If your first visit to Bulgaria happens during the Sunday before Easter, a curious sight will attract your attention: long, patient queues form in front of churches in busy cities, quiet villages and popular monasteries. People wait until they eventually reach a table where a priest – sometimes solemn, but usually indifferent – distributes bunches of willow twigs.
The branches are obviously not fresh off the trees – their greenery is faded, and leaves scatter all around. Still, the faces of those in the queue light up with joy when they reach the priest and receive their willows. Holding the precious branches tight, they proceed into the church, where they buy and light generous numbers of candles.
Then they leave the church, taking the willow twigs home. If you ask some of them why they are doing this, you will be told that the willow, bent into a wreath, will be placed over the entrance door, to protect the family from all things evil.
This is how Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians celebrate Palm Sunday. The result of decades of officially imposed atheism during Communism means that for many Bulgarians the most important part of this major Christian feast is the tradition of taking some consecrated willow from a church and bringing it home, securing divine – or should we say, magical – protection. Few bother to attend mass on that day.
The consecrated willows are believed to bring health and happiness
The way Bulgarians celebrate Palm Sunday is not an exception, it is the rule. The nation has been Christian since the 9th Century, but Bulgarians have never been extremely religious, and they have often blended doctrine with older pagan beliefs and superstition. Under Communism, it became even worse as religious education was non-existent. When the regime collapsed in 1989, several generations of Bulgarians found themselves in a deep identity and spiritual crisis. It was now possible to go to church at Easter, but few remembered the true meaning of this Christian feast, and what the proper ritual should be. Many Bulgarians still do not know how to cross themselves properly.
In this spiritual vacuum, New Age teachings, superstition and the desire for some religious guidance proliferated, creating an atmosphere of ambiguity and bigotry. Today, Bulgarians are concerned with the details of when and how to pour wine over the grave of a relative on All Souls day, or what food to serve to the priest while he is blessing their new office, but will look blank if they are asked about the difference between John the Baptist and John the Evangelist.
On Good Friday, for example, Bulgarians flock to churches, but not because they are eager to meditate on the painful and poignant death of Christ on the cross. They go to church to crawl three times under a table symbolising Christ's burial shroud, a ritual which will, supposedly, bring good health throughout the year.
There is hardly a Bulgarian family without someone celebrating his or her name day on Palm Sunday
However, in Bulgaria Palm Sunday has an air of celebration about it, and this is only partially because spring is finally here. Bulgarians are extremely happy on Palm Sunday because this is the day when a significant number of them celebrate their name day.
The connection between the palm branches with which the people of Jerusalem greeted Jesus, and the spring flowers blossoming all over Bulgaria is extremely strong – in Bulgarian, Palm Sunday is called either Vrabnitsa, or Willow Day, or Tsvetnitsa, meaning Flower Day.
Many Bulgarians bear the names of flowers, plants, and herbs, from Margaritas, or Daisies, to Elitsas, or Silver Firs, and from Yavors, or Sycamores, to Zdravkos, or Geraniums. There are even names such as Tsvetan and Tsvetelina, which mean simply something like Flowering.
There is hardly a family without a member or a close friend celebrating their name day on Palm Sunday, and in Bulgaria, of course, having a name day means throwing a party.
In 2015, the Eastern Orthodox Palm Sunday is on 5 April, and Easter comes on 12 April.
Street sellers don't miss the chance to earn some money, selling willow twigs and flowers
This series of articles is supported by the America for Bulgaria Foundation. The statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.