Bulgaria was already on my must-travel-to list because I want to taste my favorite feta-style cheese at its source. But now I have a new reason to go: to experience kukeri. These fur monsters appear every January wearing expressive, colorful masks and belts of giant bells.
Each village has its own unique kukeri, which often reflect the nearby landscape. Because Bulgaria is home to northern plains, southern mountains and lakes, and beaches along the coast of the Black Sea, the kukeri can vary in style.
These rituals are very old. "Their origins are too far back to really know," Gerald Creed, an anthropology professor at Hunter College in New York, tells National Geographic. And while the basic parts of the kukeri ritual are similar, other aspects are, "...very variable according to location, region, dialect."
The length of time they have been a part of the culture in Bulgaria is one of the reasons kukeri are recognized as a UNESCO world heritage folk tradition.
As National Geographic reports:
In communities near the Macedonian border where animal husbandry is central, the ritual might go by the name survakari, occur around the new year when sheep and goats are giving birth, and involve costumes with animal-like masks over woolen garb. And kukeri, conducting the ritual around midwinter with more abstractly decorated costumes, might be more associated with the agrarian economies of the valleys south of the Balkan Mountains.
In areas where goats are important to the local culture, kukeri costumes might be made from goat hair. Bulgaria's long-haired goats, the Kalofer, provide especially unique looking costumes. (Photo: GEORGID/Shutterstock)
No matter where they're from, the kukeri will dance through the village to invite good luck for the locals — and scare away the evil eye. The dancing is for celebration, luck and fertility, while the all-important bells and scary face masks simultaneously dissuade bad energy.
Traditionally, the kukeri are played by men and the ritual has been passed down from father to son, but today women and girls enact the creatures, too. The faces in the masks can mimic those of animals but might just come from the creators' imaginations.
It's incredible to think this folk tradition survived so many changes, including the influences of Christianity and communism.
Nearby countries may have similar festivals, as a variation on the idea is popular throughout Slavic countries including Romania and Serbia. Indeed, midwinter masquerades are well-documented throughout Europe and can involve well-known local creatures like stags and bears, while others are more fantastical.
Bulgaria is mostly rural, so getting to villages where kukeri is practiced could be hard for the casual tourist. And locals might be less than welcoming to outsiders elbowing their way into an ancient ritual. Luckily, there are kukeri festivals; the largest is the Surva festival in Pernik.
For the visitor a festival is ideal; you don't have to worry about offending locals, and you can see kukeri from many different places all at once. If you do want to venture to the smaller villages, be sure to hire a local guide.