Bulgarian "Halloween": Kukeri at Surva Festival

Maria Belcheva | Live the World

November 23, 2022

We, Bulgarians, have numerous rituals and traditions, so mixed up with foreign ones that distinguishing between ours and the Turkish, Greek, Serbian or Russian ones would be almost impossible. We also have rituals, which are performed in other Slavic countries as well. One of those rituals is connected to the new beginning and new life. Typical for this ritual are scary masks, worn by the people who perform it. Those people are called “kukeri”. The idea behind it is just like the one behind the American holiday  "Halloween" – scaring away evil spirits. So, if you are interested to discover Bulgarian Halloween, you need to visit the Surva Festival.

Who are "kukeri"?

The “kukeri” are carnival figures. Apart from them, other characters take part in the dances and games during the ritual. Those could be kings, elderly people, gipsies, priests - different figures from the Bulgarian folklore. The figures dance together with the “kukeri” while they sing. The words and music have the deep meaning according to Bulgarian believes, so those songs and dances are part of the ritual, too. The clothing of "kukeri" and other characters is specially chosen. They have fur masks and clothes, and they wear the cowbells on their belts. The bells are meant to scare away not only evil spirits but the winter and the cold as well, and bring spring and new life. People dress as “kukeri” and go out to organized events either in the time between Christmas and Epiphany day or between the eight and the seventh week before Easter.

Photo © credits to Flickr.com/Klearchos Kapoutsis

Surva - a kukeri festival

Every village and a smaller town in Bulgaria has its own “kukeri” group, which consists of men, mostly. Those groups gather every year around the end of January or the beginning of February in a town near Sofia called Pernik. The festival is called “Surva” and lasts three days. This year (2019), the 28th edition of the event will take place end of January. The activities during the festival include workshops for children, games, as well as competitions connected to the making of masks and clothing for the figures. There are also different competitions and presentations of traditional Bulgarian cuisine, typical for each region the participants come from.

Photo © credits to iStockphoto/georgidimitrov70

The “kukeri” are indeed part of Bulgarian culture and history. Bulgarians share traditions such as this one with other nations, but what makes each local ritual unique is the way they dance, tell fortunes and in this way create the future. People try and find different innovative ways to teach children about traditions to keep the customs alive, and scaring away evil spirits is a custom, a sort of a Bulgarian Halloween, that is well-kept thanks to the Surva Festival. The truth is that those customs keep the nations alive – without history and traditions, there would be no nations!

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