It can be difficult to talk about how Christmas is celebrated in all of Bulgaria, given that there are so many regional variations and differences in the approach that each family takes to the festive season. So, rather than Christmas in Bulgaria, let’s just say that this is about how Velie’s Bulgarian family celebrates it.
Anyway, as far as I’m aware, the night before Christmas is much more important in Bulgaria than Christmas Day itself, since this is traditionally when the fasting period comes to an end and the feasting begins. This still means that Christmas Eve dinner should be vegetarian or, if possible, even vegan.
My family usually sticks to the vegetarian plan, and we try to prepare an odd number of dishes to put on our “table”. This number ought to be very specific on Christmas Eve, so these are the options: seven (for the seven days of the week), nine (for the months of a woman’s pregnancy), twelve (for the months of the year… I know, I know, twelve is even, but that’s just what the tradition says!), or any higher odd number of dishes.
I also said “table” earlier because one of our little touches to the Christmas Eve meal is to set a rug on the floor with straw scattered all around it for the family to sit at and enjoy the feast together. Before starting supper, my oldest relative walks around the room holding lit up incense, passing every family member as a prayer for their health.
There should be an icon of Christ or the Virgin Mary on the table or somewhere near it. The first piece of the пита is placed in front of it and isn’t for anyone in the family. The second piece of bread is for the house and is left aside too. It is only then that the family members are allowed to take some of the bread for themselves. Whichever piece is yours, the first bite shouldn’t be eaten, but saved and placed under your pillow before you go to sleep. It is said that whatever you dream that night will come true!
Breaking the walnuts is also an important part of the Christmas Eve dinner. At the end of the meal, each family member chooses one (you get to look and examine them as much as you wish) and breaks theirs. It is said that if the fruit of your walnut is full and fresh, you will have a good year; however, if there is nothing inside the shell and it’s just dry and rotten, your year won’t be that great either.
The коледари are another interesting Bulgarian twist to Christmas traditions. Some are young children who go from door to door on the morning of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (depending on the region); they shout ‘Коледо!’ (Christmas!) and invite people to begin their Christmas celebrations. After giving them candies, fruit, or any small treats, they send them off to the next house. The other коледари are men and teenage boys who have learned and rehearsed Christmas songs. Sometimes they are invited into people’s homes on Christmas Eve to sing for the family in the evening. They are dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothes (носии) and carry a long wooden stick to help them get through the snow.
In the villages where they uphold the tradition of коледари, women bake these small, plaited bread wreaths called краваи. After the коледари have sung their songs, the hosts of the houses put the Christmas loaves onto the wooden sticks they carry. Unfortunately, this particular custom is becoming more and more rare and is performed in very few places nowadays. I have never actually seen adult коледари singing on Christmas Eve for myself!
These are the main Bulgarian Christmas traditions that I know of, but we have many more interesting things going on after Christmas (like men jumping into ice cold water to retrieve crucifix). I’m sure that every Bulgarian will tell you a different story as to exactly how we celebrate this beautiful holiday.