Easter for many of you was this past Sunday, but for the Orthodox, it will be on May 2 this year. In recognition of this holy day, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my book, The Wanderer, my memoir about my experiences of being an immigrant, and how our customs and traditions influence our lives. At the end, I’ve also included a traditional Easter recipe: Lamb with Dock. Enjoy!
Since the majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians, many of us celebrate Easter twice—once on our own holiday, and again to honor friends and new relatives with different backgrounds, or just to make our children part of the surrounding culture.
Easter holidays in Bulgaria start with Lazarov Day (Lazar’s or Lazarus’ Day) and Tsvetnica (Flower Day) and culminate on Easter. This year Tsvetnitsa is on April 25. These are the best spring holidays when nature wakes and everything comes back to life. People open windows, clean their houses, and go to church every Sunday. When I was a student, we were forbidden to attend church. Back in the Communist era, we were told we had to forget religion and traditions so as not to undermine the authority of the Party. Even so, we hid and walked to attend the service secretly, so we weren’t expelled from school. The world is small, as we like to say, and one year, I stood side by side with my French teacher in church. She looked away from me with candles in her hands and pretended she didn’t see me. I did the same. We both knew we needed to keep the secret.
In Sofia, the measures were quite strict, but in small villages and towns people were able to celebrate and attend church more easily. In the years when I studied in Sandanski, a small town in southern Bulgaria, a friend invited me to the holiday in one of the neighboring villages so that I wouldn’t be alone at the boarding school. The alley was pretty: white houses stained with colored rugs, and yards arranged with flowers and greenery. The church stood at the entrance to the village on a small hill with a view to the nearby Struma River. After the liturgy, young and old went out and, instead of the traditional “knocking” of their colored eggs (that is, tapping them end to end), they began to throw them over the church roof. Then they went outside the church yard, set food on picnic tables, and the fun began. The people of southern Bulgaria were warm and hospitable, and I always felt at home during my school years. It eased my nostalgia.
Bulgaria is a small country, but every region, village, and town has its own rituals and beliefs. It was interesting to observe traditions by visiting families and places that were new for me. I think we all need to be open to new experiences and appreciate the beliefs of others. Each ritual or custom has a reason behind why it’s performed.
Some of these traditions are regarding eggs, one of the most common foods at Easter, for Bulgarians and other nations as well. From ancient times, the egg has been a symbol of birth, resurrection, and eternal life—life and death—with a belief that the world was born from the golden egg, that is, the sun. The parts of the egg represent the four elements. The shell is symbolic of earth: the membrane represents air, the liquid is water, and the yellow yoke is the sun and thereby fire.
The time to celebrate in secrecy eventually passed, and after the change of government in October 1989, democracy brought back freedom. Everyone then had the right to practice their religion. Easter and all other holidays are impeccable for Bulgarians not only today, but also in the past.
When I was a child, from time to time I stayed with my grandparents in a village in northern Bulgaria. Easter in my memories was about colors and flowers. I remember Lazar’s Day and the lazarki, a group of cheerful girls who walked from door to door to sing for the prosperity and health of the occupants. The girls carried baskets and dressed in traditional costumes, wearing wreaths made from flowers. At the time, I badly wanted to join them, but I was too young. When they arrived at our house, Baba went to the cellar and brought eggs, honey, and walnuts as gifts for the girls.
On Tsvetnica, the next day, we went to church to pray. For us, it was a double holiday because my grandmother’s name was Tsvetana (which means “flower”), so we also celebrated her name day. On Flower Day she made me a wreath from willow branches and flowers so I would be slender and playful like the tree. After church, people came over to celebrate her name day. The feast was not as it is now. Back then, the doors were open for all guests—those expected and unexpected alike. They came in happy, bringing gifts and wishing her good health. Baba gave them red wine and home-baked bread and other meals she had prepared for her special day. Since it was Lent, people fasted and kept other prohibitions.
My grandmother used natural dye to color the eggs: beets for the red, onion pills for the orange, and gold from the seeds of the dill. She also used these natural colors to dye wool and cotton. She told us we needed to color the eggs before sunset on Maudy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter). If we couldn’t color them on that day, we had to dye them without telling anyone. The reason for this was that we had to make sure the devil didn’t discover us dyeing eggs on Friday or Saturday. If he did, he’d destroy the healing and protective powers those special eggs held.
I still generally dye the eggs on Thursday and always make a red egg special for God. Traditionally, this is the first red egg. It has magical, healing power; on Easter morning, I rub the egg against my children’s cheeks and make a cross on their foreheads for health. We keep this red egg set aside for a whole year. Sometimes our kitten forgets it’s a holy egg and breaks it early. When the kitten doesn’t break it, we don’t throw last year’s egg away. Instead, we bury it in the garden for fertility.
The culmination of the Easter festivities happens on Sunday. In Bulgaria, we went to church and on the way back visited the graves of our closest relatives to give them food, eggs, and wine.
Now and in the past all our Easter festivities are filled with light and love. Nature wakes up, and everyone is looking forward to the coming summer and long, sunny days. People are craving light, joy, and love.
A major part of the festivity is the meal. In addition to the traditional bread called kozunak and the colorful eggs, Bulgarian cook lamb.
Lamb with Dock
Lamb with dock or spinach is one of my favorite meals during this season. This delicious dish is suitable for Easter and to welcome Spring.
I’m not a gardener, but I have few spices (mint, parsley, fresh garlic) in my garden that are a traditional part of Bulgarian cuisine. Dock is one of these plants, but you can substitute fresh spinach or even kale if you like to experiment. There’s nothing complicated in preparing lamb with dock.
Dock – commonly known as broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, butter dock, kettle dock, curly dock, and smair dock – is a species of flowering plant in a buckwheat family Polygonaceae. It’s native to Europe but is also available in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries.
Since ancient times, dock has been known as a medicinal plant and used in traditional remedies. It possesses various antiscorbutic, astringent, cholagogue, depurative, homeopathy and laxative properties which have beneficial effects to maintain one’s overall health.
To prepare lamb with dock, you need:
2.2 pounds boneless, trimmed, lamb shoulder, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 midsize onion or a green fresh onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 1/2 Tablespoons sweet paprika
2 cups water
25 grams butter, cubed
1 1/2 cups from the water where the meat was boiled
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and drained
1 bunch of dock or replace with spinach, trimmed and roughly chopped
Salt & pepper
- I always precook my meat. Start with making portions of the meat, put in a pot and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon salt. Boil the meat for about 1 hour on medium heat.
- Sprinkle diced lamb with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Place a large pot or casserole dish over medium-high heat and drizzle in half the olive oil. Add half the lamb and cook for 4–5 minutes until meat is golden. Transfer browned lamb to a plate, and repeat with remaining lamb and oil.
- In the same pot add more oil, then add the onion and garlic and cook a further 3–4 mins, until the onion begins to soften. Once the onion has softened, add the rinsed rice.
- Transfer browned lamb to the pan and mix and stir paprika through it. Add water (from the water that the lamb was boiled in) and bring to a boil.
- Add the chopped dock or spinach and mix thoroughly.
- Place the pan in the oven (non preheat) on 375 F (no need to cover) and bake for 1 hour, until rice is cooked and lamb is very tender.
Enjoy this delicious spring meal made with gift a from nature.