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.

A survaknichka that we rescued.

A survaknichka that we rescued.

Since a bedazzled stick may not do it, kukeri involves dozens or hundreds of men in elaborate folks costumes and bells clanging and barking those spirits away. The whole thing is breathtaking and otherworldly. Surreal is one of those words that’s been denatured to the point of just meaning “mildly interesting,” but kukeri is truly surreal.

The welcome arrival of Spring is hastened by wearing martenitsi, ring bracelets and charms made of red-and-white string. They’re first worn on 1 March, Baba Marta, the eponymous tempestuous witch who is the personification of the season. Once Spring has fully arrived, the most witchy traditions center around marriage—and for some reason, a lot of meaning is imbued into towels.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that some Bulgarians get sensitive about the subject of the country’s witchy traditions. Despite the overwhelming positive response to my piece on surviving na gosti, a couple people were very defensive about the idea that Bulgaria has extant pagan traditions. However, relative to the United States, Bulgaria objectively has more holidays and cultural practices that people engage in today that pre-date Christianity. Rather than being something to be ashamed of, though, this is one of the coolest things about Bulgaria.

Unless someone is the sort of evangelical Christian who doesn’t trust cartoons about talking animals and judges things based on whether they “glorify god” or not, correctly describing something as pagan is value-neutral. It’s not good or bad, it just is. Second of all, Bulgaria’s witchy traditions are all uniformly awesome—they’re fun and amazing to behold. American culture is so thoroughly commoditized that Americans would kill for wild and wooly holidays like these.

I was telling a friend who’s recently moved to South Korea about some Bulgarians’ sensitivity towards their pagan holidays. She described a similar phenomenon over there. She’s recently made friends with a Korean documentarian, who’s making a film about traditional Shamanism on Jeju Island. On Jeju, the shamans are getting old. For the most part, not only do their grandchildren not believe in it—they see the island’s traditional religion as a ridiculous vestigial practice, best laughed about and forgotten. Bulgaria is a lot bigger than Jeju island, but it’s not that big. If things like kukeri and Baba Marta die out, then they’re gone.


Baba Marta tries to compete with her most formidable nemesis yet: the Walt Disney Company.

It’s easy to see what’ll happen next—if they want them back, they’ll have to pay for them. We recently heard about a company that does “lyutenitsa therapy,” where customers pay to go out to the village to make the cooked vegetable spread that their babas make for free. The traditional practice of making your own food from your own vegetables hasn’t even died out, and it’s already being commodified, marketed, and sold back to enthusiastic customers. Baba Marta’s Wikipedia page already includes a section for “Commercialization of the holiday,” noting that the practice of importing mass-produced martenitsi from China is already making inroads in big cities.

Embarrassment over Bulgaria’s pagan holidays is shortsighted, and caused by the sort of sick capitalist thinking that the US exports worldwide. If the Bulgarians who are ashamed of their traditions get their way, Bulgaria gets to be more like Germany, and they can celebrate the same Hallmark holidays as everyone else. However, their culture will lose something forever, and humankind will be all the poorer for it.


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