Author: Лена Кирилова

Calendar holidays and customs: "Koledari"

The traditional calendar as a cultural, social and moral regulator reflects the world view of the Bulgarians, the characteristic features of the popular character and the spiritual life of our ancestors. It is the result of multi-millennial multilayered overlay interweaving in a wonderful union pagan and Christian beliefs, rituals, symbols, referred to as "orthodox paganism", which has determined the worldview basis of the preserved to this day traditional holiday rituals.

In ancient times in our land was used the Roman solar calendar, according to which the new year began in March. Later was adopted the Julian calendar, which placed the beginning of the year on the first of January. The Proto-Bulgarians, who settled on the Balkan Peninsula and who participated in the creation of the Bulgarian state, had their own calendar consisting of twelve-consecutive cycles bearing the names of different animals. The Gregorian reform in 1582 corrected the error in noting the duration of the Julian calendar year and shifted the calendar with 13 days. Introduced in Bulgaria in 1916, the new Gregorian calendar changed the official celebration of the holidays, but today the people still celebrate the holidays twice – the "old" and the "new" one. The preserved today customs and rituals reveal the diversity and richness of the folk culture, the wisdom of our ancestors and the memory of distant times when man and nature were inextricably linked and lived in harmony and unity ...

The alternating natural and economic changes and the accumulated centuries old experience of the people divide the calendar year in three main calendar cycles – winter, spring and summer-autumn. According to folk notions, the periods of winter and summer solstice and the vernal equinox are suitable for various enchantments, fortune-telling and ritual practices through which one can influence the expected harvest and appease the elements, to protect himself from harm and ensure his health and wellbeing.

The biggest, most generous and awaited winter holiday – Christmas, has its origin in the ancient Roman "kalends" associated with the worship to the sun. When the heavenly light ends its way and is about to embark on the new way, the transition between the old and the new year, between the past and the future, in the most ancient times, looking for happiness, people uttered a prayer for good health and luck, light work and happy days, and they believed it would come true. Because Christmas is expectation, faith, beginning ... Seeking reconciliation with pagan beliefs, Christianity added its beginning – the birth of the Savior, and an astonishing mystery of pagan and Christian symbols entwine together the wealth of the rituals and the magic of the blessings with the gratitude for the hope born with Christ and the resurrected hopes and dreams destined to magically come true in the silent and holy night ... This unique, so different night of waiting for the miracle of Christmas keeps centuries old traditions inherited from various tribes and peoples who inhabited our land, and keeps the memory – distant and so close, of a warm and cozy home, of a numerous brood gathered by the fireplace, united and smiling people, giving their love and hope at the rich table ...

In the early morning of December 24th the festive preparations for Christmas Eve start. The customs, subordinate to the idea of the decisive role of the beginning, are followed strictly in order to ensure a rich harvest and family prosperity. The hostess kneads the ritual bread – the rounded bagels for the Koledari, the bread for Christ at Christmas Eve. People prepare an odd number of meatless dishes – stuffed peppers, boiled beans, cabbage leaves with stuffing, wheat, dried fruit compote, pumpkin pie, and on the table people put everything that is born on the farm. Garlic as a plant with symbolic power protects people and animals from evil and illnesses, honey is a message for sweet life, and the lump of soil from the field is associated with notions of truth, holiness and purity. The well laden festive table symbolizes the generosity of the earth, the gratitude of man to nature and God, and the eternal desire for a good, happy and fruitful year. The men prepare the yule log for the fire – old, hard oak log. At one end they make a hole and put incense and wine in it, then the log is wrapped in white cloth, smeared with holi oil, and anointed in this way it is ready for festive fire. Gathering juice from the ground and strength from the sun, ascended to the heavens, the yule log, symbol of the mythological cosmic tree of life and the world, will burn all night and will warm the souls. It will be used to predict the future, the Young God on it will come down in order to be in every home and in every heart.

Round the festive table, laid on straw on the ground, gathers all the family. The oldest member of the family has the honour to light the yule log, to break the bread above his head – so that the wheat rises high, and wisely to bless – so that the land produces more, the year is richer, and there is health, love and harmony for everyone. The first pieces are for the house and Virgin Mary, and then the bread is distributed between each of the family members. That night is the night of the future and therefore is considered to be suitable for predictions. With twelve onion flakes, in which they put salt, people predict the weather in each of the months. The girls hide the first bite of bread under their pillows to dream about who they will marry. If the fire burns bright and if there are fire sparks, people say that the year will be abundant. The whole nuts of the walnuts predict success and prosperity. For good luck and health the people from Kotel throw some boxwood into the fire and make predictions for health and luck. The ashes of the yule log are kept until the fall when they are mixed with the seeds of the wheat and go in the ground to ensure a good harvest.

The table is not cleared all night so that the year is "full" and there is plenty of everything. At midnight the Koledari start their visits – mostly bachelors and grooms-to-be, dressed festively, led by a "host". By participating in this custom the lads show their maturity as full members of the men's society and continuers of the family. "A boy who has not been a Koledar, and a girl that has not been a Lazarka cannot get married" – says a popular wisdom. In the group of Koledri there are members who are called "cats" – boys who announce the arrival of the group, as well as "donkeys", whose task is to carry the received gifts. Various wreaths and flowers decorate the fur caps of the participants in this ritual. A compulsory element in the decoration is the presence of greenery, white and red colour, wool or amulet, gold-leaf or white paint. The wreaths, symbol of vitality, health and fertility, are usually made of: curved vine stick, coiled with strings of popcorn, raisins, sugar cubes, tied with a red thread and a bunch of boxwood; of lime bark, crossed with red woolen threads, prunes, where in the middle there is a tied gold coin or a bunch of live-ever; a curved stick from a cornel-tree with coloured woolen threads, charms, blue beads, tassels, small coins; of hazel bark, decorated with popcorn and dried fruits. "We sing for you, and we praise God!" - sing the Koledari as they enter each house – to praise the home and the brood, "to bring in clear sun", to wish everyone "to swim like a barbel fish in the depths, to fly like an eagle in the heights, and to walk like a peacock in boyar yard". They sing to young and old, bachelors and maids, they bless the owner to have three rivers flowing through his yard: "the first river – of white milk, the second river – of yellow corn, and the third one – of sparkling wine". The song merges with the silent voice of the yule log – "I will raise up to the sky, my branches will touch the ground, my leaves will come out like small pearls, my blossoms will bloom like pure silver, the Young God will come down on me and nice gifts will be given" ... For the best wishes and the blessings the owners give the Koledari meat, lard, flour, and nice gifts – " rounded bagels and on the bagel – silver and gold." An interesting ritual performed in some villages is the so called "brazaya." The name comes from the main ritual objects and the person who leads the ritual. The "brazaya" is made of a rod with a tilt on top of it and rabit lips made of wooden boards, decorated with rabbit fur, cock feathers, tinsel, beads. The participants in the ritual visit the houses together with a piper and perform special games.

Christmas is celebrated for three days – until St Stefan's Day on December 27th, and during the three days on the village square large horo dances wind, and young and old take part in this traditional dance.
Koledari at the beginning of ХХ century

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