Koledari (Carolers) / Bûdni Vecher (Christmas Eve) – the South Slav Pagan Christmas, Part 3

In the previous 2 posts on Bûdni Vecher (Christmas Eve), we discussed the significance of the Yule Log (Bûdnik or Badnjak), where we bring the powerful nature spirits into the home to honour them and beseech their blessings, and the ritual family supper, where the family unites to demonstrate their productivity to the spirits and their communal wish for a prosperous new year.  Each family in the village is enacting the same rituals in their own home.  The third act in this mid-winter drama is completed by the men in the village.   After all, the day is about enlisting the co-operation of the sun –  a quintessentially male spirit.*  The warm-up act happens earlier in the day when the koledarcheta (boys between the ages of 6 & 12), go from house to house, wishing the household a good harvest and much increase from their domestic animals.  In return, the boys receive special breads and other treats.


In South Serbia, the tradition has evolved to let all children (there called korindjaši) participate.

After the supper (after dark) it’s the turn of young men to roam the village.  They are usually bachelors or the recently betrothed, led by an experienced older man, who have been practicing for weeks to learn the huge repertoire of songs required for the task.  To quote from Bulgarian Folk Customs by Mercia MacDonald “The songs sung by Koledari formed a special category of folk song, and each was specific in its application, that is, it was to be sung on the road, on entering a home, on leaving it, to the master of the house, to the mistress, to elderly people, to a child, to a girl of marriageable age, to a young boy, to two brothers, to a bachelor, to a ploughman, shepherd, hunter, soldier, scholar, and so on – in other words there was a song appropriate to every stage of koleduvané, and to every person of every age, status and profession whom the koledari might be called upon to greet.”

In the performance below, it’s easy to see the call-and-response style of the singers.  Half the line starts the song, ending a line with the word ‘koleda‘. the other half continues – back and forth.

“Most of the songs were hyperbolic, idealizing and exaggerating the particular form of prosperity, good luck and happiness which the person in question desired.  The householders’ oxen would work like ‘two angels’ who could be guided by a sprig of basil instead of a goad; and a girl seeking a husband would be as beautiful as though she had ‘tiny stars on her skirts, the bright sun on her breasts, and the bright moon on her shoulders, illuminating earth and sky’.  Songs with even a remotely Christian content formed only a tiny fraction of the total repertoire, and even those were not vastly different from the totally pagan ones.”

“For example, most of the songs sung upon entering a house called on the householder to rise and welcome ‘good guests’ bringing news of cows calving, sheep lambing, and so on, and some included saints and ‘God himself and the mother of God’ among the ‘good guests’ whom the householder welcomed at the gate with a big jug of wine….

When the koledari arrived at a home, they would greet the head of the family with a song, offer him a drink of wine from a flask carried by the leader, and then, if requested, sing other songs appropriate to other members of the family.  Finally the lady or daughter of the house would present the leader of the koledari with a specially prepared loaf, and he would pronounce a blessing on the house, promising health, happiness, and prosperity to all who dwelt in it.  Traditional Bulgarians believed in the power of the spoken word, and set great store by the visit of the koledari, which was as essential a part of preparing for another year as the blessing of the master-builder was to the luck of a new house…”

The above 16-minute video is a modern re-enactment of the highlights of a traditional Bûdni Vecher:  the preparations of the koledari and womenfolk preparing the dinner, the arrival of the bûdnik (yule log), anointing it with a mixture of oil, wine and incense, the blessing of the meal with incense on a shovel, the dividing and passing of the loaf by the eldest, the arrival of the koledari, and the exchange of blessings and gifts between householders and koledari.  At 12:42 we progress to Christmas Day.  After a morning church service, the village gathers in an open area for the Christmas Horo. ” In contrast to Bûdni Vecher, Christmas day itself (Koleda, Bozhik or Bozhich) was devoid of rituals, apart from the communal Horo, attendance at which was as mandatory as going to church.”

Other slavic countries have similar customs – here is a Serbian production, showing how they have more emphasis on masked performers.  Some of the masks shown are more appropriate to the Kukeri, performers of springtime rituals.  See    https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/special-occasions/carnival-in-the-balkans/

* The female equivalent of the koledari is the Lazarki who make the rounds of the village in spring.  See https://folkdancefootnotes.org/culture/special-occasions/lazaruvane/  The fertility of the soil/earth is considered the domain of females.

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