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Bulgarians are denominated as Greek Orthodox Christians, so we celebrate Christmas Eve on December 24th. (In contrast, other Orthodox countries like Russia, Georgia, Ukraine*, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia follow the tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church and  celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th and Christmas on Jan 7th).  It is a very private holiday, and is always celebrated by the (closest or extended) family at home.

On the morning of December 24th , my mother and I clean the entire house early and start preparing the meals. We are supposed to have fasted for the past forty days, but none of us is that religious or, as a matter of fact, that strong-willed. But even though we don’t fast, we always make sure that the Christmas Eve dinner is free of meat, cheese, butter, etc.

According to the custom, we prepare an odd number of meals. Scroll down to learn more about each one.

My father reads the prayer before dinner

We all sit around the table, and my father (or the oldest person at the table) reads the prayer.  Then he breaks up the pitka, a special bread that my mother makes from flour, salt, water, and yeast only. The first piece is for the Mother of God and Her Son. The second one is for the house, and after that  dad distributes the rest of the bread to the four of us.  Then we look for the hidden coin in the bread, which would bring good luck and prosperity to whoever finds it! This year, the coin was in my father’s piece, which is ok because it takes the pressure off me and my brother!

In addition to the bread, we have bobena chorba (bean soup), zelevi sarmi (rice stuffed in sour cabbage leaves), kolacheta (donut-shaped bread), two types of tikvenik (pumpkin banitza), oshav (fruit compote), and fresh fruit.  We drink red wine (yes, even my seventeen-year-old brother, Viva Europe!). All the meals should remain on the table throughout the night, so that the good luck does not leave our house.

My family exchanges presents before or after dinner. I guess we just don’t have the patience to wait until Christmas Day morning like Americans do. In the past, my mom would make me and my brother walk the dog. Then as we come back in, she would tell us we just missed Santa by a few minutes, and we would rush toward the Christmas tree.

We do decorate Christmas trees and we do have Santa in Bulgaria. The older generation actually knew the Soviet version of Santa Claus, Diado Mraz (Grandpa Frost). Diado Mraz is very similar to Santa with the only exception that he is usually accompanied by his daughter, Snezhanka (SnowWhite) and brings us presents on New Year’s Eve.

We then spend the rest of Christmas Eve watching movies or Christmas concerts on TV or playing games.  It truly is our most favorite family holiday!

The lucky coin from the special bread was in my father's piece

My grandma sent us these donut-shaped breads called kolache

The good bobena chorba takes a couple of hours to make

These are the zelevi sarmi, stuffed cabbage leaves, and the fruit compote called oshav

Tivkenik, or pumpkin banitza with walnuts is the ultimate Bulgarian Christmas dessert. I made this one!

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I just came back from the best ski resort on the Balkans, Bansko! Bansko is a charming town in the north-east part of the Pirin mountain, situated at the foot of peak Vihren (2914m). The town’s unique architecture, combined with the new hotels, the entertainment establishments, and the modern ski and snowboard facilities, makes Bansko a favorite winter destination for foreign and Bulgarian tourists.

In total, the ski slopes in Bansko are 70 km long, and with the help of my ski instructor, I’m proud to say, I conquered almost 10 of them! Not only did this patient, dedicated person teach me how to fall, stop, and turn (in this order), but he also introduced me to a key skiing concept: après-ski.

Après-ski refers to the socializing, eating, drinking, dancing, and general merrymaking after skiing. I don’t know how they do it in the Alps, but in Bulgaria, après-ski takes place in a mehana: a tavern-like restaurant with a huge wine selection, a grill, and often times, with live folk music. And what better way to celebrate the joy of the beloved winter sport than with good friends, hot mulled red wine, and a traditional Bulgarian meal! Here are several of my favorites:

Let's begin with the quintessential Bulgarian dish, Shopska Salad: fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, roasted red peppers, lots of sirene (white feta cheese), parsley, and a kalamata olive.

Continue with warm agneshka chorba (lamb soup). Notice the clay bowl and the table cloth with folk motifs.

A sach is a hot clay plate. The Banski sach meal can contain a mix of different meats and vegetables. This one has two types of sausage, aubergines, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, onion, peppers and mushrooms.

There should always be meze on the table to go with the hot mulled red wine from the Melnik region. Here you see sirene (white cheese) and two types of lukanka, one of which is the famous Banski staretz ("old man from Bansko".. I hope it's not what it sounds..). After all this food, you don't need any dessert!

What else happened in Bansko?

This town is famous not only for the great mountain resort, but also for its rich history and culture. Here, on August 21st 1901, the Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski kidnapped the American missionary Elen Maria Stone and held her for six months until the attention of the whole Western world fell not only on the kidnapping but also on the fate of the entire Balkan peoples after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Read my previous post to learn more about the international crisis known as the Miss Stone Affair.


The Coca-Cola Company has always made the best Christmas commercials!  Their new marketing campaign is, once again, memorable, and this time, it even has a connection with Bulgaria!

The “Snow Globes” TV commercial was created in collaboration with Coca-Cola Germany and McCann, Madrid, and was produced by Bulgaria’s Boyana Film Studio in Sofia. Along with the emblematic Christmas Trucks and the reference to the polar bears, the commercial features only Bulgarian actors: Ivan Petrushinov as Santa, Dido Manchev as the store owner, Nikola Kiuchukov and Desislava Kasabova as the young couple, etc. The Californian Grammy Award winning band Train performs the song “Shake Up Christmas”.

I hope the commercial’s message  inspires you for a wonderful holiday with your friends, family and loved ones!


Our extended family has a new member! A perfect little Christmas gift for my cousin and his wonderful wife!

Grumpy BabyBut what a turmoil the little fellow caused, even before he was named!

In Bulgaria, grandparents-grandchildren name continuity is a very powerful tradition. For us, naming our children after our parents is a sign of respect and gratitude.   I was named after my father’s grandmother. My brother, after my grandfather. My cousin, after our grandmother, and so on, going generations back.

We don’t know why, but my cousin’s wife decided to break the tradition and give her son a unique name. It’s not that big of a deal and no one would have normally noticed anything (because many people follow the tradition, but many also don’t), but it somehow created some tension… or should I say, bitterness. The issue is that the grandfather-to-be really wanted the child to be named after him. He actually said out loud that he would love to give his name to the only son of his only son.

Without questioning the mother’s choice not to honor her father-in-law, I was just wondering, what or who do parents in other countries choose to honor when naming their child?

***

Did you know that the second names in Bulgaria are derivatives of the father’s first name? The father’s name gets the suffix –ov for boys and –ova for girls.  For example, if Katerina’s father is called Ivan Petrov, her full name would be Katerina Ivanova Petrova (wink wink to all Vampire Diaries’  and Nina Dobrev’s fans!). In contrast, American parents come up with both their child’s first and second name. Some of my American friends’ first name is “regular”, while their second name represents their ethnicity or cultural heritage: like Shalini or Ryan.

***

You celebrate Birthdays? But do you celebrate Name Days? Bulgarians do.

***

Why do Bulgarians spit on a baby for good luck?

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