Despite being a majority Eastern Orthodox country, Bulgarians celebrate Christmas on December 25. This is unusual because Eastern Orthodox cultures usually celebrate the holiday on January 7. However in Bulgaria, you can experience the holiday festivities in the weeks leading up to December 25. This means the cities like Sofia will be decked out in lights and Christmas markets will be in full swing during December. This is similar to western traditions, but there are a few distinctly Bulgarian traditions you should be aware of if you plan to visit for the holiday season. Make sure to also practice saying "Vesela Koleda," which means "Merry Christmas" in Bulgarian.
Bulgaria's markets are not the most famous in Europe. However, Sofia, the capital city has the most famous one, which is known as Kolidariya. It's held in Borisova Gradina Park each year from the end of November until January 7. The market is usually German-style, but you can still have a Bulgarian experience by drinking the traditional grape brandy or shopping for rose oil, a product Bulgaria is known for.
The Day of Saint Ignazhden
In Bulgarian culture, there is a central belief that the Virgin Mary actually gave birth to Christ on Christmas Eve, but only announced his birth the day after on Christmas Day. So for many Bulgarians, December 24 is more important than December 25. They also believe that Mary was in labor for four days before Christ was born, which is why December 20 is celebrated as the Day of Saint Ignazhden. The day is associated with many beliefs and superstitions, such as the attitude of the first person to visit your home will predict the coming year. For example, if a guest visits smiling and in a good mood, it will be a good year, but if a guest visits bearing bad news or in a bad mood, it will be a bad year.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day
On Christmas Eve, Bulgarians make sure to invite an odd number of guests for a meal and there must also always be an odd number of dishes on the table. Normally, this is a vegetarian meal, which encourages abundance in the coming year. Vegetables like stuffed peppers, as well as fruits and walnuts, are most commonly found on the table on Christmas Eve. There is also a loaf of bread with a coin baked inside and according to custom, the person who finds the coin will be rewarded good fortune.
After dinner, make sure you don't clear your plate right away, since it's customary for the hosts to leave the table as it is overnight. This is to provide sustenance for the spirits of the ancestors who stop by to visit before Christmas morning.
Christmas Eve might be all vegetarian, but on Christmas Day, it's time for feasting on an enormous dinner that includes a main meat dish, usually pork. Exchanging gifts on Christmas morning is very common among Bulgarian families and Santa Claus is called Dyado Koleda which translates to Grandfather Christmas. He may also be called Dyado Mraz or Grandfather Frost.
Koledari, or Christmas carolers, will go from house to house throughout Bulgarian villages on Christmas, starting at midnight on Christmas Eve. These groups of carolers are typically made up of young men dressed in traditional costumes, which vary from region to region. The koledari make special preparations for these holiday performances. As with other Bulgarian traditions, this one has a motivation behind it: the custom is said to protect against evil spirits. The Christmas carolers are often rewarded with food in return for their singing as they go from house to house through the night.