Masquerade rituals come from
old pagan times and are still alive in the Bulgarian folklore
Bulgarian masquerade games are mainly interwoven in the contexts of the
holidays between Christmas and Easter. In different regions of Bulgaria
men put on masks around New Year, during the twelve days of Christmas
(Christmas till Epiphany), on Sirni Zagovezni (the Sunday before Lent),
and on Todorova Nedelia (the Sunday before the start of the Easter
In Western Bulgaria, the people who perform these rituals around New
Year are known as Survakari while those who participate in the
pre-spring masquerade games are referred to as Kukeri.
The symbolic meaning of the winter and pre-spring rituals performed by
single men is related to the end of the old year and the advent of the
new and to the upcoming awakening of nature for new life. These rituals
represent the wish for a rich harvest, health and fertility for humans
and farm animals. They are intended to chase away the evil spirits and
prepare people for a new beginning.
The dance of the masked men is a mystic unity of rhythm, sound, and
color. They move in a special step. Wearing impressive masks and unique
costumes they fill the air of the villages with the sounds of hundreds
of bells and whispered blessings wishes for prosperity.
The mask, according to folklore beliefs, protects from the harmful
influence of impure powers. Bulgarian ritual masks are a rich source of
information on the country’s various ethnographic regions.
The sounds of the bells hanging from the belts of the dancers are said
to reinforce the protective properties of the masks.
There are all kinds or characters in the group of masked people.
Traditionally, no women are allowed to take part as all roles are
played by men wearing different masquerade costumes.
As the masquerade tradition in Bulgaria is still alive, it is subject
to constant change. It takes on new symbols and images and the once
strict requirements towards the age and sex of the participants tend to
relax. Since the days of the Bulgarian Cultural Revival characters from
the neo folklore culture have started to appear in the rituals.
Significant political changes and social issues still produce parodies
of representatives of different social classes. Nowadays the minimum
requirement for participation is having the willingness to take part,
therefore it is not uncommon to see toddlers walking side by side with
70-year carnival veterans and women and young girls who feel part of
the tradition put on masks and costumes and go out with the rest of the
The masquerade games of today have dual nature. On one hand, in
accordance with the tradition, they are still performed on the
traditional day and in the traditional location every year, but on the
other, they have taken on an element of show and competition and are
now adapted for the stage and for the audience attending the ever
increasing number of carnivals and festivals in Bulgaria and Abroad.
Only at the festival at Pernik will you see masks from every
ethnographic region of the country and only here will you get to know
the different regional variants of masking. Every spectator who has
been touched by the dance and the masks of the participants will feel
their rejuvenating effect and will be immersed in this ancient
Games in the Region of Pernik
In the region of Pernik masked
people take to the streets in the night of the 13th of January and on
the following day, the 14th of January. This is Surva or Vassilovden
(Saint Basil’s Day).
Almost every village in the region has its own carnival group
oftentimes more than fifty strong.
Although there are some local alternatives, generally speaking, these
masked men are referred to as Survakari.
The authentic masquerade features a wide variety of characters but the
main character is the mob itself consisting of numerous masked men with
bells hanging from their belts, all moving in a special rhythmic step.
A characteristic feature of the Survakari is the mock wedding they play
out. This is the main difference with the Kukeri the centerpiece of
whose performance is the ritual of ploughing. Other typical features of
the Survakari include visiting every house in the village and dancing
in a group in the village square.
Costumes are basically two types: fur costumes and rag costumes.
The masks represent heads of peculiar creatures with scary faces. They
have gaping jaws, horns, tails, or snapping beaks. The elaborate
decoration made of feathers is supported on a wooden frame. Sometimes
though, a mask can be as plain as a human face smeared with coal dust
and disguised with fake moustache or beard made of wool, strings, or
Typically, masks in the region of Pernik are made of goat and sheep
furs, wings and feathers of poultry, horns, corn leaves, and hemp.
Masks from other regions often incorporate fabrics, spun wool, beads,
dry plants, and papier-mache flowers.
The participants make their masks themselves or with the help of
established village craftsmen. The process is complicated to the point
of being a ritual in its own right and to the eye of the outsider it
seems enveloped in mystery.