Christmas in Bulgaria

December 25, 2003 by  
Filed under News

Although the Communist Regime outlawed the Christmas holiday for 45 years in Bulgaria, Christmas has always found a place in the hearts of the Bulgarian people. For centuries since the Bulgarian national conversion to Christianity in 864 AD Christmas has been a central Bulgarian holiday. As Orthodox Christianity is still the main religion in Bulgaria for many, Christmas has a Christian Orthodox accent including the Orthodox traditions and customs. Yet, the Bulgarian Protestant community has supported for the preservation of this Christian holiday especially during the time of the Communist persecution.

According to the Orthodox customs the Christmas holiday begins 40 days before the Christmas Eve. This time is called “Great Fasting” and is a time when no meat is eaten.

Christmas Eve is the end of the Great Fasting. On Christmas Eve the family has dinner together. The hostess prepares nine meals without meat. Some of them are: beans, vine or cabbage sarmi (vine or cabbage leaves stuffed with rice), stuffed peppers, pickles, walnuts, apples, honey, ushaf (a traditional Bulgarian meal prepared by boiling dried fruits), and round bread.

After the fast is over meat is served. Usually most of the Bulgarians eat pork chops, kebab and sausages. The kebab is prepared by cutting in small pieces the pork stewed with onions and pepper. The sausages are made of homemade minced pork.

Central for the Bulgarian Christmas dinner is the bantiza, which is a baked strudel like pastry filled with an egg and cheese mixture. A coin is put in it for luck. The oldest man in the family breaks the banitza and gives a piece everyone. The one who gets the piece with the coin in it is believed to be very wealthy in the New Year. The Christmas Eve table is not cleared until the following morning, a typical tradition to insure that there will be plenty of food in the coming year.

“Surovaknitza” is another typical Bulgarian Christmas tradition. The surovaknitza is made of a cornel stick/cudgel. It is pruned so that several branches remain on the two sides of it all along its length. Then the branches that are one against another (at the same level of the stick) are tied so that they form something like a round circle one half of which is at the left side and the other half is at the right side of the stick. Three or four such circles are formed on the length of the stick as the upper circles will be smaller and the lower circles will be wider. The circles and the stick are wrapped with woolen and cotton yarn (usually white and red). It is decorated with little balls made out of cotton, strings of popcorn, raisins, prunes, dried apple slices, dried peppers, etc.
The ready surovaknitza is used by the children to pat on the backs of their parents, grandparents, extended family, friends and any visitors in the house after the Christmas Eve. While patting, the kids say a wish for health, wealth, happiness and all the best to one patted. The patted person pays a dollar or five dollars to the child in order to receive a blessing in the New Year.

Around Christmas many Bulgarians celebrate their name days. It is almost like a birthday, except instead of a date the parson’s name is celebrated. This is usually done on the day of a particular saint after whom the person is named. For example:

December 4 – St. Barbara’s Day
December 6 – St. Nicholas’ Day (Nikoulden)
December 20 – St. Ignatius’ Day (Ignazhden)
January 1 – Vassil’s Day
January 6 – Epiphany – St. Jordan’s Day
January 7 – St. John’s Day (Ivanovden)

Another Christmas ritual is called Koleduvane. All the participants in it are men – bachelors, fiances and young men who have just married. This ritual group has its own name that differs from place to place and is connected with the region of the country – koledari, kolednitzi, koledare, etc. All the men choose their leader at St. Ignatius’ Day – he is called stanenik, usually an older man. The group has 10-15 persons. Each group includes younger boys (they are called cats), who walk around the houses and tell the hosts that the koledari are coming. The koledari wear old Bulgarian traditional clothing. They go round the houses in the village or in the town from midnight till dawn. On their way, in front of the gate and in the house they sing specific ritual songs. The songs differ from one another according to the place they are sung and the person they are dedicated to. As a whole, these songs are ritual wishes for happiness in the family and rich crop in the farm. The first song usually begins with this verse:

“Get up, get up dear host!
We are singing for you!
We have come to visit you,
We are good guests for you, koledari!”

The leader of the group carries in his hands the ring – shaped bun, which is a gift from the host. After the songs have been sung he tells a Christmas blessing:

“Let God grant you health;
We have brought in your house revelry! “

Besides the ring–shaped bun the hosts present the koledari with money, meat, flour, wine, beans and bacon. This ritual ends up with a common feast. Every family has a Christmas tree in their home; some are decorated with electric lights, some with candles. The tree is usually decorated with ornaments purchased in the store, cotton balls to imitate snow and a star on the top. Gifts are placed under the tree.

Christmas among the Bulgarian Protestants
Communism changed a lot in the Bulgarian mentality. For 45 years Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter were strictly forbidden. Christmas symbols and words were changed in an anti-Christian propaganda. For example, the traditional Bulgarian Christmas greeting Tchestito Rozdestvo Hristovo (Happy Birth of Christ) was replaced with Vesela Koleda (Joyfull Koleda – the word koleda derives from the Bulgarian word “kolia” which means to kill, to slay, and symbolizes the Bulgarian custom of slaying a pig in the preparation of the Christmas dinner). The name of Santa Claus was replaced with Grandpa Frost – again an old man with red clothing, long white beard and bag with presents; however, completely separated from the Christian meaning of the holiday. Even the traditional Orthodox Church was limited in their practice of Christmas.
Nevertheless, regardless of the persecution, secretly or openly, Christmas has always been present among the Bulgarian Protestants. Usually the church congregation would gather for a special Christmas service on Christmas Eve. In the Underground Church this event was one of the few occasions where the local congregation would come together and remain unnoticed by the secret police because of the celebration going on. Using the rare opportunity the church would not only use the time for fellowship but also for Communion and Baptism services. Since the churches did not own buildings, the baptismal would usually be performed in a river after the ice had been broken.

With the Fall of the Berlin Wall the situation changed dramatically. Through the largest spiritual revival Eastern Europe has ever known, in 10 years millions came to Christ. In the midst of the severe national economic crises, for protestants Christmas became not only a time of celebration, but also a time to reach to the ones in need. Thus the renewed Christmas became more powerful as it not only reflected on the Christian tradition but a real-life inspired practice of Christianity.

The Bulgarian Church of God is no stranger to these events. Every Christmas is seen as a ministry opportunity, as several activities take place. There are Christmas dinners for the needy which take place in the churches that sponsor social centers across the country. There is also a Christmas gift service for children from homes for children.

Christmas is a time when the church congregation comes together for reconciliation and recognition of the Birth of Christ. As the Christmas message is preached and Silent Night is sung, this holiday also becomes a celebration of the liberation of spirit and soul, provided by God through His Son. Thus for the church in a post-Communist context Christmas is the gift of liberty to come together and to worship. Remembering the Son of God who came to liberate us from sin and death we also wish you a Marry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Church-Split Protection Plan

December 15, 2003 by  
Filed under News

The past experience with Bulgarian churches in North America has been scared by series of church splits. A true test of leadership ability is to recognize the problem before it becomes an emergency. Based on this present research, the three major problems of ministry for the Bulgarian churches in North America include: culturalization, leadership and finances. One cannot allow circumstances to mold the future. Therefore, church split modes must be foreseen with preparation that includes the following steps:
1. Give your people freedom and never use fear in leadership.
2. Allow the congregation to experience and follow God.
3. Make your environment safe for people to approach you.
4. Always take the high road as a leader.
5. Accept responsibilities and be accountable.
6. Endorse growth and multiplication as healthy and necessary.
7. Continuously promote unity and togetherness in everything.

Church-Growth Characteristics

December 5, 2003 by  
Filed under News

Growth begins with investment in a process which will cause change. Churches which experience dynamic growth focus on the following important dynamics:
(1) Genuine experiences of the presence of God;
(2) High level of self-motivation;
(3) Unified vision and purpose;
(4) Clear goals;
(5) Pioneering or establishing a precedent;
(6) Finding people in the community and building relationships in the church structure;
(7) Relevance to their location and culture;
(8) Teaching activities and services designed to understand and to be understood;
(9) Encourage participation and commitment;
(10) Strong leadership;
(11) Quick to implement positive changes;
(12) Not afraid to abandon unnecessary traditional programs.

Such dynamics will draw people to your church.