Bûdni Vecher – the South Slav Pagan Christmas. Part 2 – The Family Supper

Christianity has been the official religion of South Slavs for 1000 years, so it is nearly impossible to know if any of today’s practices are manifestations of pure Church doctrine.  However the pagan roots of today’s customs, starting with the name, are clearly visible.

Bûdni Vecher/Badnje veče is the second of 3 components of Slavic Christmas Eve festivities. They are: 1. Badnjak (Serbian, Croatian) or Bûdnik (Bulgarian, Macedonian) – known in English as the Yule Log.  2. The ritual family supper  3. Koleduvané – a kind of carol singing. Each component is described in its own post.

We begin Part 2 with the women’s contribution to Bûdni Vecher.

Though Bûdni Vecher is the Bulgarian term for the events of the day of Christmas Eve, similar events take place in other South Slav cultures.  The Serbian and Croatian name for Christmas Eve during the day is Badnji dan. After sunset it becomes Badnje veče

All quotes are excerpted from Bulgarian Folk Customs by Mercia MacDermott c.1998 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.  It’s by far the best English-language book on Bulgarian folklore.   While the men were choosing and felling the Yule log, the women were preparing the food for the Bûdni Vecher supper.  Since the Christmas fast lasted until midnight, the dishes were always strictly vegetarian, and it was customary to serve 7,9, 11, or even 12 traditional items, including beans, potatoes, stuffed peppers, stuffed cabbage or vine leaves, boiled wheat, baked pumpkin, pickles, honey, walnuts, stewed fruit and wine…

Meal

Of immense importance was the preparation of special richly decorated loaves and, because of their symbolic nature, the women who made them had to be symbolically ‘clean’, that is, not menstruating or having recently given birth, and while kneading, they would wear their best clothes and a posey of greenery.  The loaves made for the Bûdni Vecher supper were round and decorated on top with figures fashioned out of pieces of the same dough….What distinguished Bûdni Vecher loaves from all others was that the decorations wee symbolic of agricultural work, and represented such things as the home, the sheep-folds, the plow, the oxen, the threshing floor, the beehives, and the vineyard….The ritual significance of the Bûdni Vecher loaves was underlined by the fact that the decorations were always strictly confined to those branches of agriculture actually practiced  by a particular family…..Other decorative figures used on Bûdni Vecher loaves include flowers, crosses, and swastikas.  Here, the cross has, in all probability, little to do with Christianity, since, like the swastika, it is an ancient Sun symbol.

Bread2

Bread3

As well as the large loaves for the Bûdni Vecher supper, the women made other smaller loaves and a large number of rolls with holes in the middle to give to the groups of children (koledarcheta) and men (koledari) who visited all the houses in a given neighbourhood on Christmas Eve.  Girls whose sweethearts or finacés were taking part in these customary visits made especially elaborate rolls for their beloved, twisting the dough into various shapes and even decorating it with sprigs of greenery….

Koledarcheta

Above, koledarcheta, below, koledari.

Koledari

…Few Bulgarian ceremonies are purely family affairs, but Bûdni Vecher is one of them.  Each household gathers in the privacy of its own home, beneath its own hearth, on the evening of  December 24 to eat a meal which is almost sacramental and to observe customs which were once believed to be vital both to the health and the prosperity of the family throughout the coming year.  In many parts of the county, the supper was not served on the usual low table (sofra), but on straw placed on the floor and covered with a corn bag and a home-spun cloth.  A plow-share was placed close by, or under the sofra, if one were used. 

Dinner

All the dishes were placed on the table or cloth at the beginning of the meal, and efforts were made to ensure that the trapeza (The Greek word for table – trapeza – is used in Bulgarian for a presented meal, irrespective of whether it is served on the ground, on a sofra, or on an ordinary table – masa) represented everything produced on the farm, so that, in addition to cooked dishes, there might be a bowl of raw grain (which might later be given to the hens), seeds, yeast, garlic heads, apples, cotton, sesame, and so on.  In some villages, a purse containing coins was also placed on the table, and other objects such as a sickle, yoke, vine-canes, an ox-goad, and even the plow itself, might be arranged around it.  A bowl of sand might also figure on the supper table and, after the meal, those present would rub it through their hands, so that the hens might lay uncountable numbers of eggs.

Rustic Badni

Before the meal began, the trapeza itself and all the rooms in the house were censed by the oldest man (sometimes the oldest woman) in the family.  Few families had censers, and the hot coals and incense would be placed on an iron plowshare or a tile.  In some districts of western Bulgaria (Kyustendil), one of the ritual loaves, or even the whole table, was carried outside into the yard by the householder, who attempted to placate the potentially dangerous hail-bearing clouds, whom he addressed as Dzherman, by inviting them to join the family supper, offering them abundant food and rakiya, in return for not appearing over the fields and meadows during the coming summer.  Everything would then be brought back into the house for the supper to commence with the breaking a ritual loaf by the oldest member of the family, who would pronounce a blessing and give each person present a piece of bread.

Family2

Throughout Bulgaria certain customs and taboos were carefully observed throughout the meal: it was served earlier than normal, so that the grain would ripen earlier;  it began only when all the members of the family were present and, once they were seated, no one could rise from the table until the end of the meal, so that the hens would not abandon their eggs.  It was for this reason that all the dishes were placed on the table together, instead of being brought one after another by the housewife.  If, however, need arose, custom allowed the head of the family to rise, only he had to bend as he walked, so that the ears of corn would be so heavy that they bent their stalks.  In some places, the members of the family would move up and bunch together, so that there would be room round the table for the dead.  After the meal was over the trapeza was not cleared, as it would be on an ordinary day, but would be moved to one side, if necessary, and left all night, so that departed relatives could come and take their allotted portions of the ritual bread and other dishes.

On straw

After the supper was over, the children would roll in the straw which had been under the trapeza, but only in one direction (again to make the stalks bend under the weight of their ears), and what remained of the bread would be placed upon a high shelf, so that the corn would grow high.  Having eaten well, the family would gather around…..to try and foresee the future.  Among the most popular ways of doing this was to lay out 12 flakes of onion, representing the 12 months, and to put a little salt on each.  According to whether the salt remained moist or remained dry, conclusions were drawn about the weather during the month concerned…..Personal fortunes were told by the finding of a coin and other lucky tokens concealed in loaves, by cracking walnuts to see whether the kernels were sound or rotten, by watching how cornelian-cherry buds ‘popped’ when thrown into the fire, and, in the case of young girls, by placing a morsel of bread from the supper under their pillows in order to dream of their future husbands.

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