Bulgarian traditions for the soul after death

Culture, DEATH 9 Comments »


I’ve been thinking about funerary customs and the significance of the symbolism involved.  The symbolism of the traditional Christian funeral is obvious.  The Christian concept of the resurrection is reflected in the modern burial.  The body is buried in a nice casket since there is the belief the physical body will be recreated on Judgment Day. 

The purpose of embalming, dressing and using cosmetology on the deceased comforts the living.  Dead bodies are scary things.  Really, the trappings of the wake and funeral are for the living, not the dead.  The flowers, music, the funeral procession are for those who remain. 

I know some Bulgarians, and they have their own unique funeral traditions.  A few years ago I was invited to a Bulgarian friend’s wake for his mother.  It was held at a Bulgarian Orthodox Church in Chicago.  I had never been to a Bulgarian Orthodox Church before so it was very interesting.  The priest spoke in Bulgarian, but I was told it was a very old version of Bulgarian that Bulgarians today barely understand.   The church’s characteristic religious iconography was in full display and was quite different from what one would see other churches. 

Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Bulgarian Orthodox Church

Bulgarians believe another informal memorial service should be held 40 days after the wake, for the soul of the departed.  After attending the original service, I was indeed invited 40 days later to their second memorial service.  What about this idea of a 40 day mourning period?  It is their tradition.  Here is what this tradition means from what I have been told.

It is suggested that the dead may not necessarily depart the physical world immediately after death.  The soul may linger, returning to the places were they lived and frequented during life.  The departed may return to their daily routines and live the same life for a certain period of time because the soul cannot change itself so quickly.  This is something new for the soul.  Therefore the relatives and friends of the departed have to help the soul feel comfortable.  During these 40 days, when there is a family dinner, a place should be left at the dinner table for the departed and a meal set-aside at his or her favorite spot.  The family should continue to talk with the departed soul, so the soul will not feel frustrated that nobody is listening to them.   Eventually during this time, the soul will understand nobody can hear what they say, and that things have changed.  And they will come to understand they have to move on to their new existence beyond.  During this time, the dead will gradually break free of their connection to life, and by the 40th day they will have departed the physical world to be united with God. 

I was told of another tradition held in Bulgaria where a special cup of wine is often left at the tombstone.  Also, there was a glass box with a candle inside.  The glass box was used to prevent the candle from being extinguished.  Every time a loved one visited the grave, they would replace and light the candle and refill the wine cup.  These traditions are what the souls of Bulgarians expect.  After death, the souls could become confused, and these traditions help guide the dead towards their final destiny.

These unique Bulgarian customs are not meant to only comfort the living, but to actually comfort the dead and guide them to accept their new existence.  For them death is a gradual process, and they continue to communicate with the dead during that time.  It is a very spiritual way to accept death.  Is it a better approach then our modern commercial approach to funerals, where we bury and then try to forget?

Baba Marta, Martenitsa and Bulgarian Culture

Culture, POPULAR CULTURE 4 Comments »


Bulgarians are fascinating people.  Their culture is very old and very deep.  This past March I was given a delightful Bulgarian gift…martenitsa!  I received a selection of martenitsa.  They are only available in Bulgaria before March and disappear until the following year. I’ll have to wait until next March to get more. They are symbolic gifts with a historic background.  What is the significance of the Martenitsa?

Ok, what is a martenitsa?   A martenitsa is something to be worn.  In Bulgaria, they have a tradition of giving a martenitsa as an act of friendship and affection.  On the first day of March they give these tiny gifts to people they care for, to wear or put around their wrist.  Martenitsa come in a variety of shapes, sizes and formats, but they have this in common.  Martenitsa are made of thread, and are composed of two colored threads, white and red.  I was told many Bulgarians end up wearing dozens of these tiny decorations.  They became similar to walking Christmas trees with red and white ornaments, if only for a day or two. Martenitsa is considered a blessing for the year ahead and a sign of affection.

Martenitsa worn on wrists

Martenitsa worn on wrists

In Bulgaria they have a holiday called Baba Marta, which means “Grandmother March”.   It is a holiday to celebrate the beginning of spring, and kissing off winter.  Baba Marta is a mystical figure of an old lady who symbolizes March, with wild mood swings just like their weather.  Some March days might be nice, but on another day Grandmother March could drop a blizzard.  Baba Matra symbolized how natue was temperamental and our desire to embrace spring.

March weather in Bulgaria can be rough, like an unending winter.  Bulgaria’s climate is similar to my hometown Chicago, and March in Chicago is a desperate hope for winter to end.  After a long winter, the need for the snow to stop and summer to start becomes palatable.  Maybe a key to understanding the martenitsa is its premature celebration of the end of a long winter and the beginning of spring.  It symbolizes hope that better days are soon ahead. 

Chicago could use such a holiday.  Chicago’s version of the martenitsa is the city parking ticket.

It is said the martenitsa’s white threads symbolize the snow of winter, and the red threads represent the beginning of summer with the reflection of a sunset.  Angry Grandmother March finally gives sway to summer.  Yet, I think there is more to this symbolism.  The shape of the martenitsa often represents male and female figures along with red and white threads.  Part of this symbolism is a touching legend in Bulgarian culture about tragedy concerning a brother and sister, with red and white representing blood on white clothing.  

The symbolism of red and white is also a powerful fertility symbol representing male and female.  Grandmother March departs and summer begins the cycle of life.  With spring comes fertility and procreation.  Folklore is full of this symbolism.   Consider the symbolism of the Easter bunny and Easter eggs.   The symbolism of fertility is very old.  Looking at the male and female versions of the martenitsa, the fertility symbolism becomes clear to me.  A fertility blessing is not only for procreation.  It’s also for a healthy family life. and good fortune.  And necessarily a healthy society for our children.  For civilization.  Exchanging martenitsa is an act of shared community.

Typical Martenitsa

Typical Martenitsa