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Health and happiness

Varna, BG (View on map)

While Easter is approaching in Western Europe, it is still more than a month away in Bulgaria. Like the Western Christian religions, the Orthodox Church calculates the day for Easter based on the position of the moon. References to the Gregorian and the Julian calendar are responsible for the difference in dates. Here`s a short story about Easter and some of the major other celebrations that Bulgarians observe throughout the year.

Atanas (23):

..likes breaking other people`s eggs at Easter time
Like in other Christian faiths, the Bulgarian Easter period commemorates the crucifiction of Christ on Good Friday (called Great Friday in Bulgarian) and the subsequent resurrection. It reminds the people of how God`s son was prepared to die on the cross to pay for the sins of mankind, and how his soul glorified over death when he rose from the grave.

Mixed celebration
Bulgarian Easter is a widely celebrated holiday. However, a big share of the event has got more to do with ancient pagan beliefs and the arrival of spring than with the religious connotation. The combination between the two is most visible in the tradition to paint boiled eggs and have them blessed by a priest before proceeding to the non-religious rituals associated with the eggs.

Atanas (23, photo) tells me that the first egg to undergo treatment will be painted red: `All others have colourful and mostly abstract representations. On Easter Sunday (called big Sunday), all other eggs are handed out to visiting friends and family who use their egg to try and break other people`s eggs by knocking one onto the other. Broken eggs will be eaten, while the person who makes it to the end of the game without a broken egg can expect to have a flourishing and successful year. The red egg does not participate in the competition. It is kept in some or another place and will be opened only the year after. If it is still in good condition, that will also mean prosperity for the year ahead.`

Religious celebrations
Beside Easter, Christmas is another important religious event. Both celebrations are officially preceded by 40 days of fasting, but only old people are likely to actually observe this rule. One remnant of the practice is the vegan meal that is served on Christmas evening. It is not allowed to contain any animal products, and is supposed to consist of 12 different dishes to represent every month of the year. Just like Easter, Christmas is sidelined by different kinds of rituals and fortune-telling, all relating to health, the different seasons and the next agricultural season.

Bulgarians with Christian first names, celebrated their name days in a way similar to their birthday but usually on a smaller scale. Pavel (27) combines the two events, as his birthday and name day are only two days apart: `I invite some friends to my house and we drink a lot. I spent the last few years in England, so my family was not around.` G?ner (25) is part of the Turkish minority which does not celebrate names days. `It`s one out of only a few differences between the Turkish minority and ethnic Bulgarians`, he says, `I am happy I can count on invitations from his friends for most other religious celebrations like Christmas and Easter. I invite them in return to come over during Islamic holidays like Sacrifice Day.` When it comes to the celebration of Name Days, some saints are considered more important that others ? especially if they have been hooked up to social or agricultural events. Saint George, 6 May is known as Army Day. Tomorrow, 15 March, will be Todor`s, a big day for horse races and the biggest Bulgarian traditional gipsy `wedding market` in Stara Zagora. During the event, fathers traditionally put their daughters on display in order to find them a suitable husband. Other important days with religious connotation include Ivanov`s Day on the 7th of January and Saint Nicholas Day on the 6th of November. Unfortunately for Bulgarian children, Saint Nicholas does not bring presents like he does in Western Europe. The Bulgarian Saint Nicholas tradition mainly consists of having fish for dinner.

Dedicated days
Beside the religious celebrations, Bulgaria also has a number of state ceremonies. On the 3rd of March, military parades in Sofia remind people of the moment Bulgaria, helped by Russia, gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Fireworks are lit in most major cities of Bulgaria during the evening. Unification day commemorates the integration of East-Rumelia into Bulgaria. The first of May is celebrated as International Labour day.

May 24 is the day Bulgaria underlines that the Cyrillic alphabet was born within their borders before spreading out to many other Slavic countries, and as far east as Mongolia. School kids hit the streets on Alphabet Day and walk in processions to present their schools and classes.

Social affairs
Some people voluntarily celebrate Valentine`s Day to surprise someone they fancy. Girls and women can expect to receive chocolate or flowers from their boyfriends or wannabe boyfriends, but they are not obliged to return the favour, and they usually don`t. Lidia (21) regrets not having received anything for Valentine`s Day and tells me that the day is more commonly known for the numerous wine festivals in the countryside. March 1st is Martsenitsa, on which people give each other small red-and-white fringes to put on their clothes or the doors to their houses. At the sight of the first stork, representing the arrival of spring, the fringes should be hung in a blossoming tree - another ritual that is supposed to bring good luck and good health for the year to come.

Despite so many holidays related to the good things in life, most of the people I talk to prefer the celebration of their own birthday over everything else. Nesibe (21) regrets that her birthday never runs the way she plans it: `I would like to celebrate it in a big house with a swimming pool. I would invite all my friends to party all night long and then we jump into the pool in the morning. But in reality, it is just a small party with a few friends. I invite them to a restaurant and we have fun all night. The one having the birthday is the one to pay for everything, so this is usually as big as it gets.`

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