Having now lived through our take on a Bulgarian Christmas, here’s a little update on our celebrations- I’ve been giving Digger the Bulgarian Inquisition and have tried to make sense of it all!
We started early with indulgent food right at the beginning of the month on December 6th, which is the feast day of Saint Nicholas. Now in the UK we tend to know the story of St. Nicholas leaving (or throwing over a wall) a purse of coins for a poor family, and hence the legend of Santa Claus began, even though he didn’t end up as the bearded, red and white figure of today until marketing and consumerism really got involved, although this image of him looks like he pretty much had his style down pat.
Here in Bulgaria he is known as Saint Nikola, and the day is Nikulden. He is venerated as a the protector of fisherman, sailors, travelers and hunters, the master of the underwater world, and folklore includes a tale of how he plugged the bottom of a storm-broken boat with fish from the ocean, and thus saved the lives of everyone on board. Dinner on the 6th must include carp, (sometimes baked in dough to form a ribnik), and bogovitsa bread (bog=god).
(credit for bread images from zanus.eu, snimka.bg, moreto.net)
Traditionally, the bones of the carp must be thrown back into flowing water to allow continuing fertility and prosperity, apart from the head bone which was sewn into children’s clothing to protect them from the evil eye. Now we certainly didn’t go that far, as I personally was not that keen to have Tiddler walking around smelling of fish and acting as a street cat magnet!
This feast day is especially important to us though, as is it also the name-day of Digger’s brother in Canada. Name-days (imen den) are a curious phenomena, and anyone who is named after Nikola, or a derivation e.g. Nikolai, Nikolay, Kolyo, Nikolina, Neno, Nenka, Nikolina, Nina gets to have a day of celebration. Digger actually gets more phone calls and messages on his name-day than he does on his actual birthday. So we drank a toast of rakia (Diado’s eye-wateringly strong homemade fruit brandy) to Digger’s brother, and then ate plenty of cake on his behalf while we chatted over Skype.
Christmas itself though, while clearly celebrated in Bulgaria, is less ‘in your face’ than Christmas back home. We did see Christmas lights on houses and a tree and sledge display in town, baubles on trees in peoples gardens, shops selling tinsel and reindeer deely bobbers, but there was not the ever present Christmas tunes in the shops, the constant stuffing our faces with mince pies, and the endless craft fairs and Santa’s grottos.
Let me revise that, I tried to find a Santa grotto or a fair to take Tiddler to, but in our provincial town Christmas entertainment was limited. Fortunately, her nursery school organised a party with a visit from Santa (one of the dads) so she got the experience. The system here was parents provided a gift in advance for their own child to be handed out by Santa, and my only comment on that was clearly when Bulgarians give gifts in public, bigger is most certainly the better. Thankfully, Tiddler didn’t clock on to this, and was more than happy with her reasonably sized gift of a board game from us.
In general, I would say the whole build up to Christmas by Bulgarians was very refined and calm. Snow fell, and people did their shopping without any chaos or upset (as far as I could observe). Not so the British ex-pats living in the area. Panic stations!
From as early as November, ex-pats on Bulgarian facebook groups have been advertising ‘man and van’ runs to the UK, where people can place orders for food or other items. This clearly happens throughout the year anyway if someone is making the journey, but the Christmas orders were coming in thick and fast if the comments were anything to go by. People were requesting mince pies, quality streets, chocolate oranges, jars of cranberry sauce, christmas crackers and so much more. Familiar food from home was clearly an essential luxury, and the ex-pats are willing to pay the shop prices, plus the added purchase/delivery charge for the service that was being provided. Others were busy arranging pick up and drop off points for the van drivers to send and collect presents from family back home. There was a flurry of posts. Nearer to the big day, the concern took a worrying shift closer to home as the perishable goods needed to be sourced.
I’ve decided the way for Bulgaria to boost its flailing economy is clearly to go into sprout production. Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t track any down in our smaller town, so I had to resign myself to a sprout-less Christmas dinner. Digger seems ever so slightly happy at that prospect.
Christmas proper then starts in Bulgaria not on the 25th, but on Christmas Eve. This is a time the family to cook a special evening meal, which has very specific requirements. Firstly, plan wisely, as you need an odd number of people to sit down at your table. We ended up with seven at the table at Diado’s house, as Digger’s aunt, uncle, cousin and wife arrived from Sofia for the holidays, piling out of the car laden down with bags and boxes of food. It was like a vehicular cornucopia exploding into rural V_L_.
The meal is strictly vegetarian (following the Orthodox 40 day advent fast, though we have not kept that of course), and also must include an odd number of dishes often up to thirteen in number, traditionally salads, bean soup, walnuts, unleavened bread (with a coin baked inside) and sarmi (stuffed vine and cabbage leaves), fruit compote and baklava. Straw is pushed under the table cloth to guarantee a good harvest next year, and the dishes and table at the end of the meal was left as it was overnight, in order for any ancestors to come and share any of the remaining food. It sounded slightly creepy to me, and clearly adds extra work to the christmas morning kitchen chores, but we were back in the apartment by that time so no ghostly visits at all. Just Santa, and of course that is perfectly normal.
Following this, Midnight mass is usual, but we settled for a christmas morning service instead with Tiddler, and even then she didn’t last the whole time. She managed to mistake the three priests for the three wise men as they went in procession, spent some time holding a random lady’s hand a few pews ahead of us, and then faked a coughing fit when the incense was swung from the censer. On her way out she bumped into the devotional candle stands and nearly took that out too.
For our first visit to a Bulgarian Orthodox service, I understood the confusion. People were wandering around, coming in late, and then kissing things. Other people were taking photographs of the priests. Things were going on behind the iconostasis and she wanted to see. Other people were chanting and singing up high up in the eaves and she thought the angels had arrived. Digger didn’t help by muttering how miserable everyone looked, and grumbling that I’d made us all come in the first place. ‘I can’t understand the point of a service that is just all chanting and formulaic fancy words’ he says in a stage whisper. Old grannies turn and look at us.
Back to the kitchen quickly then, as we needed to prepare for dinner for twelve. Although I had explained I was doing the dinner, everyone ignored that and turned up with enough food to keep Digger and I in leftovers for the next two weeks. We sat down to start eating at 12.30, and finally cleared away at 5pm. Bulgarians NEED rakia to start a meal, and they need salad to go with that, so they’d munched their way through three enormous enamel serving bowls of cucumber and fennel salad, crab and apple salad, and pasta and pickled gherkin salad before we even got to their main course. Turkey (first time ever cooking by me), lemon and thyme stuffing, pigs in blankets (that created much amusement of the funny English ways), parsnips, roasted potatoes, carrots, broccoli (no sprouts to be found near us!) and sauces and trimmings. Diado didn’t think was sufficient so had brought a huge earthern pot filled with pork stew, the usual Bulgarian Christmas day main, so everyone ate some of that too. After this, plates of salami and banitsa on the table. After this, nuts and raisins and fruit. After this, finally, gin trifle and yule log (from me) and gifted cream cake and baklava that we really didn’t need but ate anyway. Followed by wine and whiskey.
Our little rotund tummies eventually breathed a sigh of relief. Thankfully, with so many visitors, there was plenty of help with washing up at least. Digger and I, stupefied by food and exhaustion, silently surveyed the remains after everyone had gone home. I ask him the general verdict, having missed most of the conversation as it was predominantly in Bulgarian. ‘All good’, he says, ‘they’ll be back for breakfast’.