With a millennial history and a wealth of cultural influences from East and West, it is to be expected that Bulgaria has its unique set of authentic traditions and customs. Just like the majority of Europe, Bulgaria celebrates Christmas and Easter as two of its primary holidays, and many of the associated customs like the Christmas tree and Easter eggs are also present.
However, a whole lot of Bulgarian customs and traditions are completely weird and even bizarre. From the entirely confusing way Bulgarians move their head to say “yes” and “no” to the ritual of dancing barefoot on burning embers, kashkaval tourist presents 7 unusual Bulgarian customs and traditions.
1. Chasing the cross into the freezing waters: Jordan’s Day on Epiphany
On 6 January each year, Christian Bulgarians mark Epiphany and the Baptism of Jesus, locally known as Jordan’s Day (Йордановден, Yordanovden), with some rather manly traditions that make use of the icy winter waters. According to one custom, a priest throws a cross into a river or lake and all willing men jump after the cross in a competition to reach and retrieve it. The saying goes that whoever catches the cross will be happy and healthy throughout the year.
Another Jordan’s Day tradition is the icy round dance. Rather than chasing a cross, this involves men dancing in a freezing river to traditional Bulgarian tunes. This custom is best associated with the town of Kalofer, though it has been practiced in other places as well.
2. Carnival against the evil spirits: Kukeri
While carnivals are widespread around the world before Lent, Bulgaria’s Kukeri (кукери) stand out with their scary costumes which look like they have come from an elaborate horror production. An ancient ritual to drive away the evil spirits, the procession of the Kukeri is celebrated either around New Year’s Eve or on Cheesefare Sunday, just before Lent.
The Bulgarian Kukeri are unmistakable thanks to their incredibly creepy masks, the huge bells on their belt and the costumes made of thick animal pelts. A great place to see the variety of costumes is the city of Pernik on the days of the Surva masquerade festival in late January or early February each year.
3. Welcoming spring with red and white: Baba Marta
In Bulgarian folklore, the first day of March is regarded as the beginning of spring. March is imagined in the shape of the mythical grumpy old lady Baba Marta (Баба Марта, “Granny March”) and deeply associated with the red-and-white yarn adornment called Martenitsa (мартеница). On 1 March every year, Bulgarians give a Martenitsa to each of their friends to congratulate them on the beginning of spring.
And when you see a blossoming tree or a stork, you’re supposed to tie the Martenitsa to the tree or place it under a rock, respectively. As a result, in March basically all of Bulgaria is covered in red and white to welcome the warmth of springtime.
4. Sacred barefoot dance on fire: Nestinari
In a few isolated villages in the rolling Strandzha Mountains near the Turkish border, a mystical ritual has survived till the present day. On the night of Saints Constantine and Helen’s Day, villagers gather on the square to dance – barefoot – on burning embers. Reportedly, the dancers (called nestinari, нестинари) descend into a state of trance induced by a sacred drum, explaining the complete lack of pain felt by the participants.
The tradition of Nestinarstvo or Anastenaria combines Eastern Orthodox principles with more ancient pagan rituals. Curiously, it is practiced by both ethnic Bulgarians and the former Greek population of some of the villages in Strandzha.
5. Ancient ritual banned for its cruelty: Dog spinning
Though it has been officially banned in all of Bulgaria since 2011, dog spinning had been a tradition in the southeastern parts of the country for hundreds of years. Intended to protect the dogs from rabies and performed on the so-called Dog Monday (the Monday before Saint Theodore’s Day), dog spinning has been stigmatized by animal welfare organizations worldwide as an act of cruelty.
The most common version of this ritual involves suspending a dog above water using a rope and spinning it in each direction. The extent of physical or mental harm to the dogs from this ritual remains controversial, though in any case, the ritual had been dying out since the 19th century and had been preserved into modern times only in individual villages.
6. Valentine’s Day? No thanks, I’ll celebrate wine instead: Trifon Zarezan
While the Western tradition of Valentine’s Day has thoroughly invaded Bulgaria in the last few decades, every Bulgarian knows that 14 February of each year is actually the time for another, more traditional local festival. Trifon Zarezan, or Vine-growers’ Day, is less about loving a person… and all about loving wine!
Mid-February is usually the time when vines are cut to ensure proper growth and an abundant harvest in autumn. Due to this, the traditional cutting of the vines has evolved into the holiday of Trifon Zarezan, a celebration of fertility and Bulgarian wine’s magical qualities. Needless to say, singles and even many couples prefer Trifon Zarezan to Valentine’s Day, and for a good reason…
7. May your success flow like water: spilling water in front of the door
There exist many ways to wish someone luck around the world, but what is done in Bulgaria has to rank among the most curious. When one leaves home for a key event in their life like the first day of school, a decisive exam or an important competition, it is a custom to spill a copper vessel of water in front of the doorstep, so that literally “it [your success] may go on water for you”. And when a bride leaves home before the wedding, she kicks a copper vessel full of water too!
Typically, this tradition is followed up by giving the person a cranesbill plant, a Bulgarian symbol of health and prosperity. Indeed, there seems to be an entire ceremony for ensuring success!