In Bulgaria, Christmas or Rozhdestvo Hristovo, literally "Nativity of Jesus," is celebrated on Dec. 25, according to the Gregorian calendar even though this is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country (other Orthodox Christians follow the Julian calendar).
Christmas Eve or badni vecher is just as important (in some minds even more important). It's the last day of fasting for Advent and, like so many Slavic cultures, an odd number of meatless dishes are served at a grand meal. A budnik or ceremonial log is brought into the house and set alight in the fireplace.
Among Bulgarian Christmas traditions is the boy carolers or koledari who go house to house starting at midnight on Christmas Eve to sing carols and wish health, wealth, and happiness to neighbors in return for a coin or a treat or a little nip. Christmas wouldn't be the same without the pita, a round loaf of bread that is broken into pieces by the head of the house. Each family member is given a piece. A coin is hidden inside the pita and whoever gets it will have luck, health, and prosperity in the coming year. If the pita is eaten on Christmas Eve, it is made without eggs and often with baking soda instead of yeast. But all the stops are pulled out for the pita served on Christmas Day, often elaborately decorated with religious and family symbols made of dough on top of the bread.
The name for Santa Claus in Bulgaria is Dyado Koleda (Grandfather Christmas). Dyado Mraz (Grandfather Frost) made an appearance during Communist rule when religion was frowned upon but, since 1989, he has been largely forgotten.
The Christmas Eve dinner table often is not cleared until Christmas morning to provide food for the ghosts of family members. On Christmas Day, the Advent fast is over and meat returns in all its glory with pork, sausages, poultry and more taking a starring role. Desserts become more elaborate and drinking is not only allowed but encouraged.
Even though Christmas Eve is considered a Lenten meal, no one leaves the table hungry on this night. The dishes have symbolic meanings centering around fertility and abundance:
- Bean soup or another legume soup like pea or lentil so the coming year will be fertile, abundant, and wealthy
- Honey so that life will be sweet
- Stuffed peppers, grape, or cabbage leaves stuffed with either beans or rice again so the next year will be abundant and crops and families will be fertile
- Nuts, especially, walnuts to tell fortunes for what the new year holds
- Fruits, usually oranges and tangerines so the new year will be fruitful, and walnuts, which are cracked and "read" in order to predict success or failure for the coming year
- Boiled wheat with walnuts and sugar symbolizes the association between death and life, that which is planted in the ground and that which emerges
- Oshav, a dried-fruit compote represents fertility and abundance
- Corn, onions, garlic, and red wine (in some families) also make an appearance
01 of 09
Boiled wheat with sugar and walnuts or kolivo is a common first course at the Bulgarian Christmas Eve table. It is similar to Russian kutya or sochivo and is also known as kutia in Poland, koljivo, colivă, koliva, and more depending on which country you happen to be in. This first-course Christmas Eve pudding of sorts is made with wheatberries, or other grains or legumes like rice, barley or beans, that are sweetened with honey and sometimes augmented with poppy seeds, dried fruits or walnuts. The kolivo is eaten from a common dish to symbolize unity.
02 of 09
Pickled or roasted vegetables -- peppers, cauliflower, cucumbers, etc. -- are always present, along with meatless spreads like kiopoolu and lyutenitsa (a spicy red pepper spread similar to ajvar but usually without the eggplant). If oil is allowed to be eaten (it differs from family to family), tarama, a fish roe appetizer, might appear on the table, as well as olives that have been preserved in oil.
03 of 09
Bulgarian Christmas bread or koledna pitka is typically eaten on Christmas Eve and throughout the holidays. Often, a silver coin is tucked inside and the one to find it should expect good luck in the coming year. There are many ways to shape this bread, but I think this sunflower look is most festive. This recipe contains eggs, which are forbidden by some during Advent. When the bread is made with baking soda instead of yeast, it is known as sodena pitka.
04 of 09
In addition to the bread, many families have bobena chorba or sour bean soup prepared the "Monastery Way" or meatless. The classic recipe includes beans (usually the smilyan beans grown in the Rhodope region of the village of Smilyan), vegetables (carrot, tomato, pepper, onion, sometimes potatoes) spearmint, paprika and other spices and some type of souring agent. This soup is also prepared with sausage or another meat product but not for Christmas Eve. This sour soup is similar to Romanian ciorba and Serbian meatless bean soup.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Fish (if Allowed)
Not all Orthodox Christians eat fish and eggs during fasting times, so not all families serve them for the Christmas Eve Holy Supper. For those who do, pike-perch, cod, carp, eel, whiting, and salmon take center stage. A simple roasted carp and potatoes like this Croatian recipe might appear on the table.
06 of 09
Beans and legumes figure prominently because they signify wealth and prosperity in the coming year. On a Bulgarian Christmas Eve table you might find sauerkraut salad with leeks, olives and carrots, grilled sweet red and yellow peppers, grilled eggplant marinated in olive oil, vinegar, spices, parsley and garlic, beans stewed with vegetables in a traditional clay pot. Meatless chomlek, prepared by stewing onions, tomatoes, and garlic seasoned with red pepper, bay leaf, savory, red wine and thickened with a roux, is also popular.
07 of 09
08 of 09
Dessert on Christmas Eve in the strictest Bulgarian Orthodox households is just a dried-fruit compote known as oshav similar to Polish compote or walnuts with honey, but others enjoy apples or have a baked pumpkin purée dish sweetened with confectioners' sugar and walnuts, or pumpkin banitsa also known as tikvenik. Some have a type of banitsa made with onions. In one of the banitsas would be small pieces of paper with good wishes and fortunes for the new year.
But at midnight, desserts are consumed by the score -- Maslenki (jam-filled cookies), (cookies made with rose-flavored Turkish Delight), and medenki (honey-spice cookies), among others.Continue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
Most Bulgarian families don't drink alcoholic beverages until midnight of Christmas Eve. Then, Bulgarian grape brandy (greyana rakiya) is served from ceramic ware. This potent drink is also known as rakia, rakija and rachiu in the Balkans. Serbian rakija is made with plum brandy instead of grape brandy. Another popular Bulgrian drink that might be served is mastika, a strong anise-flavored drink, that is drunk chilled. When mastika is combined with menta, a mint liqueur, it produces a traditional cocktail called "The Cloud." Heated red wine known as greyano vino, similar to Polish hot mulled wine also might be served. Read more about Bulgarian alcoholic beverages here.