As part of an occasional series on how the end-of-year holidays are observed in our broadcast region, we talked to Teodora Barzakova from RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service about how Christmas is celebrated in her country. Like many of their Central and Eastern European neighbors, the evening before Christmas is an event that is often just as important to Bulgarians as the day itself.
Despite being mostly Orthodox Christian, Bulgarians are unusual in that they observe Christmas according to the Gregorian calendar. This means that they celebrate on December 25 like many of their Western European counterparts, even if the traditions they follow are often similar to those practiced by their Central and Eastern European neighbors two weeks later.
Like other nations in the region, the evening before Christmas is an event that is often just as important to Bulgarians as the day itself.
"Christmas Eve (December 24) is the celebration I tend to enjoy more for some reason," says Teodora Barzakova of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. "It is the biggest holiday of its kind in Bulgaria…. It's the most family friendly holiday where the tradition is everyone gets together."
Like most Orthodox Christians, Bulgarians nominally observe a fast until Christmas Day. As in many other places, says Barzakova, not many people do this anymore, although since the fall of communism "it's picked up again and there are younger people who fast."
Apart from the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6, when Bulgarian Christians are traditionally allowed to eat some fish, custom demands strict adherence to the practice of not eating meat in the run-up to Christmas.
"Theoretically, you basically become vegan for 40 days," says Barzakova. "You give up everything that is alive or connected to or made out of animals."
"Theoretically," of course, is the operative word here, as most people don't do without meat in the weeks before Christmas. Nonetheless, Christmas Eve is perhaps the one time of year when even the most carnivorous Bulgarians refrain from eating any animal products.
"Bulgarian cuisine is all about the meat," says Barzakova. "But if there is one meal where you don’t eat meat, it’s on Christmas Eve."
Consequently, Bulgarians usually feast on an array of vegetarian dishes on December 24, including bean soup, "sarmi" (stuffed cabbage leaves), stuffed peppers, various pastries, compote, as well as fruit and nuts, dried plums, and dried apricots.
According to Barzakova, one tradition that is strictly observed is that "you always have to have an odd number of dishes on the table." She doesn't know where this comes from exactly, but knows that "it’s better for good luck and fortune."
In keeping with the meatless requirements of Christmas Eve, Bulgarians eat a special bread on this day called "pitka."
"It doesn’t contain any kind of stuff like butter or milk or whatever, which you might put in bread that’s not vegan," says Barzakova. Like the tradition of round loaves of "cesnica" in other parts of the Balkans, Bulgarians add a coin to the pitka. Whoever finds the coin in their slice is supposed "to have good fortune during the year and will make the most money out of the whole family."
Following the Christmas Eve meal, many might also attend midnight Mass. Midnight is also the time when the "koledari" make their appearance. These groups of men usually deck themselves out in traditional dress and go around neighboring houses singing carols. Although it's a custom that still thrives in the countryside, it has pretty much died out in urban areas.
Another Christmas Eve tradition that Barzakova says "we quite enjoy at home with my parents is that you are not supposed to clean the table after you finish."
"You’re supposed to leave it there so that your dead relatives can come by overnight and eat," she says, adding that Western influences are now encroaching on this custom. "Now, we kind of explain to the kids that it’s obviously there for Santa Claus when he comes over at night."
The intrusion of Santa Claus into Bulgarian Christmas traditions is not the only new custom that many might recognize. In recent years, Bulgarians have been regularly tuning into a Christmas movie that will also be very familiar to Western audiences.
"For some reason, the film we watch here is Home Alone," says Barzakova. "It used to just always be on TV when we were kids, and it just kind of stayed and now they’re still playing it."
On December 25, Bulgarians usually sit down to a Christmas afternoon meal that is often just as lavish as the spread they demolished the previous evening.
"You’ve only just recovered from the night before, and you have to go and have a big lunch," says Barzakova, adding that, as Bulgarians have in theory been forgoing animal-based foods for 40 days and can now break their fast, "it should be quite a rich table with a lot of meat."
"Theoretically, the traditional dish would be a turkey with cabbage, but there is also another thing that people cook a lot," she says. "In my family, we always have a dish called kapama. Kapama is the actual dish you cook it in. It’s a big clay dish that you can basically put anything in, and you keep it in the oven at a low temperature for hours."
Kapama is made with at least three different cuts of meat, often including pork, chicken, and sausage. These are mixed with pickled cabbage, onions, rice, and various herbs and spices before being baked slowly to produce a flavorful stew.
"It just smells very nice," says Barzakova, who insists that, for a truly Bulgarian taste, the food must be made in the special clay kapama dish, which gives the meal its special flavor. "You cook it for a really long time and it just becomes this really nice dish.… You’ve got a lot of meat inside and stuff, but because you cook it for such a long time in this [kapama] dish, it just makes it really tasty in the end."
How To Make Kapama
At least 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pickled cabbage (sauerkraut)
500 grams (about 1 pound) of chicken breasts
600 grams (about 1 1/4 pounds) of pork
500 grams (about 1 pound) of sausages
1/2 cup (85 grams) of rinsed rice
2 medium-sized onions
Pork lard (or butter or cooking oil)
Herbs and flavorings to taste: cumin, black pepper, bay leaves, allspice, paprika, cloves, coarsely chopped garlic (2-3 cloves), red pepper flakes.
- Cut the meat into rough chunks and then chop the onion and sauerkraut.
- Grease the dish with the lard and add a layer of the chopped onion and sauerkraut to the bottom of a clay dish (ideally a kapama dish). Add a layer of meat, sprinkle with some herbs and flavorings, and stir slightly. Repeat until all the ingredients have been layered out.
- Add the rice to the dish with 1 cup (237 ml) of water, 1/2 a cup (118 ml) of sauerkraut juice, and red wine to taste. Although the sauerkraut should ensure enough salinity, add a pinch of salt if required.
- Bake slowly, covered at a medium heat (180 degrees Celsius), for 4-5 hours until the flavors have developed beautifully.
How To Make Pitka Bread
According to Barzakova, it can be "tricky" to make this traditional Christmas loaf properly. "It's missing all the stuff you usually use when baking to make it tasty," she says. "So it's quite the challenge to make this vegan bread taste good and be fluffy. "
700 grams (about 5 1/4 cups) of flour
400 milliliters (about 1 3/4 cups) of water
1 tablespoon of white vinegar
1 tablespoon of cooking oil
1 teaspoon of sugar
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1 teaspoon of baking soda
A pinch of salt
- Mix the salt, sugar, water, baking powder, and baking soda in a bowl.
- Add the cooking oil and vinegar.
- Add the flour while constantly mixing to get a nice, soft dough.
- Put the dough on a counter, spread it out, smacking it with a stick or against the countertop to ensure it spreads more evenly.
- When the dough is ready, place in a round baking tin greased with water and form into a loaf. The dough is usually pierced repeatedly with a fork in a decorative pattern, while some more ambitious bakers also embellish it further by using a small part of the dough to top the bread with little figures and symbols.
- Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 30 minutes until the bread is nicely browned. (For a truly Bulgarian experience, don't forget to add a coin wrapped in a piece of baking paper to the dough before baking to ensure that someone in the family gets a good slice of fortune in the coming year!)