It is the morning of the New Year and the world is dark, cozy, and quiet. But slowly, while sleeping soundly in your bed, something outside begins to stir. The faint jiggling of bells carried by the crisp winter's breeze interupts the perfect silence of the night. Enchanted, the noise eventually penetrates to your thoughts and coaxes you from slumber. In this semi-conscious state, you are momentarily transported back to your childhood bedroom, where Santa's sleigh bells echo his arrival on a December's night. A sudden boom marks the arrival of drums to the choir, and you are instantly snapped back to reality. You are in Bulgaria, and you are here for the bells.
Petrich is one of the last bastions of slavic culture in the south. Tucked away in the western corner of Bulgaria, it is straddled by the impressive Belasitsa mountains, which carve a natural border dividing it from Greece. It could be said that in no other part of the world does the slavic sphere of influence end so abruptly than the road south of Petrich. Yet it is here that folk traditions forgotten by other regions of Bulgarian are strongly held onto.
This was how my 2024 began, awaiting the heralding of the new year by kukers ('кукери'), the famous masked men of Bulgarian folklore. Accompanied by a host of costumed characters, drum and zurna musicians, and women dancing хоро ('horo') adorned in vibrant local costumes, these displays uphold an ancient tradition steeped in belief. Originally performed to protect villages from the evils of the first unbaptised week of January (мръсни дни, literally 'dirty week'), it has evolved into a more general celebration of folklore, cultural diversity, and national identity.
Unknown group practising in an empty carpark
Kuker groups from villages all over the region come to Petrich for the annual Станчинарски Игри ('stanchinarski games'), where they can celebrate and show-off their unique folk traditions, whether it be their dances, songs, costumes or colours. The entire city turns out for this and lines the streets to watch, transforming this otherwise quiet and uneventful place. Kuker groups form a makeshift parade, marching slowly down the main street to a final televised performance area. Around one corner, a parking lot has been emptied out for groups to practice before their big moment.
The blasting of bells, drums, zurnas, and shouts from all these many performers blend together to create a characteristically Bulgarian noise. In a word, it is absolutely chaotic. While events such as this - including the larger international Сурва ('Surva') festival held in Pernik later in January - can be a spectacle to behold, they are a relatively modern invention. It is only in the very early hours of New Year's morning where the ancient magic of this folklore can still be felt. Where the jangling of distance bells wakes you and you are drawn outside into the cold.
Хоро from Квартал Поляните
Following the only sounds of drums I could hear, I walked through deserted streets until I found its source. The Квартал Поляните ('neighbourhood Polyanite') group was weaving its way through the local neighbourhoods of Petrich, knocking on windows for money and dancing for those who donate. In another country, I suspect that loudly knocking on someone's window on New Year's morning and asking for money may be greeted with a few choice words, but clearly not here.
Some residents from a nearby flat came out to watch the dancing and I joined, anxious as an outsider to copy their behaviour, lest I break some unknown etiquette. I followed for a little while longer at a distance, opting to not take any photos. I was just preparing to leave however, when the leader of the group called me over. A few broken conversations, several photos, and a little rakia later, and I ended up walking with them for a several hours, eventually recording the footage to make the video above. As the procession snaked along the flats, new members continously joined and the group swelled. Some were dresseed as new characters, while others I could only conclude were simply along for the ride.
The importance of folk traditions in the modern era is becoming increasingly uncertain. Social media and global overtourism has forced many traditions to be repackaged and commercialised for the masses. What was once private and personal to local communities has been gutted and simplified for wider consumption, sometimes to such an extent that traditions may have entirely lose their original purpose. But, in a world of eroding heritage, the Kukers of Petrich appear to stand out. I saw musicians playing along with their sons, children dancing hand-in-hand with their families, and costumes worn that have been handed down from grandparents to grandchildren. Against a backdrop of a rapdily globalising world, only time will tell whether kukers can weather the storm and stand resilient in the face of relentless change∎