Monthly Archives: November 2014

Bulgaria’s Witchy Traditions

IMG_0942My first Halloween outside the US came and went, mostly without requiring any effort on my part. Halloween has always been a holiday that strikes me as fun for a few committed participants and mostly annoying for the rest of us. On paper it sounds like an outlet for a lot of ungodly, atavistic energy; in practice it’s a vaguely juvenile thing that we have to hear about for weeks that includes a dress-up component. Great, an excuse to party, but now I have to put on a costume before I can get drunk with my friends? Ужас.

We did get a couple o trick-or-treaters, though, who we treated to the legit American Halloween experience of receiving apples instead of candy. Enjoy, kids, just be glad it wasn’t dental floss or UNICEF pennies. Like Angry Birds and Spongebrat Strangebob, American pop culture is forcing Halloween on people here. It’s interesting seeing American cultural imperialism bring Halloween to Bulgaria, specifically because Bulgaria already has a wealth of pagan holidays and traditions. Check out the tableau up top that I found on TV—a bunch of kids singing in folk costume, jumping over one of the stick-creations from True Detective:

Dancing in a circle... a flat circle.

Dancing in a circle… a flat circle.

Due to its status as one of the oldest-inhabited regions on Earth coupled with its Cold War isolation, Bulgaria has successfully retained a lot of awesome, millennia-old traditions that haven’t been wiped out—yet.

Bulgaria’s witchiest traditions are clustered around the quarter between the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Beginning with survakane on 1 January and going until Baba Marta on 1 March, the oldest holiday traditions exist to hasten the end of the dead winter season and bring about the rebirth and renewal heralded by spring. Obviously, from time immemorial until relatively recently, this was the most challenging time of year, and you needed to enlist all the help you could get.

The first day of the new year is Survakane. People make survaknitsi, which are “cornel rods [whose] side branches are tied to form the Cyrillic letter F (‘Ф’).” It’s cool for craft reasons alone, since the end result is an ornately shaped branch garlanded with string, coins, threads, and shiny things. The history behind it, though, is thousands of years old. Suvaknitsi are supposed to resemble the World Tree, an Indo-European symbol that’s one of our species’ oldest religious motifs. Survakane happily helps purify and cleanse evil spirits and summons good spirits, as Bulgaria’s tourism pamphlet cheerily informs me. Continue reading