Given their geological and cultural proximity, Greece and Bulgaria are celebrating Christmas with some similar yet unique traditions.Have you ever heard of the basil water which is to scare away the evil ghosts in Greece or the fortune cookie-like traditional Christmas bread in Bulgaria? StandartNews English has collected some of the most interesting Greek and Bulgarian customs for you.
Greece: Christ bread and basil water to keep the ghosts away
St. Nicholas is important in Greece as the patron saint of sailors. According to Greek tradition, his clothes are drenched with brine, his beard drips with seawater, and his face is covered with perspiration because he has been working hard against the waves to reach sinking ships and rescue them from the angry sea.
To members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as are most Greek Christians, Christmas ranks second to Easter in the roster of important holidays. Yet there are a number of unique customs associated with Christmas that are uniquely Greek. On Christmas Eve, village children travel from house to house offering good wishes and singing kalanda, the equivalent of carols. Often the songs are accompanied by small metal triangles and little clay drums. The children are frequently rewarded with sweets and dried fruits.
After 40 days of fasting, the Christmas feast is looked forward to with great anticipation by adults and children alike. Pigs are slaughtered and on almost every table are loaves of christopsomo ("Christ Bread"). This bread is made in large sweet loaves of various shapes and the crusts are engraved and decorated in some way that reflects the family's profession.
Christmas trees were traditionally not decorated in Greece, however, Westernization imported this habit into most Greek homes. The main symbol of the season used to be a shallow wooden bowl with a piece of wire is suspended across the rim; from that hangs a sprig of basil wrapped around a wooden cross. A small amount of water is kept in the bowl to keep the basil alive and fresh. Once a day, a family member, usually the mother, dips the cross and basil into some holy water and uses it to sprinkle water in each room of the house. This ritual is believed to keep the Killantzaroi away from the house.
There are a number of beliefs connected with the Killantzaroi, which are a species of goblins or sprits who appear only during the 12-day period from Christmas to the Epiphany (January 6). These creatures are believed to emerge from the center of the earth and to slip into people's house through the chimney. More mischievous than actually evil, the Killantzaroi do things like extinguish fires, ride astride people's backs, braid horses' tails, and sour the milk. To further repel the undesirable sprits, the hearth is kept burning day and night throughout the twelve days.
Gifts used to be traditionally exchanged on St. Basil's Day (January 1). On this day the "renewal of waters" also takes place, a ritual in which all water jugs in the house are emptied and refilled with new "St. Basil's Water." The ceremony is often accompanied by offerings to the naiads, spirits of springs and fountains.
Bulgaria: Christmas bread serving as a fortune cookie
Bulgarians celebrate Christmas on December 25, though this is somewhat unexpected because Bulgaria is an Orthodox country. The traditional Eastern Orthodox celebration of Christmas lands on January 7. Bulgaria's Orthodox Church follows the Gregorian calendar, which means its religious observances are in keeping with those in the West. The Sofia Christmas Market is the ideal place for travelers to go during the month of December to experience Bulgarian Christmas cheer.
Bulgaria's Christmas Eve is celebrated with a meal consisting of an odd number of dishes which follows the forty-day Advent fast. This vegetarian meal includes grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. Walnuts, in particular, are found on the Bulgarian Christmas Eve table. These nuts are cracked in order to predict success or failure for the coming year. Another special aspect of the the Bulgarian Christmas Eve meal is the round loaf of bread, into which a coin is baked. The person who finds the coin will be rewarded with good fortune. Other hidden symbols include health, love, luck and others.
The Christmas Eve dinner table may not be cleared until the next morning to provide sustenance for the ghosts of ancestors who may come back to visit before Christmas morning.
One belief that is central to Bulgarian culture is the legend that the Virgin Mary bore Christ on Christmas Eve, but only announced his birth the day after, on Christmas Day. Legend also says that Mary was in labor from December 20th until the birth of Christ. December 20th is the Day of St. Ignat, or Ignazhden.
Koledari, or Christmas carolers, similarly to the Greek kalandari singers, go from house to house through villages. These groups of carolers are typically made up of young men dressed in traditional costumes which vary from region to region. Some preparation goes into the koledari's performances, which begin at midnight on Christmas Eve. This tradition is said to protect against evil spirits. The koledari are rewarded with food in return for their services.