Koleduvane is a traditional Bulgarian custom that takes place at a particular time each year – on the night before Christmas (from midnight till dawn on 25th December, to be exact). The term Koleduvane comes from the Bulgarian word for Christmas (Koleda) and means performing specific rituals and singing special Christmas songs.
Koleduvane is strictly forbidden for women and is performed only by men at different ages. Perhaps the reason for this is that Koleduvane takes place at night and the Bulgarian tradition does not approve of women (especially young and unmarried women) to stay up all night and sing and dance till dawn. Of course, this tradition is very old and the contemporary Bulgarian woman has nothing to do with these restrictions, but the tradition has remained the same when it comes to Koleduvane, so it is even today a strictly men’s ritual.
The essence of this tradition comes from the belief that on the night before Christmas there are all kinds of supernatural creatures and evil spirits that visit us and the songs and dances during Koleduvane have the power to chase them away. Just like many other Bulgarian rituals and customs, Koleduvane has pagan roots (even though it is connected with one of the biggest Christian holidays today). The reason behind this parallel between pagan and Christian rituals lies in the fact that Bulgarians were pagans before they were Christened and it was easier for them to make this transition by combining their old pagan rituals with the new Christian ones.
The preparation about Koleduvane starts a few days earlier (on 20th December). This is the time when all men gather together and learn the songs and dances that will be performed on the night before Christmas. It is then when they make a decision about who will their leader be – usually this is an older man (preferably married). He should be a good man with a big heart, generous, smart, and artistic. It is said that he is the mediator between the dead and alive, between the old and the New Year. He is the main figure and has the leading part in all Koleduvane rituals and performances.
On the night before Christmas a lot of Koleduvane groups gather together, wearing festive clothes and symbols, and head east in the neighbourhood they had chosen to visit. On their way they sing special Christmas songs that have the power to chase the evil spirits away from the neighbourhood and ensure a happy New Year filled with laughter, new life, and rich crops.
They enter all houses in the neighbourhood and are welcomed there as long-expected guests. The houses that welcome them first are those of the most important men in the village – the mayor, the pastor, and the teacher (back in the old days these 3 professions were considered the most prestigious by Bulgarians).
Then they move on to the next house, and the next one – singing and dancing till dawn. The rituals they perform all aim to bring the family they visit longevity, health, prosperity, and luck. They typically have a song for each member of the family – the head of the home, his wife, small children, unmarried girls and boys, etc. There are even songs dedicated to the household’s animals – cows, goats, sheep, etc! If two Koleduvane groups cross their ways on the street, it brings the neighbourhood bad luck and they beat it by performing a pretend fight.
Of course, a lot of wine, rakia and food is shared between the master of each house and his guests – this magical evening is filled with laughter, hopes, dreams, and a lot of festivities. It is also a logical transition to one of the biggest Christian holidays – Christmas (which takes place right after Koleduvane).