I am not crazy about New Year’s celebrations – the noise, the crowd, the smoke, the eating. So I am always happy when I find an alternative to the regular spending of New Year. Last year this happened thanks to the Kukeri in Razlog town.
What: Kukeri is a Bulgarian folk tradition with deep pagan roots. It is the strangest carnival!
When: 1st of January; (in the west part of Bulgaria the Kukeri tradition is celebrated around New Year, the peak now being Jan 1st)
Where: town of Razlog. The tradition is celebrated all over the country, but it is especially strong in Razlog, Pernik, Bansko, Smolyan, Rakovski
Where to stay: Razlog is a town close to Bansko – Bulgaria’s most popular ski resort. The two settlements are in something like competition. You can stay in either one. Now, ski resorts are not in my competence since they can never be alternative destinations (still, I love to ski). I assume it will be cheaper to stay in Razlog since it is a bigger town, while Bansko is more of a resort. Here is a list of hotels in Razlog. Here is a useful blog about Bansko if you prefer to stay there.
Anyways, what matters is the Kukeri experience which is… unique!
Early in the morning on January 1st, I mean very early, around 5:30am, we woke up by the sound of numerous sheep bells. People in scary goat fur costumes and sheep bells around their waist, dancing around the big alder tree in front of our hotel. The strange costumes, the blue morning and the sound of the bells make it all seem like a weird dream (the drinks from the previous night also contributed to this. Kukeri is an old, very old tradition of pagan times, which Bulgarians were somehow able to preserve.
You wander what’s with these crazy people so early in the morning on January 1st. I think they do it for the show, for fun and because they are still superstitious.
According to the old Kukeri tradition the bachelors dress up in costumes made of sheep or goat skin, with the fur on the outside; they tie sheep bells around their waist; they put scary masks on, usually made of wood; the most ancient masks represent goats, rams or bulls; some of the masks have two faces – an evil one on the front and a good one on the back, symbolizing the connection between good and evil. These scary men usually have a leader, who is a married man. The groups visit every household, wishing health, rich crop and welfare and receive small gifts in return (flower, beans, eggs).
The whole purpose of these strange tradition – the scary costumes, masks, bells and dancing is to scare evil away and to have a good, healthy and abundant new year. Bulgarians believed, for example, that if you name your child with a scary name this will keep diseases and evil away and the child will be healthy and happy, even though it carries a scary name.
In Razlog they have preserved the ancient Kukeri tradition to a large extent, but they have also added a modern and a local spice to it. I saw men dressed like women, babies and bears. The scary people would often go to a random person and wrestle with him/her for a while. The whole thing have grown into a competition between Razlog’s neighborhoods. Eventually, everyone arrives at the town’s central square, where the tradition turns into an officially organized event and now it’s time for us to go…
Finally, this strange Kukeri tradition will take you to a different world for a while – the sound of the sheep bells early in the morning, the hairy monsters jumping around, the crazy masks and costumes, the slow life of the small town – it’s totally worth it for a different New Year!