If you have read our 5 Bulgarian Christmas facts and traditions post, you already know how we celebrate Christmas in Bulgaria nowadays. But during the 45 years of Communism in our country (1944 – 1989) things were quite different. The reason: communist countries were officially atheist, so it was seen as completely inappropriate for the regime to celebrate religious holidays. Informally, however, most people would still celebrate secretly at home with their families. So, the communist government had to come up with ideas to discourage the people to celebrate Christmas, Easter and other religious holidays.
In this blog post we would talk about…
How do you create a situation where people would prefer to stay home on Christmas Eve, rather than go to church? Easy! The Communist party came up with the idea to broadcast movies from western countries (the USA, the UK, France, Italy etc.) on the national television. These were otherwise almost impossible to find and watch. The Bulgarian National Television would mainly broadcast movies produced in the Eastern Bloc. So most people would take the chance and watch movies produced on the other side of the Iron Curtain, instead of celebrating Christmas in the churches.
But what if some people still preferred to go to church, rather than stay home and watch TV? The communist regime would place several police officers around the churches to write down the names of those entering. Although there is no evidence of people who were in trouble because of this, most of them were afraid to go to church. Just in case.
And if that doesn’t help? Some companies (all state owned), organized work meetings. They would discuss or celebrate what was achieved during the past year. These meetings would held on the 24th of December, Christmas Eve, in the evening. That’s how some people were forced to work till late, so they were unable to go to church, or celebrate with their families.
What about the following days? Christmas day, like any other religious holiday, was a working day (except when it was on Saturday or Sunday). You could celebrate Christmas Eve secretly with your family (unless you were attending work meetings/celebrations), but the next days (25th and 26th) were regular work and school days, so it was impossible to have the traditional Christmas lunch.
What if none of these helps and people are still holding on to their Christmas traditions? Then the communist regime decided to just attach the religious traditions to a non-religious holiday – New Year’s. New Year (together with 1st of May – Labor day) would become one of the most important holidays during the communist period. Surprisingly (or not), it would pretty much look like Christmas. On the dinner table you could find the traditional bread with fortunes, revealing what the next year holds for each member of the family. New Year’s celebrations were the only time of the year when people had the chance to taste what was then considered exotic fruits. We are talking about bananas, oranges, tangerines, etc., impossible to find during the rest of the year.
Santa Claus (дядо Коледа/Dyado Koleda) was still present, but he was called Grandfather Frost (Дядо Мраз/Dyado Mraz). They were almost identical, friendly looking old men with long white beards and red suits, giving presents to the children. The differences: Grandfather Frost didn’t come down the chimney, but through the front door and met the children in person. Grandfather Frost also had an entourage, not of deer and elves, but rather his granddaughter Snow White (Снежанка/Snezhanka). Most importantly, gifts were presented to children in the evening of the 31st of December instead of Christmas.
They believed the Communist system was going to last forever. Therefore, generation after generation people would gradually forget and abandon their religious traditions and holidays. For 45 years, however, elderly people and those living in small towns and villages, would still celebrate the same way they were celebrating prior to 1944. Those were the people who kept traditions alive and after 1989 stepped forth to revive them. During the 90s there was still some confusion what tradition to follow on Christmas and what on New Year’s Eve. Even nowadays many traditions are mixed. Some people have the traditional bread with fortunes on Christmas. Others have it on New Year’s, and some – on both holidays. The happiest ones from this confusion are, of course, the children. They get to have presents not only on Christmas Eve, but on New Year’s as well!
If you want to learn more about the Communist period in Bulgaria – join our 365: Communist Tour (LINK HERE) every Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 16:00 (4 pm). Starting point: Palace of Justice, Sofia.
Author: Martin Zashev