The tradition

  Masquerade rituals come from old pagan times and are still alive in the Bulgarian folklore tradition.
  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 Fast).
  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 bunch.
  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 tradition.

Carnival games

Masquerade 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 hemp.
  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.