THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Endangered archives blog

2 posts from December 2017

19 December 2017

Bulgarian Christmas and kissing of the ritual bread

Our last blog of the year has been written by Rossitza Atanassova, Digital Curator at the British Library. I can’t think of a lovelier way to finish the year than have a colleague and friend reminisce about her childhood using images from EAP103 held at The Ethnographic Institute and Museum, Bulgarian Academy of Science, Sofia.

Christmas Eve (Badni vecher) is central to the Bulgarian Christmas celebrations and is associated with many customs and rituals. On Christmas Eve families prepare a traditional festive dinner of vegan dishes, including the ritual bread (pita or pogacha), cabbage leaves stuffed with rice (sarmi), white butter bean stew, dried fruit compote (oshav), pickled vegetable salad and pumpkin pastries. Other produce – onion, garlic, honey, wheat, fruit and walnuts – are also laid on the table, to ensure rich crops in the New Year. Historically rural households would sprinkle dung, sand, wheat grains, hay and coins on or around the dinner table. This was due to their symbolism for the well-being of the household, fertility and abundance of crops, orchards, vineyards, livestock and domestic fowl. (Slaveykov p.13)

Gathering the whole family at Christmas Eve to share this simple symbolic meal is one of the most intimate and honoured Bulgarian traditions. At the start of the meal the eldest member of the family would light incense and pass it round the room and over the meal as a sign of protection from misfortune for the household. It falls on the eldest man in the family to bless and break the ritual bread, saving the first piece for the Virgin Mary and distributing a piece each to all members of the family. The early 20th century photograph (below) of a family from the village of Petrich near Sofia captures the moment of kissing the ritual bread as it is held out by the elder in the family. The symbolism of the bread in this ceremony is captured so well by the photographer, as it occupies a central place in the image with all three generations of the family showing such reverence and hopefulness as they huddle around it. There is so much intimacy and spontaneity in the photograph, with the grandfather staring solemnly at the camera, his son or son-in-law enjoying a glass of home-produced rakija and the younger children looking furtively around.

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I have such fond childhood memories of the Christmas Eve preparations at home when I helped my mother and grandmother to knead the ritual bread and decorate it with the Nativity scene and the sign of the Cross. It is a tradition I have passed on to my children and year on year they are excited about making together the ritual Christmas bread. There is a great regional variety in the shapes and decorations, many of which reference agricultural activities such as ploughing, shepherding and winemaking, as well as Christian symbolism. Some examples of ritual breads can be seen in the EAP103 archive, and the Ethnographic Museum has an important collection of stamps used for decorating ritual breads, such as this Nativity Scene stamp. It is traditional to hide a coin in the Christmas bread and whoever finds it is said to have all the happiness and success in the New Year.

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On Christmas Eve, groups of boys and young men (koledari) visit the houses in their neighbourhoods and villages, singing auspicious verses about prosperity and well-being. These welcome guests exchange traditional greetings with the families and give their blessings to every member of the household. In return the Koledari receive gifts of food and ritual ring-shaped breads, often made by the young women in the family, which they string on the wooden sticks they carry.

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On New Year’s Day it is customary for children in Bulgaria to carry tree branches (survachka), traditionally decorated with dried fruit, popcorn, breads and wool, and to recite blessings for family and friends in exchange for a coin or other gifts. As a child I loved the festive atmosphere in Sofia with stalls selling survachki decorated in red and white paper. This custom continues the joyful and hopeful Bulgarian Christmas celebrations and tradition which the photographic archive gives us such wonderful glimpses of.

EAP103_1_3_18-aeimP4772_LEAP103/1/3/18/198 and EAP103/1/3/18/200 (market for survachki, decorated sticks for Christmas or New Year’s Day, Sofia, early 20th century)

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 The EAP team would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and the very best for 2018.

 

Bibliography:

Slaveykov, Racho, Bulgarian Folk Traditions and Beliefs, Sofia, Asenevtsi Trade Ltd, 2014

Vasileva, Margarita, Koleda i Surva: Bulgarski praznitzi I obichai, Sofia, Darzhavno Izdatelstvo Septemvri, 1988

14 December 2017

A project from Bhutan

On 17 December 1907, Ugyen Wangchuk, the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), was crowned and the Kingdom of Bhutan has marked this day ever since as its National Day.

The British Library has some photographs of Ugyen Wangchuk when he was crown prince dating from 1905, which were taken by John Claude White, the Political Officer of neighbouring Sikkim. The image of him wearing the traditional Raven Crown and the order of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire is perhaps the most reproduced photograph of the ruler, but it is the one in more relaxed dress and surrounded by his family, that has, for me, more appeal.

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Photo 20/(1)

019PHO000000020U00025000[SVC2]Photo 20/(25)

To mark this anniversary, I thought I would highlight EAP039. This project was awarded in 2005, the very first round of grants  and took place at Gangtey Gonpa. The monastery was founded in 1613 by Gyalse Pema Thinley, the grandson of the saint Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) who was the most important Buddhist born in Bhutan and who discovered the hidden texts concealed by the 8th century Indian monk Padmasambhava.

The monastery underwent major renovation, beginning in 2000 and lasting for eight years. The Endangered Archives Programme project was independent to the refurbishment of the building but ensured the safety of the important Nyingma tradition manuscripts housed at the monastery. Below are some photographs of the village, the manuscripts beautifully wrapped and stored and the monks concentrating on the digitisation project. As the location lacked a reliable electricity supply, the team worked outside when photographing these precious texts, which were a funerary tribute to the founder of Gangtey.

We wish everyone in Bhutan a very happy National Day.

EAP039_Pub001On the road to Gantey.

EAP039_Pub011An example of one of the manuscripts.

EAP039_Pub006Monks at work.

GangteystudioBundles of manuscripts waiting to be digitised.

 

Further Reading:

Aris, M (1994) The Raven Crown Chicago: Serindia Publications