by Jhon Sanders
From antiquity on into the present-day, Bulgarian folk-culture has preserved a rich and unique body of tradition that strives to keep its people in connection with the pulse of nature within them and around them. Among these, perhaps some of the most important on the calendar year and better known to the outside world are the observances conducted between the time of the new year and the vernal equinox that collectively hail the advent of seasonal rebirth in the natural world: Sourvaki, Koukerovden and Baba Marta.
Celebrated for immemorial time throughout the rural farming villages of Bulgaria, the intent of these festivities is to ceremonially rid the community of unseen baleful influences (Loshotiya; ill fortune ) believed to descend upon the world of mortals over winter and to make way for the regeneration of Life in spring, bestowing abundance on the people.
The new year is ushered in by the rituals of Sourvaki. Following an elaborate ceremonial late-evening meal, families open up their homes after midnight to receive bands of masked boys and young men (the sourvakars) who roam from house to house as ritual intercessors between the people and spiritual realms, invoking blessings of good health and prosperity upon their neighbors .
This custom of Sourvakane is enacted by tapping each member of the household on the back with specially decorated cornel twigs (sourvachka, representing the World-Tree in microcosm and all its vital power) and the recitation of a brief charm for plenty in the coming months .
Sometimes a kind of mini-drama is performed, acting out a scene of death and rebirth to symbolize the dissolution of the negative and awakening of the positive within the household . For their part, the visited families are expected to repay the sourvakars with gifts of food and money .
After all the homes in the village have been duly called on, the sourvakars may stage more performance in the town center -including a mock wedding to invoke fertility powers- and dance many rounds of horos long into the night .
The grand Kukeri masquerade and procession, or Koukerovden, serves to close out the winter season in a dramatic public rite of renewal. The origins of the Kukeri can be traced far back through the cultural history of eastern Europe to the Thracian forebears of the modern-day Bulgarian people , back to a time of the worship of Dionysus; not only a god of vegetation and ecstasy, but one who mediated between the worlds of the living and the dead as well . Kukeri is observed at various times according to locale, but the most widespread tradition places the festivities at seven weeks before Easter , coinciding with or following Sirni Zagovezni; a day of purification and bonfire ceremonies . Regardless of the time or place of celebration, the salient features remain the same. Koukerovden is essentially a carnaval-like pageant of the garish and grotesque wherein the community turns out en masse in the village streets to drive away spirits of illness and misfortune with outlandish costumes, noise and dancing .
Traditionally, the kukeri mummers were strictly bachelor males, but the contemporary urban rite allows for celebrants of all kinds, regardless of age or sex . Each kukeri designs and constructs their own wooden mask individually -elaborate, often outsized affairs made in the image of animal-like, monstrous or supernatural beings designed to out-frighten the evil itself- and much time and care goes into their creation to make for a finished product that is a uniquely crafted expression of the mummer’s own soul . Both mask and costume are often decorated lavishly with colorful ribbons, beads, paper flowers, feathers, corn leaves, shiny objects or woolen tassels . Sometimes the garments are made entirely from sheep or goat furs, or a mixture of this with national dress. Another important feature of the kukeri’s ensemble are the belts of heavy copper bells, the cacophonous sounds of which further serve to scare off malign forces as the mummers dance, jump and gyrate through the streets . Food and herbs attached to the costumes – garlic, onion, red pepper, goose-grass, sumac and others- likewise play their part in support of this effect .
The mummers troupe includes a repertoire of archetypal characters who enact a kind of ritualized street-theatre during Koukerovden and Sourvaki to call upon beneficient powers for communal bounty by way of imitative operations. The lead kuker’s slow, swaying dance throughout the procession symbolizes wheat fields heavy with grain , and the parade is finished off by acts of mock plowing and sowing in the town center, where a final blessing is performed .
Today, the masquerades of Koukerovden and Sourvaki are still practiced according to custom in small rural towns, but are celebrated in a much grander -though modernized and cosmopolitan- fashion in the larger cities, more reminiscent in some respects of the pomp of the Venetian or Brasilian Carnavals than of the original archaic rite. The most notable of these urban festivals is the International Festival of the Masquerade Games in Pernik .
Baba Marta (“Granny March”) is a personification of the transition from winter to spring in Bulgarian folklore, represented as a temperamental old woman, and the First of March is the day of her welcome and propitiation. When the sun is shining, that is Baba Marta smiling on the people; when cold strikes the land again, she is showing her sorrow or displeasure . Thus, the spring is ushered in with a series of prescribed measures to ensure an early thaw and hasten the revival of life. Houses are cleaned thoroughly in the last days of February to prepare for her arrival, symbolizing the removal of everything bad and impure from one’s life accumulated over the past year . On the morning of her coming, only children are allowed out to greet Baba Marta, while the elders remain in the home to avoid offending her . Fires are lit in the yards, and everyone takes a turn jumping them three times facing the rising sun to purify themselves .
The martenitsa is a kind of folk talisman widely gifted on Baba Marta’s day. Made of red and white thread woven into braids or pairs of tassels, balls and doll-like figures, they are meant to be worn from the moment of presentation until the wearer at last bears witness to some sign of incipient life returning to the natural world, such as a tree in blossom, or the first reappearance of migrating birds . When this happens, the martenitsa is then tied to a budding tree branch and left to transfer its vital charge there . Martenitsi are tied onto everything that may need a boost of life-force in the coming year, especially children, newly-wed couples, and young domesticated animals; though orchard trees, door handles and vineyards often are decorated as well . Each of the two martenitsa in a pair represent a male and a female -Pigo and Penda- the white thread of the one meaning purity; the red of the other, virility; and the interweaving of the two, harmony between the masculine and feminine principles .
The seasonal observances of Sourvaki, Koukerovden and Baba Marta, though among the more popularly celebrated in Bulgaria today, are but a handful on a lively calendar abounding in folkways with roots extending unbroken down through the centuries. Their perseverance in the face of cultural syncretism, political change and modernization attests to the enduring, intrinsic value of practices that recognize and creatively convey our life experiences and relationship with nature. We who are without such a heritage can learn something from this, looking to these and similar traditions of other times and places for a bit of inspiration. Not to blindly imitate, but to glean the universal from within them all and adapt it to our needs, that we might find our own distinctive ways to express what is significant to us as living beings…here, now, and together.
 www.carnaval.com/bulgaria/kuleri.htm, “Sourvaki: Who Are Those Masked Men?”
 Riu, Xavier; “Dionysism and Comedy”, ch. 4 “Happiness and the Dead”, pg. 105
 Otto, Walter; “Dionysus; Myth and Cult”, ch. 11 “the Mad God”, pg. 136-142
 www.carnaval.com/bulgaria/kuleri.htm, “Kuker Festival and Mummer’s Games”
 www.carnaval.com/mask/birthofmasks.htm, “Kukeri”