Sofia’s cobblestone cityscape and medieval architecture come alive under twinkling Christmas lights. The city lends itself well to a festive season full of carols, concerts and craft markets, following folk traditions that have been passed down for generations.
Bulgarian Christmas traditions
Unusual for an Orthodox country, Bulgaria celebrates Christmas on December 25, with the biggest and best celebrations reserved for Christmas Eve. Santa Claus goes by Dyado Koleda, or Grandfather Christmas, and arrives accompanied by his granddaughter Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden. Sofia residents gather on Christmas Eve for a multi-course feast, traditionally hosted by the family matriarch. Meat, cheese and dairy are avoided during a 40-day fast leading up to Christmas in order to purify the body and soul, so expect tasty vegetarian dishes such as pumpkin cake and bean stews.
Although many Bulgarian traditions are closely tied to Christianity, there is one that significantly predates the religion. The Balkan tradition of kukeri can be traced back 4,000 years to the Thracians and is still practiced today. Between New Year and Lent, Bulgarian men dress up in animal masks and costumes adorned with bells and set out after dark to dance through the streets, stopping at each house to frighten away evil spirits.
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Koledaria Christmas Market
The concept of the German-style Christmas market is relatively new in Sofia; the first opened up in 2009 and has been growing in size since then. Known as the Koledaria, the Sofia Christmas Market is a quaint and cozy affair with food and drink stalls, children’s shows, and the chance for children to have their picture taken with Dyado Koleda. Running from the end of November until the start of January in Borisova Gradina park, the small market sells wooden handicrafts and Christmas decorations along with hot German sausages and mulled wine.
The Christmas market shares its name with the koledari Christmas carolers. The koledari are groups of young boys who dress up in traditional costumes, complete with shepherd’s crooks, to visit homes at midnight on Christmas Eve, sharing messages of joy and distributing doughnut-shaped loaves of bread called kravai.
Operas, ballets and church services
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The Sofia Opera and Ballet puts on a rousing Christmas concert on December 10, followed by an elaborate production of the seasonal favorite The Nutcracker on December 26 and 27, conducted by Boris Spassov. Just a few days later, the city gives itself over entirely to lavish New Year’s Eve celebrations. This is a big holiday in the capital, with the downtown area turning into a pedestrian zone, public transport operating free of charge until 3 am, and concerts and firework displays held in Battenberg Square.
Sofia’s golden-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world. In keeping with the Orthodox calendar, its Christmas services are held on January 7, but you’ll be able to hear the famous bells ringing out throughout the festive period. Located just a four-minute walk away from our Radisson Blu Grand Hotel, Sofia, visitors of every religious faith will find plenty to admire in this enchanting building.