Koleda (Christmas in Bulgaria) 25th December
Date: December 25th – Christmas Day
Bulgarians celebrate Christmas on the 25th December even though it’s an Orthodox country. This date marks the end of pre-Christmas fasting. Christmas eve the family gathers around the table to enjoy a vegetarian meal. The loaf with Kasmeti (fortune notes) is eagerly awaited, especially by the children, and the one who gets the piece with the silver coin shall enjoy health and luck during the coming year.
The usual greetings on Christmas Day is ‘Chestito Rozhdestvo’ – Nativity of Jesus, ‘Hristovo!’, or ‘Chestita Koleda!’ (Merry Christmas!) and ‘Za Mnogo Godini!’ (Many Happy Returns!) at the beginning of the New Year.
On January 1st, children go from house to house with Survachka in hand and slap the householders on the back, wishing them a healthy and prosperous New Year. In return, the children (survakari) receive fruits, walnuts, sweets and coins.
Christmas Eve (Badni vecher)
Christmas Eve in Bulgaria is celebrated with a meal consisting of an odd number vegetarian dishes with at least seven people present -the number of people also has to be uneven. These meals include pulses, grains, vegetables, nuts, an array of fruit and of course wine! The more dishes the richer the following year will be. Walnuts, in particular, are a Bulgarian Christmas must-have on the feast table. It is believed that the order in which the nuts are cracked will predict the successes and the failures in the upcoming year. Another essential component of the Bulgarian meal is a loaf of bread and the ‘Banitza/pita’, into which a coin is baked. Anybody who finds the coin is believed to be rewarded with health, luck and prosperity in the coming year. On this day, the family gathers around the table and eats their food on straw.
The table remains uncleared after the Christmas Eve feast. All the leftovers and the dishes are left as it is on the table while the families retire to bed so that their ancestral ghosts and spirits can dine on the left over food.
Strict tradition demanded that a fire be built in the hearth, with enough wood to burn all night and into Christmas Day.
Nowadays, a Christmas tree with lighted candles symbolises this ritual. The main colors of all decorations are red, yellow and gold – the colors of sun and fire, and lit candles are like the sparks from the burning Yule log.
‘Koledari‘ young men, accompanied by an elder, dressed in colouful costumes will sing Christmas carols wishing health, wealth and happiness. They go from village to village and sing songs for strangers around midnight on Christmas eve. They are rewarded with food and money.
Santa Claus will be on his way to leave gifts for the children!!
‘Legend states that Virgin Mary bore Jesus Christ the day before the Christmas, after being in labour four days prior to his birth. This day is celebrated on the 20th of December and is known as St. Ignat’s Day or ‘Ignazhden’. Households light candles on this day and commemorate the strength of Virgin Mary and anticipate the ‘arrival’ of Jesus Christ. This festival venerates the bishop of Antioch, Saint Ignatius Theophorus, sentenced to death because of his Christian faith and thrown to the lions. It was from the day of St. Ignatius to Christmas Eve that Virgin Mary’s labors continued. Christmas and New Year festivities begin from Ignazhden’.
An enormous meat dinner, usually of pork or turkey, is enjoyed by Bulgarians on Christmas day and blood sausages are eaten as wishes for the following year are made around the fire.
As in other countries, a Christmas tree is typically set up and the entire house is decorated. The local name of Santa Claus is Dyado Koleda (“Grandfather Christmas”), with Dyado Mraz (“Grandfather Frost”) being a similar Russian-imported character lacking the Christian connotations who was popular during the Communist rule. However, Dyado Mraz has been largely forgotten after 1989, when Dyado Koleda again returned as the more popular figure. Go Santa Claus!