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