7 unusual Bulgarian customs and traditions

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

Carnival against the evil spirits: Kukeri

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

Meeting spring with red and white: Baba Marta

Meeting 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

Sacred barefoot dance on fire: Nestinari

Sacred barefoot dance on fire: Nestinari. Photo credit: Daniela Vladimirova, Flickr.

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

Ancient ritual banned for its cruelty: Dog spinning

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

Valentine’s Day? No thanks, I’ll celebrate wine instead: Trifon Zarezan

Valentine’s Day? No thanks, I’ll celebrate wine instead: Trifon Zarezan. Photo credit: Pz.IStP, Wikipedia.

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

May your success flow like water: spilling water in front of the door

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!

21 thoughts on “7 unusual Bulgarian customs and traditions

  1. 5. Ancient ritual banned for its cruelty: Dog spinning…..I do not know how you found out about this tradition, but it is banned in Bulgaria and certainly can not say that it is traditional for Bulgaria. There are so many traditions that can be placed instead of this terrible tradition that you put it. However, I am Bulgarian.

    • Please note that I haven’t endorsed this ritual in any way and that I’ve explicitly stated that it’s been banned. That said, it would be wrong not to admit that it *has been* a tradition, whether we like it or not. I consider it extremely bizarre and I think readers would find it curious that this has been practiced in Bulgaria until recently. I don’t think whitewashing our culture and showing only the positive parts is a good and honest way of presenting our country and region to the world…

    • The author already said she didn’t like the practice. If you’re in the Botevgrad region, why don’t you do something useful and check on the dog at Balkanski Chanove? It didn’t seem happy when I was there in July 2018.

      (Mainly) happy visitor to Bulgaria.

      • well, I am a Bulgarian and …. I have learned about this dog tradition from the blog. It was something new to me; a surprise. Isn’t it that this tradition was banned or last practiced long ago. So long ago that haven’t heard of it even from my eldest relatives who were born in the first years if XX century

  2. I am English and was aware of this ritual I’m glad this has been banned that said it does not deter me from coming to bulgaria which I hold close to my heart and have come to respect and love the people having made many friends here

  3. I’m afraid that you can’t call the “dog-spinning” tration a “Bulgarian” tradition because it has never been celebrated nation-wide. Only in a few isolated, remote places in the Rhodope (if I’m not mistaken) region. I don’t see why the face of our entire nation needs to be stained by the barbaric traditions of some remote village.

    • I think it used to be a Bulgarian tradition just as much as nestinarstvo is a Bulgarian tradition even though it’s practiced in even fewer villages in the same region, Strandzha. You can’t really accept the one without the other, that would be denialism.

      But I don’t believe an old tradition that’s barbaric by modern standards and has been discontinued puts a stain on anything, much less an entire nation. If you haven’t practiced the ritual yourself in the 21st century, you have nothing to be ashamed of in my book.

  4. The point is that some still do it and it needs to be stopped immediately. Weather you do it or not or agree or not it was put here for a reason. But the ones that still do practice this need to be hung by the neck and spin around til there eyes pop out of there head. Its barbaric and against the law but they do not enforce the law. Let me over there and have a little fun with one oft he stupid Assholes that do this and see how they like it. My guess is they wouldn’t.

  5. Will be great if you could include the *I’m not sure if that’s the right translation* bulgarian tradition of “Calling” or “Narichane” (it’s definitely different from “wishing” and I think it’s interesting for foreigners as well as for bulgarians to hear more about it)

  6. When I came to US 15 years ago was terryfied by a “tradition” called cat declawing.
    Performed in some remote and not so remote vet clinics 🙂
    Did they ban it?
    Take it easy English friends – Bulgarians are right to be sensitive because they noticed the cliche in the Anglosaxon world for Bulgaria to be presented too often by superficial people as a bit too exotic/bizarre borderline barbaric and well – they got allergic.
    With time “this shall pass too” 🙂

  7. 1869 was the first known “dog spinning” event. Nobody here thinks it might have to do with the fact the Ottoman Empire owned this region from 1451 until 1878? It didn’t become “Bulgarian” until 1885. Islam teaches that dogs are filthy or (impure) and are not to be let indoors. Fleas are an extremely valid problem in hot sandy environments, so I assume the concern was likely the fleas not the dogs themselves.

  8. Can anyone tell me the name of the tradition of spilling water? My late wife’s parents, who taught at the American College of Sofia from 1938 to 1942, called it something like “esprati.” Though we don’t use a copper vessel, we still toss water across the path of a family member leaving on a trip.

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