Christmas in Bulgaria: A Cozy Fire and Fortune-Telling

The fire by the Christmas table is not meant only for Instagramming: try this Bulgarian fortune-telling Christmas tradition instead.

Beautiful Christmas setting, decorated fireplace with woodburner, lit up Christmas tree with baubles and ornaments, lantern, stars and garlands, selective focus
Photo: iStock.com / Aiselin82

Navigating holidays in Central and Eastern Europe might require some serious Googling. Let’s start with Easter, predominantly marked on different days in Catholic and Orthodox countries. The latter countries always celebrate Easter after Catholic countries. The actual date is being calculated with the help of the same formula but using the Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the commonly used Gregorian.

Another factor also influences the Orthodox Easter date. The Orthodox Church abides by the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, according to which Easter must take place after the Jewish Passover. While Passover can start around the same time as Catholic Easter, Orthodox countries are waiting patiently for the Jewish holiday, celebrated over eight days, to be over before their festivities begin. This is why Orthodox Easter can be anywhere between one and four weeks after Catholic Easter, usually somewhere between early April and early May.

Bulgarian Christmas: A movable feast

Christmas represents another challenge. While this time around, many Orthodox countries, including Bulgaria, abide by the Gregorian calendar, just like fellow Catholics, some countries, such as Ukraine and Georgia, use the old Julian calendar to mark the day of the holiday, meaning for them Christmas falls on January 7th.

Celebrated on December 20th, Saint Ignatius’s feast day marks the beginning of preparations for Christmas Eve and Christmas in Bulgaria. According to local tradition, on this day, a pig is slaughtered, and the owner brings into his home a sturdy tree branch, usually oak or pear, that will burn in the fireplace on Christmas night.

As tradition dictates, the task of bringing the tree falls upon the oldest member of the household. Bringing the tree home is an immaculate affair. From the time it is cut down to the time it is taken home, it is not to be dropped on the ground lest it loses any of its magic.

Once it’s safely brought home, the tree is to be anointed three days later with wine, olive oil, and incense. The next step is wrapping the wood in a pristine white linen cloth. The tree is to be burned only in the evening of December 24th, called in Bulgaria Badni vecher (Бъдни вечер). Bulgarians believe that the light and warmth from the tree symbolize not only the birth of Christ but also that Mary, the mother of Jesus, herself pays a visit to the home.

“Only we Bulgarians have such a special attitude and a long tradition of sacramentalizing the burning tree on Christmas Eve,” notes in a conversation with 3Seas Europe historian Dr. Milena Andreeva Georgieva. “Its fire should light the sacred table- the apotheosis of human labor. Its very presence in the home brings wholeness, light, companionship, and good. The words spoken by the burning tree were believed to materialize. As a kind of incantation for good.”

An auspicious start to the new year

Back by the fire, it is believed that the sparks from the fire can be read as signs for the upcoming year. The fortune-telling contributes to the realization of the spell for health, good luck, prosperity, and a future year full of goodness. Wishful thinking at its best. In the morning, the burning tree is ritually extinguished with wine.

The unburnt parts of the tree are made into crosses or spread over the plow as a symbol of rural labor and rich harvest. The tree’s ashes are preserved because it is believed that they are endowed with unusually great magical power. Back in the day, the ashes were used as a poultice throughout the year, or scattered for fertility in the fields, the vineyard, and in the barn with the domestic animals.

While many Bulgarians lack fireplaces to mark the old tradition, Christmas remains probably the most important holiday for those celebrating. Almost 50% of Bulgarians say that what matters the most is the time spent with family and friends at Christmas, a survey by the Trend polling agency reveals.

Despite stringent budgets, some 67% declare they will buy gifts for the upcoming holidays. According to the study, the share of people who will give gifts decreases as age increases. Data shows that most people willing to buy gifts are aged 30-49. When observing Christmas Eve traditions, 75% of Christian Bulgarians describe themselves as strict followers of traditions. About 50% of the respondents indicated their own family traditions related to the Christmas and New Year holidays.

For many young Bulgarians, the upcoming holidays are an opportunity to catch up with dear friends, but not around the Christmas table. Once the family festivities are over, and the gifts unpacked, some Bulgarians move to step two of the holy evening: hitting the clubs with friends. After all, it’s just another holiday tradition.

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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