Easter or Velik Den (Great Day) is one of the most important holidays in Bulgaria. It is a celebration of life, of Christ’s victory over sin and death. As any important holiday it comes with its own set of ancient and modern traditions.
The Bulgarian Easter is celebrated according to the Bulgarian Orthodox church’s calendar. Therefore it rarely aligns with the Easter in the countries with Catholic and Protestant traditions. This year (2016) Easter is celebrated in the last weekend of April.
The Easter weekend celebration is only the end of the Orthodox ritual connected with Christ’s resurrection. The beginning of the ritual is a seven week long fast called “The Great Fast” during which christians abstain from certain kinds of foods. The last week of the fast, the week right before Easter is called “The Holy Week”. Each day of this week is called “great” – Great Monday, Great Friday, etc. During this week, people go to different church services, fast and prepare for the feast.
Nowadays not many people keep the fast but a lot of religious Bulgarians go to church services and prepare spiritually for the holiday.
The Easter eggs must be painted on Great Thursday or Great Saturday. Traditionally, the egg painting is done in the early morning before sunrise. The first painted egg must be red. With it the parents rub the cheeks and foreheads of the children of the house for health and happiness during the coming year. Afterwards, the egg is left in front of the home icon (painting of a saint) until next Easter. The old egg from the previous Easter is used for predicting what the year to come will be. If the egg is dry, the year will be prosperous. If it is rotting it will be a bad year.
The rest of the eggs are done in different colours. Herbs and wax are often used to make more interesting designs. After painting the eggs they are usually rubbed with oil to make them shine.
The painted eggs are not consumed before Great Saturday.
The Bulgarian sweet Easter bread called Kozunak is made on Great Friday or Great Saturday by the lady of the house (in modern times it is simply bough from the local bakery). It is a rich sweet bread similar to the Italian Pandoro, usually covered in sugar and shaped in intricate forms.
Easter is celebrated three days – from Great Friday to Great Sunday. At Great Saturday evening people go to a church service. At exactly midnight, the church bells start ringing and people greet each other with “Hristos voskrese” (Christ has risen) to which they reply “Voistino voskrese” (Indeed, he has risen). Then the priest lights a candle and passes the flame to the crowds who share it with each other wishing for health and happiness. The candles are silently brought home.
This tradition is still kept today. Every Easter at midnight the churches gather a crowd of people with candles and painted eggs.
After Saturday midnight, the egg fights begin. People “fight” with their egg champions to gain health and happiness in the coming year. The “loosers” get to eat hard boiled eggs.
If you plan to visit Bulgaria Kozunak is one of the delicacies you have to try. The sugary yellow bread is sold year round in most Bulgarian bakeries. But if you feel like baking something new, here is a good recipe for it.
• 1 kg white flour
• 6 eggs
• 200 g butter
• 200 g sugar
• 1 cube active yeast
• 250 ml milk
• Grated lemon zest of 1 lemon
• 1 tbsp rum (optional)
• 1/3 cup raisins (optional)
• Pinch of salt
• 1 egg yolk
1. Sieve the flour in a deep bowl. In a separate bowl beat together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest and rum.
2. Warm the milk until it is hot to the touch. Crumble the yeast in it with a pinch of salt, 1 tbsp sugar and 1 tbsp flour. Set aside.
3. Make a well in the flour and pour in the egg mixture and the yeasty milk. Knead until a smooth soft dough that doesn’t stick to the fingers forms. Depending on the type flour you might need to add a bit flour or water to make the right consistency.
4. Melt the butter. Roll our the dough and brush a layer of butter on top of it. Fold over like an envelope and roll again. Brush with another layer of butter and again fold the dough, thus creating butter layers. Repeat until there is no more butter.
5. Put the dough in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a towel and let rest until doubled in size in a warm place.
6. Shape the dough. The most common shape for a kozunak is braided and round but you can make it whatever shape you like. You can also roll the dough out, add a layer of jam and shape it as a loaf.
7. Leave the shaped kozunak to rest a second time.
8. Brush the kozunak with egg yolk and dust with sugar.
9. Bake in 200 C oven for 10 minutes then turn down the temperature to 180 and bake half an hour more or until the kozunak is golden brown and when you tap it it sounds hollow.
10. Enjoy warm or cold, with or without jam.