Bulgarian customs

Many Bulgarian customs and rituals have their roots in pre-Christian times and belong to a particular time of the calendrical year. The following descriptions follow the calendar sequence;

Christmas Eve, December 24 – koleduvane

Carol singers called Koledari dance from house to house carrying a koledarka, which is a richly carved, decorated oak stick. They wear hats decorated with flowers and “popcorn”. Wine, bread and cheese is given to them in return for their songs. Near Sofia, and in some other regions, they may be accompanied by a couple disguised as a bride and an old man who dance a ruchenitsa.

New Year – suvakane

Suvakane are masked dancers who wear coats made of goat skin or “tatters” and pointed hats around six feet high. They have large bells tied around their waists which clang loudly as they move. They carry wooden swords and a decorated cornel twig called a survachka. They ‘appear’ in Breznik and Radomir Districts, Shopluk Region around the time of the New Year, travel in groups of seven or nine dancers from house to house and bring with them wishes for good health. They are followed by various characters such as “gods”, clowns, a physician, a bride, or animals. When two groups meet they often fight a “mock” battle.

Feast of St Basil, January 13th to 14th – laduvane

Laduvane is the name for a ‘ring dance’ which takes place in Samokov and Koprivshtitsa districts, in the Balkan mountains and also in some areas along the Danube. During the ceremony young couples throw oats, barley and a bouquet of flowers to which is attached the girl’s ring, into a cauldron containing spring water. This ceremony is accompanied by songs.

17 February – trifon zarezan

This is vine growers’ day. A ‘vine-king’ is chosen at a feast with dancing. Masks are also worn.

Spring Carnival – kukeri

Bulgarian Kukueri and similar masked figures map

Kukeri are masked dancers similar to the suvakane. Kukeri are found in Thrace and Dobrudzha, in the districts of Elhovo, Karlovo, Yambol, Burgas, Stara Zagora, and Silistra. They are also known as startsi (old men) in the Plovdiv area. Kukeri dance at dawn, move in groups of seven or nine and perform various comic scenes representing everyday life. They are accompanied by other characters such as a bride, a king or an Arab. In some regions of east Thrace they dress in female sukmans and in the Strandza mountains they dance on stilts.

In some areas a mast topped with a basket of straw is erected. This straw is ignited at the beginning of Lent and the local pajdushko is danced round the mast.

March 1st – martenitsa

Martenitsa symbolises the end of winter and the coming of spring. It is claimed by Bulgarians that this custom has Thracian origins, but it is also found in Macedonia, and is practiced over all Romania (mărțișorul) and the Republic of Moldova. Original martinitsa are made of white and red woollen thread to which a silver or gold coin is tied. They can also now be made of white plastic. On March 1st martinitsa are tied on trees, house doors, cars or young animals. The red and white colours symbolise the snow and the blood. This derives from an old story where a stork brings the blessing of good health to a small child from its parents, who are far away. The arrival of the stork symbolises that spring has arrived.

St Lazar’s Day – 8 days before Easter – lazaruvane

Lazaruvane is a custom of the “coming out” of girls eligible to be married (under 12 years old!). It is also known as Lazaritsi or Buenek in Thrace and Danets in Dobrudzha. It is a string of ritual songs and dances learnt by young girls during Lent. The leader of the dance is called the Lazarki, Buenica or Buyenets depending on the region. She leads the chain of 5-15 dancers from house to house and they pay a short visit to every family. They perform dances and songs in which they express good wishes for health, prosperity and fertility for all family members and livestock. A frequent theme for Lazaruvane songs is new romance.

The Lazarki wear a special ornate costume. In the area of Sandanski (in Pirin) this costume is a white saya with a richly embroidered chemise and apron and many multi-coloured handkerchiefs tucked into the apron. In Sofia the Lazarki wears a headdress with flowers attached to a metal forehead ornament. In Sliven and Yambol the headdress is made of a cylindrical pad decorated with flowers.

May 6th – St George’s Day

This marks the beginning of the agricultural summer. On St George’s Eve houses and cattle pens are decorated with blossoming willow branches. On the following day a feast with a special type of bread and other local foods takes place.

Pentecost – rusalii

Traditional at Rusalii are found in Pirin and in adjacent Macedonia. A group of dancers, always uneven in number, gather round a chief who carries a standard. This is similar in concept to the Căluș of Romania.

June 2 and 3 – nestinarstvo

Fire dancing is found in the Strandzha mountains on the feasts of St Helen and St Constantine. The nestinarstvo (fire dancers) perform in a chapel specially erected for the occasion. The day starts with music played on the tapan and gaida. The whole village forms a procession and dances around the chapel and also round a mineral spring reputed to have supernatural healing powers. Dancing carries on all day and into the evening. A fire is lit and allowed to burn down to a bed of glowing coals. The climax occurs when the nestarka goes into a trance and circles the live coals with ikons in her arms and then finally steps into the fire and dances across the live coals.

Harvest time – djamali

All night feasts with singing and dancing are organised to attract good weather for the harvest and also to celebrate the completion of the harvest. In Elhovo district a ‘camel’ (similar to a hobby horse) visits farms and wishes the farmers luck with the harvest. In return the farmers give him grain or wheat.

Published on 14th June 2018, last modified on 9th February 2019