CHRISTMAS EVE – BULGARIAN TRADITIONS & CULTURE
I guess you’ve heard about the Christmas markets in Europe, the red wine, the hand-made decorations, the music, lights, and the traditional food. But, do you know why on Christmas Eve in Bulgaria you will find either 7, 9 or 12 different dishes? Why do we put garlic, honey, walnuts, and wheat on the table? And as soon as everyone is seated, why no one is allowed to leave the table?
If you really want to understand our traditions we will need to start with the very very beginning. They might sound a bit weird but in the end, they will all make perfect sense to you.
1.Garlic, honey and wheat… Wait, what?
The Bulgarians are very superstitious that’s why they will never seat without having garlic on their table. It is believed to protect the house from evil, bad thoughts and against cold, of course. You can see a small pot with honey as a symbol of the “sweet life” and walnuts to predict the health of the family members. If the walnut is full, then the person will be healthy, but if it’s empty or rotten – you probably can guess the answer.
2. Vegan food. You won’t believe, but it is delicious!
On this day the food is only vegan, so no dairy products and meat. Women choose mainly food that swells like beans, rice, wheat etc. They believe the seeds are symbol of the fertility, health and that they will help the maidens to get pregnant. Bean soup, sauerkraut leafs filled with rice and stuffed dry peppers with potatoes are only 3 of the main dishes.
3. Ritual Bread and lucky charms.
The oldest woman in the house will hide in the bread small items wrapped in tinfoil before she bakes it. Every item has its own meaning. For example, the coin is for wealth, the knob is for work, the willow branch is for health, the little piece of paper is for study and the bean is for productivity. Nowadays the young generation wraps small messages instead just to make it more fun.
4. Sour pastries and sugar, sugar, sugar!
Of course, there is our famous Banitsa (the filled pastry usually with eggs and cheese), but on this day you will find it with two different fillings. One will be with sauerkraut (called “zelnik”) and the other one will be with grated pumpkin and brown sugar (called “tikvenik”). In some regions, the elderly women will prepare “baklava” – a rich sweet dessert made of layers of tin unleavened dough filled with chopped nuts and held together with syrup made of sugar or honey.
5. Honey Water
The water this evening must be sweet too. We boil a variety of dried fruits, put sugar or honey in it and we call it “oshav” (ошав). To be honest, the combination of this sweetness with the sauerkraut and the salty bean soup is absolutely my favourite, although many people find it strange.
6. Now let’s go back to the numerology.
Why the number of the dishes are so important and what meaning stands behind each one? Clearly, 7 are the days of the week, the pregnancy lasts for 9 months and 12 are the months of the year. Believe me, there is no a single Christmas’s dinner when we seat on the table before we count the meals.
7. And now let’s count to 12…
Before we seat down we need to make sure that everything is set because no one is allowed to leave the table before we finish with our food. And so it begins – 1. Bread 2. Oshav (sweet water) 3.Bean soup 4. Sarmi (sauerkraut roles filled with rice) 5. Peppers (dry red peppers filled with potatoes or beans) 6. Fresh fruits 7. Walnuts 8. Honey 9. Zelnik (pastry with sauerkraut) 10. Tikvenik (pastry with grated pumpkin) 11. Wheat 12. Baklava (the sweet dessert).
The biggest honour of splitting the round loaf is always given to the oldest man in the house. The first piece of the bread he puts aside for the Mother of God so she won’t feel hungry ever again and another for the house. He is the one to say the blessing and the only one who can go and get the salt and pepper, (which we usually forget in the kitchen). Bending down he shows respect to the Earth, prays for a fertile and full harvest.
And as I’ve mentioned already, Bulgarians are superstitious … On this night the family will leave all the food on the table for the deceased people. We believe that the lost members of the family will come during the night and when they see all the food left for them, they will know they’ve not been forgotten.
Merry Christmas & Весела Коледа
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