Christmas Eve or badni vecher is just as important (in some minds even more important). It's the last day of fasting for Advent and, like so many Slavic cultures, an odd number of meatless dishes are served at a grand meal. A budnik or ceremonial log is brought into the house and set alight in the fireplace.
Among Bulgarian Christmas traditions is the boy carolers or koledari who go house to house starting at midnight on Christmas Eve to sing carols and wish health, wealth and happiness to neighbors in return for a coin or a treat or a little nip. Christmas wouldn't be the same without the pita, a round loaf of bread that is broken into pieces by the head of the house. Each family member is given a piece. A coin is hidden inside the pita and whoever gets it will have luck, health and prosperity in the coming year. If the pita is eaten on Christmas Eve, it is made without eggs and often with baking soda instead of yeast. But all the stops are pulled out for the pita served on Christmas Day, often elaborately decorated with religious and family symbols made of dough on top of the bread.
The name for Santa Claus in Bulgaria is Dyado Koleda (Grandfather Christmas). Dyado Mraz (Grandfather Frost) made an appearance during Communist rule when religion was frowned upon but, since 1989, he has been largely forgotten.
The Christmas Eve dinner table often is not cleared until Christmas morning to provide food for the ghosts of family members. On Christmas Day, the Advent fast is over and meat returns in all its glory with pork, sausages, poultry and more taking a starring role. Desserts become more elaborate and drinking is not only allowed but encouraged.
Even though Christmas Eve is considered a Lenten meal, no one leaves the table hungry on this night. The dishes have symbolic meanings centering around fertility and abundance:
- Bean soup or another legume soup like pea or lentil so the coming year will be fertile, abundant and wealthy
- Honey so that life will be sweet
- Stuffed peppers, grape or cabbage leaves stuffed with either beans or rice again so the next year will be abundant and crops and families will be fertile
- Nuts, especially, walnuts to tell fortunes for what the new year holds
- Fruits, usually oranges and tangerines so the new year will be fruitful, and walnuts, which are cracked and "read" in order to predict success or failure for the coming year
- Boiled wheat with walnuts and sugar symbolizes the association between death and life, that which is planted in the ground and that which emerges
- Oshav, a dried-fruit compote represents fertility and abundance
- Corn, onions, garlic, and red wine (in some families) also make an appearance
But at midnight, desserts are consumed by the score -- Maslenki (jam-filled cookies), lokumki (cookies made with rose-flavored Turkish Delight), and medenki (honey-spice cookies), among others.