The New Year Carnival in Razlog
Every region has its own traditions to start in the new year. In Razlog a small city in the Bulgarian mountains Pirin has its own special tradition. A carneval which starts at six in the morning with dancing, competitions and a lot of Rakija.
It all starts in November. First you hear just one bell and ask yourself: "Is there a cow in the streets?". But if you look out of the window you see one person with a big bell around its chest who is moving from street to street.
After a few weeks you suddenly realize, there are more and more people with this one person. Every Sunday more people are joining, moving to music and bells in traditional costumes.
This tradition has its summit on the first of January. The people start moving at six in the morning. You hear the sound of guns, drums, flutes which sound more like litte trumpets and see a lot of people in really beautiful costumes dancing and walking in the streets.
The origin of the tradition is to scare the bad spirits to move them out of the city with music and dancing. You see people dressed like yeties (Kukeri) who have big cow bells, sometimes even four around their body. The Kukeri costumes are made out of the hair of goats which have really long hair. Consequently the smell is really special and if you know the smell of goats you know that you don't want to be hugged by one of this person. The purpose of the Kukeri is to scare the bad ghosts.
Mostly you see men or boys wearing the Kukeri costumes because of the heavy bells. However, for some years women are allowed to wear the costumes to which was not allowed for a long time.
If you pay attention you see person who are dressed like bears and bear catcher. They are connected with a metal rope and if they catch you you should jump over the rope, otherwise you need to pay a little bit money to them that they set you free. Sometimes you see them fighting with men and if they can not defend themselves they need to pay too.
In every district of the city you see these people. Babys, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas, youth, basically everyone who lives in the city or who one lived there. The groups are meeting in special points in the streets to collect the people and move, while dancing to the city centre to meet all the other groups of the whole city.
Furthermore every district has its on wagon with typical decoration and signs from its district. My district for example had a horse buggy with a sign of our Mahalla. In front of everyone there is one man with the name of the so called Mahalla. The dancers are moving with the musicians behind them. They do not make a brake for at least six hours from playing.
All of the dancers have their traditional costumes. Women are dressed in colourful scarfs and the men wear skirts, tights and really pretty jackets and hats. Nevertheless some women are wearing men costumes which is allowed for a few years.
As the costumes are not really warm and winter is cold in the mountains a lot of people are drinking Rakija, the traditional drink in Bulgaria. It is like German Schnaps, but worse because a lot of them are home made and have often over 45% of alcohol. The advantage it, you don't feel the cold anymore, after a while.
The dance they are dancing is traditional. They are dancing in an open circle. The first person swings a string with little balls over his or her head. Everyone is holding hands or is holding the belt of the person next to them to not break the circle or line. As it is really cold a lot are wearing gloves to warm the hands.
If you see them for a few hours you really want to be part of all these beautiful people and dance with them. As the luck was with me some of my friends took me to the dancers to join them. First I was really scared but after a while you just follow the rhytem of the drums and dance. The dance is not really difficult and you get it really fast as you just observe the dancer infront of you. They easy choreography can be described a walking and every second step you do an change step.
Around mid-day every Mahalla reaches the city centre and performs a little show to all the visitiors. One district had old cannons and another showed animals and one man was throwing cow shit while another was riding a donkey.
If you try to drive through the city at befor three pm you will not be able to pass because the whole city is in the streets. But if you pass the city after three there will be no one outside and Razlog seems empty.