Visit “Bulgraka,” a virtual place where Bulgarians around the world connect, laugh, engage, collaborate and buy unique goods. Their mission is to re-imagine the Bulgarian reality in a ways that build more fulfilling and lasting community.
Българка е списанието на българите по света. Тук се свързваме, смеем и сътрудничим.
Наша мисия е да си представяме, напомняме и възстановяваме българската реалност по начин, който изгражда едно по-пълноценно и здраво общество.
One of the main characters in rituals and folklore is the sun. The symbol of life, the sun wakes nature in the spring to begin a new cycle.
Love is an important aspect of human life. It’s the feeling that makes us different from animals. Love enchants us and makes us good.
Everyone incorporates some sort of rituals into their life and lifestyle. Rituals are an occasion for families to gather around the table and share a good meal, their memories, love, and traditions from generation to generation. Rituals connect the past with the present and help us embrace and understand our future.
There is no finer tradition than the making of Bulgarian cuisine, which is as rich as the soul of the Bulgarian people. Bulgarian meals, like the colors woven into the nation’s rugs, represent the hospitality and rich spirituality of its people. From the mystical Rhodope Mountains, the birth place of Orpheus, to the Thracian Valley, known for its roses, whether the dishes are light or hearty, they will always be savory.
“Light Love Rituals” describes many Bulgarian rituals that have survived through the centuries. The ones included within its pages follow the cycle of nature and of human lives. It is not meant to be a scholarly nor an exhaustive work. It is meant to provide readers with a glimpse into Bulgarian culture.
To enjoy an even greater taste of Bulgaria, try some of the recipes in the section called “Maria’s Kitchen,” where you can prepare popular Bulgarian dishes. Some of the recipes have a modern twist to make them easy and interesting to make.
Take the journey and experience the Magic of Bulgaria. On Amazon in February 2015.
Kalyna took the amulet off her ankle and wrapped it around Stefan’s wrist. “The martenitsa is given to others as a sign of friendship. It has the power to protect people from evil. The two colors have special meanings. White is for purity, honesty, and clarity. Red is symbolic of blood, life, passion, and love.”
The above is an excerpt from Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey (Chapter: “A Thread of Hope”).
Bulgarian culture is rich in folklore and traditions surviving since the days of the ancient Thracians. As pagan and Christian religions collided, the celebrations merged into one.
Mystical Emona introduces readers to these ancient Thracian customs, rituals, and traditions that have survived through the centuries.
Today, I’d like to talk about martenitsa (Bulgarian: мартеница). It’s an amulet or bracelet made of red and white yarn that symbolizes the arrival of spring.
This tradition dates back to Thracian times to welcome spring. Orpheus is said to have decorated his harp with such an item. After the long, dark winter, people are ready to awaken, to see the sunlight again and are full of hope and expectations. The colors on the martenitsa also date back to ancient times. Red is the symbol of the sun’s rays, as it becomes more intensive with the coming spring. White is the snow melting away. The two tassels twisted together provided both humans and livestock protection from the evil forces of the dying winter.
Bulgarians begin to wear martenitsi (plural) on March 1 (Baba Marta or Granny Marta Day). They continue to wear them until March 9, March 25, or when they see a stork, sparrow, cuckoo, or blossoming tree. At that point, people remove the bracelet and tie it to a tree to ensure good health and luck throughout the year.
March 25, Blagovets, is a special holiday. The family of my friend, and co-author, ties them to an apple tree in their backyard. They started this tradition fifteen years ago. The tree looks like it is covered with flowers. The red and white amulets dance in the cold winter wind like butterflies and remind them Spring is returning, bringing with it prosperity and hope for a better life.
If you’re in Bulgaria on New Year’s or on Sirni Zagovezni, the first Sunday before Lent, you will be in for a fascinating parade and series of skits as the kukeri make their appearance. These are men who dress in furry costumes that cover most of their bodies, and they wear colorful wooden masks with scary faces of rams, goats, or bulls. The hand-carved masks display snapping jaws, twisted horns, and frightening eyes. Some masks even portray two faces—one evil and one good—to symbolize the duality of nature.
The men often attach to the masks shiny objects, such as mirrors, ivy (sacred to Dionysus, the god of wine, fertility, and rebirth), basil (for love), and multi-colored threads and fabrics. Red symbolizes the sun’s fire. Black is the embodiment of the earth itself. And white signifies water and light. All three elements were essential for restoring the fertility of the land after a long winter. (photo credit: kafene.bg)
Like many of the Bulgarian traditions, this one also has Thracian origins. During the time of the winter solstice, ancient people believed that the heavens and earth were at their closest points and became one, allowing evil spirits to enter the realm of mankind. These spirits sought to bring chaos to the world by preventing the return of light, that is, the rebirth of the Sun God. Without the Sun’s return, the earth could not be fertilized. Therefore, Thracian warriors would don animal skins, which allowed them to contact the spirit world, enabling them to battle against the evil spirits. The celebrations that began with the Sun’s rebirth continued into ancient Dionysian rites symbolizing life, death, and rebirth, performed in the spring before the sowing of the harvest.
Stopping at houses along the route, the men perform various skits pantomiming plowing and sowing of seeds, rocking back and forth indicating heavy ears of corn weighing them down, jumping into the air to portray tall crops, rolling on the ground to draw on its strength, fighting evil spirits, as well as the conception and birth of infants. In return, they are given food (bread and wine, symbolic of the flesh and blood of pagan sacrifices) and money, which will later be sold and the money given to charities or to help offset the cost of the celebration.
While the kukeri dance and jump along the streets, large copper or bronze bells surrounding their waists clang loudly. (A single bell can be as large as a foot in diameter and weighing twenty pounds.) The noise from the bells, the frightful masks, and the mirrors on the masks are meant to chase away evil spirits. It is also done to ensure a plentiful harvest, good health, and happiness.
Today, we’d like to explore more about one reason why we wrote Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey. It’s more than a tale about eternal love. As mentioned in the introductory blog, it’s also a story about the modern Bulgarian people and their culture.
This isn’t a discussion about religion. It’s about the activities people perform that are unique to their culture. Granted, the activities may take place during religious holidays, but they don’t necessarily have a religious significance, although often they do.
Why is understanding culture important? One reason is it defines who people are. The common experiences that people share influences their perception of the world and consequently how they behave with each other and those outside their community. People who believe in evil spirits may be more cautious around others. In Mystical Emona, Maria is constantly giving Stefan charms to ward off the evil she believes intends to harm him. As an outsider, Stefan reacts differently to her actions than those who have lived with her in the village.
Is either of them right or wrong? No. Different cultures shaped their view of what evil spirits are, or if they even exist. Will living in a place that is vastly different from your own change your perception? Quite possibly, yes.
Then the question arises: Should people who move to another country forget about their heritage and immerse themselves in their new culture? Or should they retain the purity of their traditions, ignoring all else? Or perhaps a bit of both – creating new traditions from each culture?
There is no set answer. Everyone is different, so what works for one person or family may not be appropriate for another. Some beliefs may be so strongly ingrained into people’s personalities that no amount of time can erase them. While other beliefs may pass by the wayside, with people openly embracing new beliefs, or incorporating them into what they believe and creating new traditions.
Consider these thoughts about what culture does.
Provide comfort and security: Customs, traditions, and beliefs give people hope for a better life for themselves and their children.
Pass on cultural and religious heritage: Traditions are a great way to teach children about the family’s cultural and religious history, giving them personal identity.
Connect generations: Spending time with older generations is a great way to build memories and enables people to learn about beliefs, traditions, and heritage.
We’ll leave you with a quote from Mystical Emona where Peter is telling Stefan about Sultana, a znahar, a woman who heals with herbs. Many people considered her a witch. “When people don’t understand things, they call them bad. Miracles still happen, but you need to believe deep in your heart before you can experience them.” So, culture is about believing.
Nestinarstvo (Bulgarian: нестинарство) is a ritual where people, predominantly women, dance on embers with their bare feet as a means to purify themselves with the fire’s healing powers. The Thracian word “nestia” means “fire.” Like so many Bulgarian customs, fire dancing incorporates both Orthodox and pagan beliefs.
It originated in remote villages in the Strandzha Mountains area, in southeastern Bulgaria. The celebration occurs on the Day of Saints Constantine and Helena, originally June 3, but now May 21. The ritual also celebrates the cults of the sun, fire, and water in order to bring fertility and health. Fire had protective powers and increased the sun’s divine power, and water had healing powers. Emperor Constantine I himself worshiped fire, and so he allowed the nestinari to perform their dance even after he legalized Christianity.
The celebration begins in the morning when people gather outside the home of the oldest dancer. They light candles and bow to the icons on the saints at the chapel that has been set up near the woman’s house. The dancer leaves her house when she hears the sound of kettle drums and bagpipes. She is pale and is already in a trance. Next, everyone goes to an ayazmo, a sacred spring, where they drink its healing water. The gathering continues to a meadow near the forest. Singing and dancing take place, and a fire is built.
When evening arrives and the fire has turned to embers, those present form three or nine circles, which is associated with the Sun, the “Fire of Heaven.” They perform a chain dance, a horo, around the fire and kiss the icons of the saints that they hold. The dancers raise the icons above their heads as they enter the fire so they can dance on the embers without injuring themselves. The music begins to speed up and so does the dancing. Fire opens a door to the spirit world, the oldest of the nestinari sees the future of the village while she dances in her trance-like state.
The following in an excerpt about the Nestinarstvo from Mystical Emona: Soul’s Journey.
As the fire died down to coals, people quieted. The smell of charcoal mingled with the salty air. Angelina looked at Kalyna, then put on a CD of bagpipes and kettle drum music. A heavy, slow folk song rose in the darkness. Everyone stood and encircled the coals. Then a man on the other side played a long flute-like instrument.
Stefan started. “What’s that instrument? I think I-I heard that music in my dreams once.”
“It’s called a kaval. Shepherds often play them.” She wrapped her arm around his waist and nestled into his side. “The nestinarstvo, or fire dance, is fascinating. It’s a famous tourist attraction. Not too many people can do it, but it fills those who can with energy. Watch.”
Angelina loosened her hair and took off her sandals. With her eyes closed and her arms stretched out to the sky, she stepped onto the live coals. She danced to the slow rhythm of the music, her long white dress flowing around her.
“Mystical Emona” was highlighted on October 9 at Boston University during an event called “Bulgarian Voices: Love, Light and Rituals.” It is also available on Amazon US and UK. In addition, we are working on a non-fiction book that will describe many of these Bulgarian customs and others in more detail, as well as their Thracian origins. Look for it in December.
If you ever travel to Bulgaria, be sure to try a banitsa, one of the country’s most popular dishes. In Mystical Emona, this is one of Maria’s specialties. One reason for the dish’s popularity is that it can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Another is that it’s simple to make. Traditional banitsa is made with filo dough, feta cheese, eggs, and yogurt. However, since autumn has arrived, we’d like to introduce you to a special variety called Tikvenik (teek-vah-neek), a pumpkin banitsa.
The recipe for this scrumptious meal follows, but first we’d like to tell you about an interesting tradition involving banitsa. To celebrate New Year’s Eve, Bulgarians make a banitsa with fortunes. The mother of the household makes lucky charms or fortunes (small sheets of paper on which wishes are written then rolled up and wrapped in foil). She places them inside the banitsa before it’s baked.
At the evening meal, each member of the family takes a piece that contains a fortune. An additional piece is reserved for God, to keep the house safe from bad luck. Each charm tells the person his fortune for the coming year: perhaps a new job, a new house, health, a wedding, and so forth. Bulgarians have many customs that focus on health and fortune, and protection from evil. Similar to this tradition is the more common one performed at Christmas. A coin (and sometimes fortunes) are baked into a bread (pitka). The person who get the coin will have good luck throughout the year. If the coin is found in the piece set aside for the house or God, then the entire family will be healthy and have good luck.
Tikvenik is made with homemade or commercially made filo dough pastry sheets, sugar, nuts (optional), cinnamon, and butter. You can also sprinkle powdered sugar on top to make it a little sweeter. And, of course, don’t forget the pumpkin.
It’s best to place the pieces of banitsa flat while they cool, rather than stacked. If you stack them, the ones on the bottom won’t be crispy. It’s fine to pile them up on top of each other once they have cooled. If you don’t like pumpkin you can use apples 🙂
Banitsa is delicious as a dessert or for breakfast with your morning coffee or tea. We hope you enjoy it.