Balkan countries celebrate winter with customs and traditions

Balkan countries celebrate winter with customs and traditions

In a region known for its customs and folklore, the winter season is especially rich.
By Paul Ciocoiu for Southeast European Times in Bucharest – 24/12/07

Traditions and customs dominate the holiday celebrations in the region. [Gabriel Petrescu]

The Balkans, with their diverse and tumultuous historical backgrounds, are arguably one of the last havens in Europe for ethnologists. In this region, an enormous variety of unique customs can be witnessed firsthand, many of them dating back to times immemorial. Of all seasons, winter is particularly rich in this regard. Many winter customs in Romania, for example, can be traced to Roman times. For example, Christmas carols sometimes invoke Traian, the Roman emperor who conquered Dacia in 106-108 AD. Others feature the chorus "Leru-I Doamne, ler," which comes from the old Latin words Holeluiah Domine.

Also linked to the Roman era is the "goat tradition". Surrounded by children and revelers, a carved wooden goat mask is carried on a long pole. The bearer manipulates the pole to open and close the mouth as he dances, to the accompaniment of flute music. This tradition, which has variants – featuring different animals -- across the country, is reminiscent of pagan celebrations.

On New Year's Day, children invoke the god of vegetation by blessing family members and neighbours with a bouquet known as the "Sorcova", a symbol of fertility and prosperity. In return, the children receive cakes, money and other treats.

Bulgarian dancers prepare to perform the traditional <i>Koleduvane</i> dance in central Sofia, on St. Ignatius's Day. [Getty Images]

The same day, young people dress up as ploughmen and join a procession featuring a decorated plough. Again, this goes back to Roman times, having its origin in a ritual aimed at ensuring protection of crops. These and other rituals demonstrate the way Romanians have integrated many ancient customs into an Orthodox Christian culture.

In Bulgaria, Ignazhden or St. Ignatius's Day is celebrated on December 20th and marks the beginning of the Christmas and New Year festivities. According to popular belief, this day is also considered as the start of a new year. In this context, it is critical that the first person to enter the house on this day is good. That will ensure that the following 12 months are beneficial for the family. Nothing is lent out on this day, in order that the family riches will remain in place during the new year.

A key element of the Christmas festivities is the koleduvane ritual. Dressed up and singing carols, the "koledari" -- the boys and young men that perform the ritual -- go from house to house to wish health, good luck, prosperity and fertility to the heads of households, their families, livestock, land, etc. Then come the sourvakari, who are key participants in the New Year celebrations. Going from house to house, they tap people on their backs with cornel twigs, typically decorated with ribbons, yarn, popcorn and fruit, while wishing them health, longevity and success.

However, it is the kukeri (mummers) who are by far the most spectacular performers of a unique Bulgarian traditional ritual. Wearing costumes and big, scary wooden masks), they perform their magical dance as they tour the village. The numerous copper and bronze bells of various sizes that are tied to the kukeris' belts produce a loud clang intended to drive away evil and sickness. The ritual, attributed to Thracian origins, is performed exclusively by men around New Year and before Lent. It is aimed at scaring away evil spirits, so that the village may enjoy rich crops, health and happiness during the year.

Preparations for Christmas in Macedonia start on January 5th as people gather around the so-called Kolede bonfires drink warm rakija or wine and sing songs. Bannock bread with a coin kneaded in it is split into pieces and the person that gets the coin in his/her piece of bread is named best man of Kolede Eve. He then prepares the table with food.

Early in the morning on the next day, children go from door to door, sing carols and announce Jesus's birth. They receive walnuts, apples, cookies and coins by their hosts.

This day is called Badnik. Homes are decorated with white oak branches and the family gathers over food. Again, a bannock bread with a coin is split. It is believed that the one who gets the coin will have luck throughout the year.

The major Badnik celebration is held outside St. Kliment Ohridski Cathedral Church in Skopje where the Badnik best man hands out warm rakija and oak tree branches. Christmas is celebrated on the next day, January 7th. The young visit their elder kin and friends to wish them all the best for the holiday and enjoy a feast.

As a predominantly Catholic country, Croatian national traditions are closely tied to Christian folklore and celebrations. The festivities start in the first week of December when two patron saints are being celebrated -- Saint Nicolas and Saint Lucy.

Preparations for Christmas in Macedonia start on January 5th. [Tomislav Georgiev]

Saint Nicolas, whose celebration is on December 6th, brings presents to children and leaves them in red stockings. Good kids receive candies; while those who misbehaved get warning sticks delivered to them by his assistant, Krampus. On Saint Lucy's celebration day, December 13th, a woman dressed as the saint goes around the neighborhood offering figs, almonds, walnuts and apples.

At homes, families begin celebrating Christmas by planting the miniature hay which symbolizes vitality and fertility. By Christmas Day, the hay grows and will be presented as the central decoration of the Christmas table. The bottom of the hay is tied with a red ribbon and in the middle an apple or a candle is placed.

After Christmas, the hay is given to the birds to eat, since it is not supposed to be thrown away. According to the old beliefs, nothing from a Christmas table should end up in a trash bin but must be given to other living beings.

Svetla Dimitrova, Marija Lazarova and Natasa Radic contributed to this report.

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