I love learning about cultures. It’s interesting to me, as a previous student of sociology, to compare the similarities and differences of different cultures around the world. I always make a point of visiting local Ethnographic museums for this reason. Which is why we put aside part of the day to visit the Bulgarian Ethnographic museum while we were in Sofia.
We didn’t know what a treat we were in for. I’m a faster reader than Dan so I ended up moving through the exhibits a little faster than him. We were the only people in the museum and within no time we had each been adopted by a museum staff member who took us through the museum explaining each exhibit in detail – much more detail than the information sheets could ever provide.
And from that we learned some pretty quirky things about Bulgaria….
- Spooned for life: Spoons played a big part in Bulgarian life. The father of a house hold would carve each family member a spoon and that was yours for life. If you were invited to a neighbours house as a guest then all you had to worry about was bringing along your trusty spoon!
- Spoon to express interest: For each village there was usually only one place the women would gather to collect fresh water. It was also a meeting place for young men and women to meet, and for the young man to express his interest in a young woman. He would do so by presenting his potential bride with a spoon. This didn’t always end well for the hopeful suitor with either the young lady rejecting his spoon or the more likely case, the family just choosing to marry the couple to other families.
- Kidnapping bride: Another way young women were married was a seemingly innocent visit to another families house for a generous meal only to be kidnapped and forced to marry the gracious hosts’ son.
- Three legged chair: In every house you would find a three legged chair. This was not because of a chair leg thief plaguing Bulgaria, it was to trick the evil eye into thinking that your poor little family with only a three legged chair was not worth troubling.
- The three legged chair played another important role in Bulgarian tradition as well. When a new couple was married, the bride would turn the chair upside down and place three candles on the legs. She would attribute a saint to each candle, and the candle that burnt out first would be that families protector saint. Each family was only allowed to perform this ritual once, unless there was a major disaster in the family, such as the death of a child. Then they could pick a new saint. But you can only saint swap once.
- Traditional Bulgarian clothing usually consists of light colored fabric decorated with beautiful and intricate embroidery. A young girl would learn how to embroider from her mother when she was five years old. Each region of Bulgaria had it’s own particular embroidery style but some things were common across the entire country. One was the use of a squiggly pattern to represent the grass snake. The grass snake was through to be a protector animal and was highly regarded in traditional Bulgarian culture. Another commonality was the fact that the embroidery only featured on the hem line, neck line, and sleeve hem. This was so the embroidery would act like a “fence”, keeping the chaotic natural world away from the world of men.
- Bulgarian embroidery is intricate and detailed, so I was surprised to learn that every piece has an intentional mistake. This was the creators way of saying to God, “I am just mortal, I am not perfect.”
- It wasn’t just embroidery that acted like a fence, having an actual fence was extremely important. The only people in the community allowed to not have a fence around their house were hunters or other people who were thought to have a special relationship with the natural world, and therefore did not need this symbolic protection.