We celebrated the speedy dispersion of snow by getting out of town; it was the first time I’ve driven in nearly two months! We returned to our village for Kukeri, a pagan festival which takes the form of a ritual to ward off evil spirits for the coming year and It takes place on the first Sunday before Lent and although bigger and although more popular in the south of Bulgaria, our village embraced it by holding a dinner, dance and ceremony for the occasion.
It was a small turnout compared to the total population of the village but we all huddled into the hall, found our seats and waited for the action to begin. Dressed in traditional costumes and breaking bread, the older women burst into song and acted out scenes, for today was about rebirth and asking for forgiveness. The songs were sung with such feeling, passed down through generation, and leaving us feeling very moved by it all, despite not understanding the words.
The emotional atmosphere was interrupted by a racket of bells, stick banging and chanting which could be heard outside the door and seconds later a charge of five men, some dressed as animals, came bursting in through the door. After the initial surprise, the audience fell about laughing and people’s smiles stayed the whole length of the dance. The costumed men engaged with the women from the fields and although much was lost in translation, it didn’t seem to matter as they swung their bodies and shook their bells which were attached to their waists: the concepts of birth, death and rebirth were evident. Every so often they would touch one of us with their thyrsus’ (baton) to free us from evil spirits and bless us for health, happiness and a good year’s harvest for the village.
As quick as the mayhem had begun, the chaos disappeared, and we were left once again with the sweet voices of traditional Bulgarian songs. This time, the songs were broken up with games: musical chairs; eat a boiled egg as fast as you can and then whistle; and a bizarre set up of being blindfolded and then attempting to eat pieces of halva tied onto string, and swayed from a pole held either end by the ladies. The whole of the hall was in stitches laughing and us Brits were bewildered by the choice of games!
Once the festivities had subsided, we sat down at the long table laid out for dinner which we shared with the unmasked men and many of the villagers. The afternoon spread out before us with food, rakia, homemade wine, many, many more songs and lots of laughter until we rolled, a bit tipsy, back home.