At one of my conversational English classes this week, the topic of discussion was plans for Easter. An overwhelming majority of Bulgarians belong, at least nominally, to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which is Christian. Accordingly, I was curious to learn how some of the Bulgarians I know planned to spend Easter weekend.
The first person in the group began by saying she never planned anything and, accordingly, had no idea what she would do over the weekend. She then said something that really took me aback. She said that she was under the impression that Easter is not celebrated in America. While I realize that most Americans are ignorant and uninformed regarding Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture, it never occurred to me that a large number of Bulgarians might be similarly ignorant and uninformed regarding America and American culture.
I explained to her that while not everyone in America observes Easter, as not everyone is Christian, a majority of Americans are Christian and do celebrate Easter. I talked of lent, church services, and our family’s traditional Easter meal, but I mainly talked about the commercialization of Easter – Easter egg hunts, the Easter bunny, Easter baskets, and egg-painting and egg-smashing contests. And then I listened as others explained some of Bulgaria’s Easter traditions.
Easter in Bulgaria is called Великден, and it's one of the most significant holidays on the Bulgarian calendar. Here is what I could gather from talking to my class:
• On Maundy Thursday, it is customary to dye hard-boiled eggs. The first egg should be dyed red, to symbolize the blood of Christ. This egg is then supposed to be put aside – either to be kept in the home for the coming year (for good luck) or buried in the fields (to ensure fertility).
• Tables are set up at church representing Jesus’ coffin, and, on Good Friday, you are supposed to crawl under one of the tables. This also theoretically promises health and fertility.
• Saturday night, just before midnight, people gather at church. Shortly after midnight, candles are lit from a "holy fire." Parishioners walk around the church three times with their lit candles and then carry the lit candles home with them, again, to insure good luck and health until the next Easter.
• After the lighting of the candles, some of the dyed, hard-boiled eggs are cracked against each other. This continues over the next few days. People take turns in tapping their eggs against the eggs of others, and the person with the last uncracked egg, or the egg with the fewest cracks, is believed to have a year of good health and fortune.
• On Easter Sunday, there is typically a large family gathering and feast, with lamb usually served as the main course. For dessert, traditional Bulgarian Easter sweetbread – Козунак – is served.
I skipped the dying of eggs and crawling under the table but otherwise celebrated Easter like a somewhat typical Bulgarian. We didn’t walk around the church three times, but we did join lots of other folks from town at church at midnight to get our candles lit from a holy flame. Unfortunately, they all burned out shortly after we started off on our way home. I guess that means none of us will be lucky this year. We also cheated by having our lamb dinner on Saturday night, eating goat instead on Easter Sunday. Anyway, here are some photos and short videos of the festivities along with a few more thoughts.
A shot of some of the dyed eggs with some freshly picked flowers in the background.
Before we went to church on Saturday night, I asked what I should wear. One of my friends immediately responded by telling me it didn’t matter because everyone would be drunk. A bit of an exaggeration to be sure, but most of the sober people I saw were young kids acting as chaperones for their parents. Here is some bad video of people outside the church trying to keep their candles lit.
Making Козунак is hard work. In a country where so many things are homemade, many Bulgarians, including everyone in my conversational English class, now buy Козунак rather than prepare it themselves. But the family I celebrated Easter with still makes homemade Козунак. I helped a little - whisking the eggs and sugar until my arm tired, which wasn't very long - but most of the work was done by my friend, Alex. Among other things, the Козунак must be pounded on the table at least 100 times to remove any air bubbles. Here is Alex's brother, Momchil, doing just that.