My family celebrates in a very traditional way, which I don’t think is too common in many places. I am fortunate enough to have grandparents who live in the countryside, giving us really traditional Christmas vibes. My grandma used to be a primary school teacher, so she likes doing things as authentically as possible.
Anyway, as far as I’m aware, the night before Christmas is much more important in Bulgaria than Christmas Day itself, since this is traditionally when the fasting period comes to an end and the feasting begins. This still means that Christmas Eve dinner should be vegetarian or, if possible, even vegan.
My family usually sticks to the vegetarian plan, and we try to prepare an odd number of dishes to put on our “table”. This number ought to be very specific on Christmas Eve, so these are the options: seven (for the seven days of the week), nine (for the months of a woman’s pregnancy), twelve (for the months of the year… I know, I know, twelve is even, but that’s just what the tradition says!), or any higher odd number of dishes.
One of the most important things on the “table” is a round bread called пита that every family should have — my grandma usually makes ours at home. Somewhere in this bread lies a coin, so everyone hopes they’ll find it in the piece they break off to eat. Whoever does is said to have a very prosperous year ahead of them. My cousins and I happen to find the coin of our пита every single year, so we are beginning to doubt the legitimacy of the whole deal. My Grandma promises that she has nothing to do with it, saying that we always get it because we deserve it the most and, being the youngest, we are the luckiest ones too...
There should be an icon of Christ or the Virgin Mary on the table or somewhere near it. The first piece of the пита is placed in front of it and isn’t for anyone in the family. The second piece of bread is for the house and is left aside too. It is only then that the family members are allowed to take some of the bread for themselves. Whichever piece is yours, the first bite shouldn’t be eaten, but saved and placed under your pillow before you go to sleep. It is said that whatever you dream that night will come true!
Breaking the walnuts is also an important part of the Christmas Eve dinner. At the end of the meal, each family member chooses one (you get to look and examine them as much as you wish) and breaks theirs. It is said that if the fruit of your walnut is full and fresh, you will have a good year; however, if there is nothing inside the shell and it’s just dry and rotten, your year won’t be that great either.
The коледари are another interesting Bulgarian twist to Christmas traditions. Some are young children who go from door to door on the morning of Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (depending on the region); they shout ‘Коледо!’ (Christmas!) and invite people to begin their Christmas celebrations. After giving them candies, fruit, or any small treats, they send them off to the next house. The other коледари are men and teenage boys who have learned and rehearsed Christmas songs. Sometimes they are invited into people’s homes on Christmas Eve to sing for the family in the evening. They are dressed in traditional Bulgarian clothes (носии) and carry a long wooden stick to help them get through the snow.
In the villages where they uphold the tradition of коледари, women bake these small, plaited bread wreaths called краваи. After the коледари have sung their songs, the hosts of the houses put the Christmas loaves onto the wooden sticks they carry. Unfortunately, this particular custom is becoming more and more rare and is performed in very few places nowadays. I have never actually seen adult коледари singing on Christmas Eve for myself!
These are the main Bulgarian Christmas traditions that I know of, but we have many more interesting things going on after Christmas (like men jumping into ice cold water to retrieve crucifix). I’m sure that every Bulgarian will tell you a different story as to exactly how we celebrate this beautiful holiday.