Go Away Evil Spirits, the Kukeri Said
If you happen to be in Bulgaria in the first months of the year, you have the unique opportunity to enjoy one of the most popular spring traditions in the country - the Kukeri ritual.
Kukeri is a traditional Bulgarian ritual of Thracian origins, but similar rituals can also be found in Romania, Serbia, Italy and Spain.
The ritual is performed between Christmas and Lent by costumed men, who walk around and dance to scare away the evil spirits, as well as to provide a good harvest, health, fertility, and happiness.
According to the tradition, the kukeri visit people’s houses at night so that “the sun would not catch them on the road.” After going around the village, the kukeri gather at the square to dance and amuse people.
The symbolic meaning of the winter and pre-spring rituals performed be single men is related to the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one and to the upcoming awakening of nature for new life.
Their costumes cover most of the body and include decorated wooden masks of animals and large bells attached to the belt.
The mask, according to folklore beliefs, is a protection from the harmful influence of impure powers. It represents a head of a peculiar creature with a scary face. Different masks could have gaping jaws, horns, tails, or snapping beaks. The elaborate decoration made of feathers is supported on a wooden frame.
Some masks have two sides. One of the sides represents a good face, and the other – a scary face. Such masks are a symbol of good and evil, which exist together in the world.
The dance of the masked men is a mystic unity of rhythm, sound and color. They move in special rhythmic steps. They fill the air with the sounds of their bells and of whispered blessings for prosperity.
Kukeri festivals are organized in all parts of the country, but the first and most popular festival in Bulgaria, and on the Balkans, is the Surva International Festival of Masquerade Games, which takes place in the Bulgarian city of Pernik. It was first organized in 1966 and in 1985, it received international-event status.
The two-day festival, which is held the last weekend of January, gathers about 5,000 people from 90 different masquerade groups from Bulgaria, Europe, Asia and Africa. It promotes variations of ancient Bulgarian customs that are still alive today and that are an important part of the Bulgarian folklore tradition.
Even though the kukeri tradition was forbidden and announced as incompatible with the social morality during the Communist era in Bulgaria, the tradition successfully preserved itself.
At the end of 2007, the Museum of the Kukeri Mask and Costume opened doors in the Bulgarian town of Karlovo. It features masks and costumes from different regions in Bulgaria, live demonstrations of the ritual, kukeri games for groups of tourists and for cultural or social events.
Another Kukeri museum is envisioned to be open in the city of Simitli. It will feature more than 500 exhibits and will present different Bulgarian traditional rituals. The museum will be “on wheels” and will travel across the country. The organizers also envision participating in exhibitions and festivals in Europe.
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