The year 2021 is coming to a close. After the world-shaking events of 2020, many people hoped that 2021 would be better. For some, it may have, but for many, the trials afflicting the word continued on. But still, each new year brings hope, as if somehow the turning of the calendar to a new year will wipe away all the bad that preceded it.
We don’t have a magical wand that will do that, unfortunately. But, we’d like to share with you a Bulgarian custom performed with the hope of bringing recipients good health, happiness, and wealth for the coming year: Survaki.
In Bulgaria, Christmas was forbidden. For more than forty-five years, Bulgaria was a Communist country, so it was inappropriate to celebrate religious holidays. Christmas day, like any other religious holiday in Bulgaria, was a working day. New Year’s was the New Christmas or Koleda. Even though everyone could celebrate New Year’s openly, most people, including my family and grandparents, would secretly perform the old Christmas traditions on that day.
We didn’t have Santa Claus, but the identical Russian version called “Dad Moroz.” He was a friendly looking old man with a long, white beard and a red suit. He gave presents to the children, but he didn’t come down the chimney. He entered through the front door and met us in person. Most importantly, we received gifts on the evening of December 31 instead of on December 25.
Each year, I waited to get a doll I wanted to have for a long, long time, or a blouse I’d been looking at through a window shop for months. The presents were so meaningful to me that I was afraid to play with the doll. Sometimes, I kept it in the box for months. I’m sure my mother still has some of my dolls in her memory boxes. Even an orange was a great gift. New Year’s celebrations were the only time people had the chance to taste what was then considered exotic fruits: bananas, oranges, tangerines, and others. These were impossible to find during the rest of the year.
The new year was a time of remembrance. And what better way to remember than through food and smells. Even though Bulgaria is a small country, its cuisine is diverse. The meals, like the colors woven into the nation’s rugs, represent the hospitality and rich spirituality of its people. The food gathers people around the table where the many generations can talk and connect. Even my grandmother’s cats waited quietly near the stove for a taste of the special holiday bread.
I learned most of the rituals, cooking, and traditions from my grandmother. Some I only observed, while others I helped her perform and prepare. Before dinner, she purified the house and bread with smoke from incense burning on hot coals. I walked behind her, wanting to carry the metal container holding the embers.
Once everything was ready, we sat around the table to eat and talk. On New Year’s, the dinner table was similar to how the Christmas (Koleda) table would have been set. It held the traditional ritual bread with fortunes. We didn’t have a fireplace in my grandmother’s house, but she cooked and baked bread on a wood stove. Instead of only the customary vegetarian meals we’d normally have at Christmas, the New Year’s table contained a variety of traditional meals including meat. My mother and grandmother prepared delicious dried red peppers filled with rice, spices, and sometimes boiled, crushed beans.
Even though it was forbidden for Bulgarians, Christmas was, and is, an important holiday. In the past, it reflected the beginning of the winter holidays. The harvest had been picked, the wine bottled, and the grain milled. Everyone was ready to rest and celebrate a quiet holiday. On Christmas Eve, the family gathers around a special table and also respects the deceased predecessors of the home. It’s a night full of magic and love.
Some of these traditions are preserved and practiced here (abroad) among our Bulgarian community. Families and friends gather to celebrate with meatless dishes and the famous soda bread (pitka) with lucky fortunes and a coin baked inside. Everyone prepares what they’ve learned from their grandmother, mother, or from information and recipes on the Internet. It’s a world without borders, and we have access to all kinds of information to make our celebration unique for us. On Christmas, we also drink a homemade brandy called rakia.
Whoever fails to find the lucky coin has a second chance on New Year’s Eve when a special pastry called banitsa is made. The hostess puts fortunes in the banitsa and makes sure each guest gets a piece with one. What is a banitsa? It’s the queen of the Bulgarian cuisine and among other societies. It’s an egg-and-cheese-filled pastry made from filo dough.
Nowadays, we make the traditions special by sharing with our neighbors. In return, they share specialties from their ancestry. Our Greek neighbor’s baklava is famous in the neighborhood. She also makes a spinakopita (a Greek banitsa), which I admit is quite tasty. We also know an Italian family who prepares food for the whole street, plenty of wine and a variety of dishes.
The Italians also prepare and serve a special multi-course seafood dinner on Christmas Eve (La Vigilia). It’s a wonderful holiday mealtime tradition that originated in Southern Italy and is known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes. They make bread and have adopted our “fortune coin” tradition.
After the Christmas fever passes, we count the days to New Year’s: Survaki.
As we say in Bulgarian, “New year, new luck.” Since for most of my life, New Year’s was the New Christmas, I can’t watch a movie and eat Chinese takeout quietly at home. It’s still an important day for my family and friends. We usually gather in a friend’s house or in a lake cabin and prepare a variety of food in Bulgarian style. We cook and clean for two days, bake bread, and make banitsa with fortunes.
As the New Year rings in, our energy levels are high. We make a toast with sparkling champagne and dance the Danube horo, while we eagerly await the arrival of the Survakari. If you ask my children, I’m sure they’ll say this is a weird ritual. Survakane nowadays are the youngest members of the family, the children. We teach them how to sing and perform the ritual. They chant “Surva, Surva Godina” while patting every guest on the shoulder with a survachka for health and prosperity in the New Year. To make sure you receive their luck, you have to give money to the singers.
On Survaki, people party and ring in the new year, but like many Bulgarian holidays, other rituals ensure good health, fertility, and wealth. The day is especially exciting for children. They participate in the fun-filled tradition of creating a survachka stick. They then travel from house to house with the survachka. When they arrive, they tap family and friends on the back with the stick to bestow blessings on them. They also tap livestock and domestic animals to ensure they remain healthy and fertile. In return, the children receive gifts from the family. At one time, participating in the ritual was a right of passage for boys into manhood.
In antiquity, Survaki was a time to move away from darkness toward light as days became longer. The festival gets its name from the Thracian god Sureget, also called Surgast, Suroter, or Surat, all meaning “glorious sun.” Many nations besides Thrace worshipped the Sun God. In India believers called him Surya (from the Aryans who conquered that nation), and the Thracian’s northern neighbors, the Scythians, called him Getosur.
The survachka branch itself has ancient origins. Made of cornel or dogwood, it was one of the sacred World Trees. People believed that by performing mystical rituals, they could transfer the branch’s magic to those who held it, giving them prosperity, health, and long life. Equipped with this power, they could communicate with heaven and the underworld, acting as mediators between this life and the next one.
Survachki are adorned with yarn, wool, popcorn, dried fruit, beads, and other small items. Each survachka is unique. I used to teach in the Bulgarian school years ago, and I demonstrated to kids how they can make them. It’s a fun activity to learn about your Bulgarian heritage. I call it a magic wand. The survachka has an ancient story. The stick held power to chase away evil spirits, which, during the winter solstice, could cross the threshold between the spirit world to the land of the living.
We don’t have dogwood here, so we improvise. If we find a fruit tree, that’s fine, but when no tree is appropriate, the idea is to continue the tradition of the magic wand. Making the survachka is an opportunity for old and young to be together and to create something they’ll remember and pass on to their children.
Cheers, “Nazdrave,” and a prosperous year! Fill your homes with health, children, and abundance.