fruitfully bless the humans as well as the domestic animals, bow before each person separately, and serve each one personally.
The ceremony is very reminiscent of the classical Greek tradition of the Caryatids, maidens of the City of Athens, who would carry baskets with reeds and flowers on their heads in ceremonial celebrations in honor of the Goddess Artemis. Six caryatids carved in stone support the Archatheon structure on the Acropolis of Athens, and indeed the Lazaruvane ceremony in Bulgaria is usually performed by six maidens.
The Lazaruvane ceremony is a kind of initiation for young women, preparing them for matriculation and marriage and integration into society and attests to their ability to give birth to children and raise them, take care of the home and nurture it. The young women are usually dressed in bridal clothes, or in their most beautiful clothes, which they usually embroider themselves. Only girls who have become women are allowed to participate in the ceremonies
Saint Lazarus is a man whom Jesus resurrected from the dead on the Mount of Olives. Indeed, nature is resurrected from hibernation at this time. The ceremony is accompanied by the presentation of a table of abundance and idyllic rural life.
The most important Feast in the Balkans in particular and in Orthodox Christianity in general is Easter. As part of the holiday, there are colorful ceremonies, processions and candle lighting, Easter eggs and special dishes are distributed. During the holiday, sadness and grief alternate with joy and dancing.
The events of the holiday begin on “Good Friday”, which is a day of mourning, as this is when Jesus was crucified and died. In the villages there are funeral processions of a coffin decorated with flowers which is displayed in the Church and people pass under it.
On the following day, there is eager anticipation for a miracle to happen. In the evening of the “Sabbath of Light”, towards midnight, all the people gather in the Churches, whether in Sofia, Plovdiv, or anywhere else in Bulgaria and the Balkans. The plazas outside the Churches are filled with a large crowd holding candles in their hands. Towards midnight, the prayers and ceremonies reach their peak and silence prevails, then the bells begin to ring and the priests begin to sing. At exactly midnight, a fire passes between the people who light each other’s candles, sometimes it is a special fire coming from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Resurrection in Jerusalem. The squares and Churches all over Bulgaria are filled with light and everyone proclaims: “Jesus is risen!”, hugs each other, taps the hard-boiled eggs they brought with them on their neighbors head until they break, and returns home satisfied.