Travel Dreams Advent Calendar, December 7: Bulgaria 

Our next stop along our Advent route is to the east, to Bulgaria. Huh? Bulgaria? Why Bulgaria?At the far eastern edge of Europe, Bulgaria is not well known and may not be on the top of your travel list. It's always struck me as a strange and exotic place, a world apart from the rest of Europe. If it is totally unknown to you, it is a country that has beautiful countryside, ancient cities, and that mix of eastern and western cultures which I have found so fascinating in Greece and Turkey.Rick Steves Europe started offering a tour of Bulgaria some years ago. Back then, the woman hired to lead the tours there was flown to Seattle for our meetings, her first time in the US. Her name was Lyuba and I'll never forget her, ever. She was so sweet and funny. She introduced herself by describing her first meeting with Rick as a birth, and her cheerful, excited account charmed the lot of us. After getting to know her a bit over the years, Bulgaria has landed squarely on my list of future travel for the culture and especially for the architecture.Sadly, she has passed away, but before she did, she brought us another wonderful and sunny soul, Stefan. He now leads the Bulgaria itinerary and has reinforced my idea that Bulgarians are some of the nicest people in Europe.The first time I met Stefan, he was wearing an elaborate outfit and carrying a decorated staff. He asked me if I'd want to be blessed. Who doesn't want to be blessed by a happy Bulgarian in a traditional costume? He was performing some sort of ancient rite to bring good things for the new year, so I agreed. He waved the staff around and said something in Bulgarian, and even if I'm not sure his magic worked, it brought a smile to my heart.For my Advent Calendar this year, I wrote to my friend Stefan and asked him to tell us about Christmas in Bulgaria. I was curious about what he would say because Bulgaria bridges the eastern and western Christian worlds, with both Orthodox and Roman Catholic religions.Here is his response:Hi Sarah,The Bulgarian Advent calendar is full of holidays, events and traditions, as everywhere around the world.It's interesting fact that despite being Orthodox Christians, Bulgarians celebrate Christmas according the Gregorian calendar, unlike the other Orthodox nations, - Russians, Greeks, Serbs, etc. We traditionally fast 40 days before Christmas. One of the most beloved celebrations during the Advent is the Day of St. Nicholas - December 6th, when we eat fish, the traditional recipe is for stuffed carp with rice and walnuts. Another interesting tradition during the Advent takes place on December 20, when we celebrate the Day of St. Ignatius. On this day it is very important the first person who enters your home, which is called polaznik. If it is good person, the whole year will treat you well. When they entered, they have to throw some coins and corn or wheat in order to have prosperous year.Now about Christmas or in Bulgarian Коледа (Koleda): The family get together on Christmas Eve when, I would add, is even a more important meal compared to the Christmas one. We eat only vegan meals and the number of meals should be at least 7 and an odd number.We have a home-made-bread with a hidden coin inside. The oldest man in the family breaks the bread and all the family members check if they have the coins. Whoever gets the coin, will have very healthy and good year. If the family has a fireplace in their home, they have to put in the fire the biggest trunk called budnik in order to keep the fire for the whole evening, without adding more wood. According to the tradition, we have to leave all the dishes on the table all night long in order the ghosts of our dead relatives to be able to eat in the night.In the first hours (but no later than sunrise) of December 25 groups of men called koledari gather and visit all the houses in the village / town, singing songs and giving blessings to the people. They are given dried fruits, popcorn, nuts, bacon, wine, some money in exchange. Their main goal is to chase the bad spirits away. Still the most traditional meal for Christmas is pork, typically with cooked pickled cabbage as a side dish, despite more and more families have turkey for Christmas.See you soon!StefanBulgarians like to celebrate Christmas with wine, bacon, nuts and popcorn? No wonder I like the Bulgarians I've met, they are just like me!So, today's Advent calendar assignment is to first color in the flag, luckily it's Christmas colors. A horizontal stripe of white, then green, then red. After that, I'd say have some wine and nuts, popcorn...and maybe a slice of bacon. It's a tradition, after all.Stefan Bozadzhiev is a tour guide for Rick Steves' Europe and Lyuba Tours. He can be reached at www.lyubatours.com. He appears in a Rick Steves' Europe episode which can be seen here.