Ancient Christmas traditions in Bulgaria


        The Bulgarian word for Christmas - Koleda - comes from the name of the Roman feasts - Kalendi, dedicated to the
beginning of the Solar year. Some sources mention that the Romans might have celebrated Kalendi at the beginning of each new
month. As it is the tradition in most Christian cultures, the commemoration of the Birth of Christ in Bulgaria coincides with the
heathen cult for the sun, with the festivities for the birth of the young God-Sun.
        Christmas Eve in Bulgaria is called Budni vecher. According to the old Bulgarian tradition, one of the single young men in
the family had to cut a huge piece of a trunk, to wrap it with a white piece of cloth and carry it into the house. That piece of wood
was called Budnik (budeshte in Bulgarian means future.) The Budnik symbolizes the Tree of Life - an archetypal image of the
Universe. Interestingly, while in the Western tradition the symbol of the Tree of Life - the Christmas tree - is being decorated, in the
old-time Bulgarian tradition it is bumt. Our predecessors believed that the ashes of the Budnik possessed magical power. They
used to scatter portions of it over the corn-fields - for abundance of crops; they put pinches of it in the food of the domestic animals
for health and fertility. When the Budnik was lit up, the head of the family had to go out in the yard and to, loudly, invite God to join
the table: "Come, God, have dinner with us! "
        The whole family used to gather round the fireside in which the Budnik was burning. The floor was to be covered with straw
and a law table or a tablecloth put on the straw. All the dishes had to be served at once. None of the members of the family was
allowed to leave until the end of the dinner. Getting up would have been a sign that, inclined to leave their nests, the hens would not
hatch the chickens properly. It was acceptable only for the head of the family to leave for a while, but he had to walk stooping
so that the wheat stems would bent with corn next summer.
        The menu on Budni vecher is rich but it consists only of vegetarian meals. Their number should be odd and they should
not be less than 7 - peppers, stuffed with old beans or pieces of leek; sarmi made out of cabbage or vine-leaves; old beans, dried
fruits, honey, walnuts. Let's not forget the garlic! It keeps away the evil spirits, which might decide to join the party.
        Having blessed the table with some burning incense, the head of the family would break into pieces the home made soda
bread (pitka.) The first piece had to be wrapped in white cloth and left for the God's Mother. Then everyone at the table would receive
some pitka. The piece in which an old family coin is inserted will go to the luckiest member of the family - he/she will be the "rich
person" during the coming New year and will keep the money of the whole family. The first mouthful of the pitka should not be
eaten. It had to be wrapped in a kerchief instead, and put under the pillow to provoke a prophetic dream. In fact, some members
of the family used to forget about this but the young ladies - never. They believed that the man they dreamt of would become their
husband throughout the next year. After the dinner, the family expected to greet in their home a group of young men - koledari - who
would sing magical songs for health, abundance and happiness.
 

Many thanks to the Bulgarian Language and Literature Department at the American College of Sofia for this fine explanation!