Religious connotations aside, Christmas to me is all about family. Even more than Thanksgiving, Christmas is a time to gather as a family, give thanks, show gratitude, and celebrate health and prosperity.
Only once before this year have I spent Christmas apart from my family, and it was brutal. I was in New Zealand. We were traveling by bus from Abel Tasman National Park to Franz Josef. The transmission gave out half way between Abel Tasman and the nearest town, along a stretch of narrow, winding mountain passes. With nowhere to pull over and stop, our driver somehow managed to get us up and down the trecherous passes before the bus broke down completely. Shaken but not stirred, she rolled the bus slowly into the town of Westport where we spent the night. The tradional Christmas dinner waiting for us in Franz Josef went uneaten. To make things worse, I got eaten alive by bed bugs and had a bad allergic reaction to the bites. It was a Christmas I’ll never forget, but for all the wrong reasons.
My first Christmas in Bulgaria, which I spent with my host family in Бойчиновци, was much less eventful and far more enjoyable. To better understand how Bulgarians celebrate Christmas (Коледа), it helps to know a little of Bulgaria’s history.
Between 1944 and 1989, Bulgaria was under communist rule. During that time, Bulgarians were not allowed to celebrate Christmas, at least not publicly. As a result, Christian Bulgarians would gather as families and quietly celebrate Christmas together. While communism was unable to prevent such gatherings, it was successful in limiting the adherence to certain traditions associated with Christmas. Since the fall of communism, however, many of the old traditions have been revived. Practices vary from home to home and region to region, but many of these same traditions are still observed today.
The period from November 15th through Christmas Eve is known as Коледни пости. Traditionally, this is a period of fasting during which time all meals are vegan. The consumption of any type of animal based products – meat, eggs, cheese, etc. – is prohibited. Most Bulgarians, including my host family in Бойчиновци, have modified this tradition and fast only on Christmas Eve (Бъдни Вечер). Bulgarians believe that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus on Christmas Eve but waited until the following day to announce the birth (Bulgarian tradition follows this belief – with mothers announcing the birth of a newborn to the world the day following birth). In any event, the Christmas Eve meal is one of several very important traditions followed by many Bulgarians.
Our Christmas Eve meal began with питка, a traditional Bulgarian bread. Baked into each section of the питка was either a wish or, in one case, a coin. Tradition holds that the person who finds the coin will have good luck and fortune in the coming year. Alas, I didn’t find the coin, just two wishes: С нова хубава кола ще се возиш из града (You will ride around town in a new, good-looking car); and Хубаво преброй звездите в коледната нощ защото толкова ще са мечтите ти сбъднати с разкош (Count well the stars in the Christmas night sky, for that's how many of your dreams will come to life).
In addition to питка, we had several traditional Bulgarian vegan dishes, including roasted peppers stuffed with beans, тиквеник (pumpkin banitsa), and сарма (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice). There also were plates of salad, peanuts, and dried fruit. To ensure prosperity and good fortune in the coming year, there were an odd number of dishes served and an odd number of guests in attendance. I can’t say for sure, but I’m fairly certain the dishes were not cleared until morning. According to tradition, this is again to ensure a prosperous year and to leave some food for the deceased.
With cleansed minds and spirits, we awoke Christmas Day and soon feasted on meat, meat, and more meat. We ate ham, sausage, rabbit, pork, and кюфтета. There wasn’t an obscene display of materialism, but a few gifts were exchanged. I felt guilty for bringing so little, yet I was admonished for bringing too much.
All in all, it was a pleasant weekend, and it was interesting experiencing a traditional Bulgarian Christmas. Perhaps what was most interesting is that it didn’t feel at all like Christmas to me, which was a very a good thing. Had it felt more like Christmas, homesickness would have crept in, and I would have grown sentimental and depressed. Without any of those feelings, I was able to enjoy the weekend and now look forward to partying like a Bulgarian on New Year’s.
A few Christmasesque scenes from around town before I headed to Бойчиновци.
Before heading to Бойчиновци, I also attended a holiday party with my colleagues from work. Needless to say, they don’t adhere to the strict fasting traditions either.
Bulgarians traditionally slaughtered a pig on Christmas. Fortunately, the pig had already met his maker by the time Stoil started carving him up.
Rosi pounding out pork chops Stoil had cut.
Ivo preparing the appetizers.
Rosi making banitsa.
The only present under the tiny, table-top tree was a small bag with pretzels and sweets (a few other gifts were exchanged too).
The garden looks a lot different than it did a few months ago.
So does the fully-stocked cellar.