Mila Maeva

Holidays and Subgroups (on the Cases of Bulgarians in the UK)

Mila Maeva

Abstract: The article focuses on exploring the interaction between emigration, festive culture and national self-identification on the cases of Bulgarians settled in the UK. The holidays described as official / public and informal and their celebration are studied in the framework of the families and relatives’ networks as well as into the Bulgarian organizations there. As the theoretical basis of the study, the festive system is perceived as an important part of the national cultural heritage and its role in building and maintaining the national identity of post-modern national states. The festive culture is strongly influenced by globalization and by the process of acculturation, which leads to the dropping of many elements and the introduction of new ones influenced by the host country's traditions, yet many Bulgarians consider it as an important part of protecting, developing and maintaining national self-confidence. As part of the ʽinvented traditionsʼ, the holidays are also a factor in acquainting and presenting Bulgarian culture to different, multicultural communities on the one hand, and on the other – contributing to the organization and maintenance of immigrant subgroups in the UK. Last but not least, the Bulgarians maintain their connection with their homeland and create their comfort zones in the new state.

Keywords: Bulgarians abroad, UK, subgroups, comfort zone

The article focuses on exploring the interaction between emigration, festive culture and national self-identification. As the theoretical basis of the study, the festive system is perceived as an important part of the national cultural heritage and its role in building and maintaining the national identity of post-modern nation-states (Gellner, 1990; Hobsbawm 1996; Hobsbawm, Ranger, 1983). The festive culture is strongly influenced by globalization and by the process of acclaturation, which leads to the dropping of many elements and the introduction of new ones influenced by the host country's traditions, yet many Bulgarians consider it as an important part of protecting, developing and maintaining national self-confidence. As part of the ʽinvented traditionsʼ (Hobsbawm, Ranger, 1983), the holidays are also a factor in acquainting and presenting Bulgarian culture to different, multicultural communities on the one hand, and on the other – contributing to the organization and maintenance of immigrant subgroups in England. Last but not least, the Bulgarians maintain their connection with their homeland and create comfort zone in the new state.

The purpose of the study is to present and analyze the national and traditional holidays, their celebrations and their role in the formation and self-identification of the Bulgarians in the UK (in particular England). It seeks to find the place of the festive system in the culture of the Bulgarians there and to study its role as part of the ʽinvented traditionsʼ (Hobsbawm, Ranger, 1983) for the preservation and formation of Bulgarian cultural memory[2] and cultural identity[3] of emigrants and especially of children, born out of the country.

The community of Bulgarians who have emigrated to Britain is the result of a relatively recent migration. Unlike movements to other countries (e.g. Germany, Greece and Spain) that began or increased immediately after the collapse of communist rule in Bulgaria in late 1989, emigration to Britain became common in the past ten years, and – at that – only after the country was accepted as member of the European Union on 1 January 2007. The limited movement in this direction is largely due to both the lack of tradition in this respect and the strict visa regime, which at one point even involved the complete suspension of visa issuance in 2004. Until 2007 Britain was not among the preferred destinations for Bulgarian citizens, mainly because of its climate and cultural characteristics (such as driving on the left side of the road, British food, British humor, or even practical reasons such as lack of showers in the bathrooms and separate taps for hot and cold water, etc.). However, gradually this country started attracting the attention of prospective emigrants. The annual student brigades became one of the incentives to migrate in this direction. Over the last ten years, the role of factors, such as high standard of living, decent living conditions in Britain, positive experiences shared by other fellow countrymen and, last but not least, the growing economic crisis in Southern Europe, factors which generally acted as the strongest attraction for most Bulgarian citizens, has led to a change in the attitudes of future emigrants to Britain. Even the strict employment restrictions for Bulgarian citizens, reaffirmed by the British Government in late 2011 and expected to be in force until the end of 2013, failed to contribute to reducing the movement in this direction. According to the latest studies published in August 2017, Britain is currently the most desirable emigration destination for Bulgarian citizens and is now home to one of the biggest Bulgarian diasporas in Western Europe. According to official statistics, in 2005 around 20,000 Bulgarians (Петров, 2005) were residing in the UK. The most accurate count of Bulgarians who live and work in the UK can be obtained from Department for Work and Pensions. According to this data, 272,303 adult Bulgarian nationals received NINo between January 2002 and December 2016[4]. Unofficial data, however, indicate that Bulgarian citizens residing (including those who have temporary residence) in the UK exceed 300,00 people. They are at the top of the list of EU nationalities receiving NINo during the last two years. The social, educational, and age statuses of the immigrants are quite diverse. According to official data, the larger part of them are people with secondary education, relatively young (18–34 years). Or, the typical Bulgarian immigrant in the UK is young, single, and educated.

The article is based on ethnographic qualitative research and includes direct interviewing, participant observation, life story (autobiographic) methods, and narrative analyses. In the course of the study, methods of virtual ethnography, as developed by Christine Hine, were also used, in particular online qualitative research of narratives from various emigrant forums and sites created by or for Bulgarian immigrants in Britain (Hine, 2000, 2005). As migrants not just move between two places, but circulate among many and not only in one period, the study applies multi-sited ethnographic study (Marcus, 1995). It was conducted among three groups: 1) immigrants to England still living there, 2) Bulgarians permanently settled in the UK but returned to Bulgaria for a short time and 3) migrant`s relatives and friends because the emigration was motivated and supported by 'others'.

The immigrants celebrate a number of festivals, which can be systematized as public / formal and traditional / religious. Part of them are also the preserved socialist feasts I will talk about in the other article, which I will not mention here. From the official holidays, the Bulgarians in the UK celebrate only two – the Liberation of Bulgaria (March 3rd) and the St. Cyril and Methodius Day and Bulgarian Education and Culture and Slavonic Literature Day (May 24th). Rarely, September 6th (Bulgarian unification) and September 22th (declaration of Bulgarian independence in 1908) are noted. Traditional and religious celebrations include Christmas Eve (December 24th), Christmas Day (December 25th), Baba Marta (March 1th), Palm Sunday, Easter and St. George Day (May 6th), as well as a number of holidays, days, such as st. Nicholas (December 6 th), Epiphany (January 6th), st. John the Baptist (January 7th), and so on.

The celebration of the holidays in England is organized and realized on two levels:

· officially within Bulgarian immigrant institutions such as organizations, schools, churches, and so on;

· informally - within the family, family and friendly networks.

In most cases, the immigrants prefer to spend holidays outside the family and informal networks in order to attract more Bulgarians and demonstrate Bulgarian affiliation. The scale of holidays is directly related to the number of Bulgarians and their organization. That's why the official celebration is mainly concentrated in the big cities, and mainly in London. After 2012-2013, with the expansion of the Bulgarian community in Manchester, they have started to organize such events. As other immigrant communities, celebrations are often celebrated not on the day, but on weekends. That is why we can say that the Bulgarians in the UK have adapted their holiday calendar according to the calendar of the local society and their working cycle (cf. Dimitrova, 2013).

The celebration of the public holidays as March 3rd (the Liberation of Bulgaria) and May 24th (St. Cyril and Methodius Day and the Slavic Culture, Bulgarian Education and Culture) is concentrated within the official Bulgarian institutions. For example, schools in London celebrate the holiday with Bulgarian songs and dances, and finally end with a treat of traditional Bulgarian dishes such as bread, bakery (banitsa) and wine. The Bulgarian City Club organizes a gathering of its members, often accompanied by a charity event and a collection of funds to support Bulgarian schools.

In 2013, the celebration of March 3rd in London was marked by the political and social situation in Bulgaria. A protest was held in front of the embassy in Kensington as a sign of solidarity with protesters in the homeland. It is organized by a Facebook group ʽBG mums in Englandʼ:

ʽAt our second gathering we did not forget to take care of the traditions. There were bagpipes, national costumes, baked bread rolls, banitsa, and handmade martenitsas. The children were drawing under the motto ʽMila me, Bulgarioʼ – an initiative that was supported by the Bulgarians from other cities in the world. We plan to gather these children's emigrant drawings into a common exhibition and finally give them to our new politicians - put them in the corridors of parliament! And the time was with us, and the sun was hot. We honored those who died for our Liberation with one minute silence on our knees and sang a hymn. People were very positive. Even our guarding English policemen felt this mood after drinking them with a breadcrumb of colored salt and tied them to a martensite for luckʼ (Lalova, 2013, p. 4).

A declaration sent to the Bulgarian Government was also accepted:

ʽDeclaration on behalf of Bulgarian citizens living in the United Kingdom, present in front of the Embassy of the Republic of Bulgaria in London. We Bulgarian citizens living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain express our support for the protests of the Bulgarian people. We support his desire for a better life and urgent changes in the political governance of the country.

We are for total change, cardinal decisions and change of the political model of the Republic of Bulgaria, as we firmly stand behind the demands of our compatriots. We are convinced that all the politicians who have ruled over the past 23 years are guilty of the state of the Bulgarian state. We want them and their families to be investigated and the guilty - punished for corruption, inefficient government and abuse of power. We express our desire to help create a better Bulgaria!

With lots of love and hope from London!ʼ

Similar protests related to March 3rd were organized by Bulgarian communities in other cities as Birmingham and Manchester.

The Bulgarians in the UK also celebrate May 24th. The Bulgarian School at the Embassy, ​​for example, makes each year great concerts dedicated to the holiday, and the other ʽVasil Levskiʼ and ʽRose Valleyʼ schools – their "Holiday of the Letters". Bulgarians organizes numerous cultural events for May 24th. Bulgarian choir in London often holds its annual concert.

On May 24, 2012 a general celebration of the holiday was organized by immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria and Serbia for the first time. It was the initiative of the Soros Diocese and the Russian Orthodox Church. A concert was held at the Royal College of Music in London with the participation of children from various schools of Slavonic communities in Great Britain and Ireland (Mecheva, 2012).

For the Bulgarians in the UK, May 24th is marked and perceived as ʽthe beautiful holiday of the holy brothers Cyril and Methodius, the Bulgarian alphabet, the Slavic scriptʼ. The Bulgarian School in London ʽBoyan Magaʼ even seeks to bring the children back in time his philosophy:

ʽLet us take to the time of Cyril and Methodius to try to write a page from their ancient books - in Old Bulgarian, in order to feel the age and the mission of the two brothersʼ[5].

According to the users of the most popular immigrant`s web-site BG Help the May 24th is: ʽThe Day of Bulgarian Literature and Culture and the Holy Brothers Cyril and Methodius!ʼ The holiday is defined as ʽthe oldestʼ, ʽthe most realʼ , ʽthe most Bulgarianʼ and ʽthe brightest Bulgarian holidayʼ, and it is tought as: ʽThe holy day of St. Cyril and Methodius ... develops as a specific Bulgarian phenomenonʼ. According to a user it is the:

"One day in which we can proudly say ʽI AM BULGARIAN!ʽ; ʼBeing proud to have one of the oldest alphabets in Europe and to be able to keep it in the future. Let's use our Cyrillic alphabet, not Latin, or digits (eg 6 instead of 4, instead of 4, etc.) in spite of mass latinization on the Internet, computers, even the signs in Bulgarian shops.ʼ[6]

In addition to the greetings in the forums, significant Bulgarian poems such as ʽI am Bulgarianʼ and ʽBulgarian languageʼ by Ivan Vazov are being exchanged too. But often the celebration is not only a reason for pride. For Bulgarians this day, like other holidays, is related to the nostalgic memory of the homeland:

ʽHappy Holidays of all Bulgarians. Few are the nations that are proud of their own alphabet. Not to mention that the Greeks had some claims about the origin of St. Cyril and Methodius and OUR alphabet. But only in the dreams will be theirs. And whoever feels Bulgarian and at the end of the world is, he will always be celebrating him properly. To be alive and healthy and to keep our spiritual culture and wealth for centuries.ʼ[7]

The Bulgarian public holidays are often also celebrated outside the immigrant`s organizations. Bulgarians organize coffee breaks, visits to Bulgarian pubs or even pop folk parties at the weekend with the special participation of famous artists. For example, in 2012 the ʽMr. Londonʼ competition coincides with May 24th. In 2013, the Day of Slavic Alphabet and Culture is celebrated with a general Bulgarian congregation with the participation of Bulgarian pop folk musicians. The Bulgarian flag is usually used in these gatherings and Bulgarian foods are eaten there. The holiday is also celebrated in a home setting:

ʽWe are on a typical Bulgarian table, Shopska salad (shopska salata), roasted chicken and something else ... Cheers and celebrations of all the names. However, we must not forget the founders of this bright celebration. The holy two brothers Cyril and Methodius. Greetings to all graduates and teachers, and to whom he is celebrated! Cheers!ʼ[8]

During the study one of the traditions is particularly visible in the process of immigration (sf. Decheva 2013, Dimitrova 2011, 2013, Zahova 2013, Maeva 2013). It is related to Grandma Martha (Baba Marta) (March 1st) and to the binding of martenitsa. The immigrants carry martenitsas from Bulgaria, receive them from relatives, buy them from Bulgarian shops, or make by themselves. They often even give them to the familiar Britsh people. They consider the feast as ʽa pure Bulgarian oneʼ and proudly practice it. This tradition is maintained at both informal and formal level – in Bulgarian schools and other institutions and organizations. Usually, on the eve of the holiday, workshops are organized in which children and parents make their own martenitsas. For the holiday, the children in the Bulgarian kindergardens and schools also have a special program with songs for Baba Marta and the first day of spring. For example, in 2013, the Bulgarian-British Society realized a martenitsa party with dances, lotto, Bulgarian wine and food.

Within the informal networks, celebrating religious holidays associated with name days (imenni dni) is widespread. Celebrations are completely closed within the family and friendly circles. Because of the specifics of the country there are interesting innovations. For example, for st. Nicholas`s day, instead of traditional carp, emigrants often prepare salmon.

The celebration of the Epiphany in London in 2012 was also an interesting example. During it a Greek priest consecrated a cross and threw it in the Themes, where it was taken out. Trifon Zarezan (February 1th) stands out among the popular holidays there. One of the Bulgarians told that in 2013 they even made a symbolic planting of a vineyard. It happened in a Bulgarian restaurant in London. Another holiday, rarely celebrated, but preserved after the UK settlement, is related to Sirni Zagovezni (Cheesfare Sunday or The Great Leant and this celebration always happens on the Sunday, 7 weeks before the Orthodox Easter). It is celebrated into the families with young children and they eat eggs and halva (AIEFSEM No. 983-III: 71).

Within the family celebrations there is a reduction in the festive rituals. During immigration some basic elements are only observed, such as the preparation of Lenten food for Christmas Eve, putting lucks (kasmeti) in the Christmas cake, etc. (cf. Dimitrova 2013), which according to the Bulgarians are specific for the holiday. The focus is on the ritual table, which once again brings us back to the question of food and nostalgia[9]: ʽI will make Lenten dolmas (postni sarmi) for the Christmas Eveʼ [10]. Traditionally, the dishes of the ʽtypical Bulgarian tableʼ on Christmas Eve are both lean and odd. Often, Christmas Eve is the occasion for the Bulgarians to gather in the immigration of big celebrations:

ʽWe made a huge Christmas gathering. For Christmas Eve, we made the entire menu. One of the guests wanted to eat exactly what her mother made for Christmas Eve, stuffed beans with peppers. I get up and down ... Everyone who came, brought baklava and banitsa and got a very nice dinner. Beans, Polish cabbage, which is a bit sweet because it is with sugar, vine leaves, baklava, banitsa and dolmas stuffed with beans. I didn`t have oshaf (compote), though I could buy from the Turkish shops. It took me a long time because we gathered 11 peopleʼ (AIEFSEM No. 984-III: 7).

Although some of the interlocutors visit nearby churches, mostly Greek, for Christmas mess, they said that it is not very popular among the immigrants.

ʽFor Christmas I will bake a duck with fresh small potatoes. Salads - shopska and Russian. Little sweets from the store. Baklava. Pumpkin pastry (tikvenik). Banitsa or cakes (I have not decided yet).ʼ[11]

While a part of the immigrants buy the necessary products for the holidays in the Bulgarian warehouses and shops, others maintain transnational relations with Bulgaria and want to get everything from there to organize a real ʽBulgarian holidayʼ:

ʽMy mother will come for Christmas now. We will be celebrating the holiday on Bulgarian way. She will bring home rooster, wine, everything will be Bulgarian. We want the holiday to be Bulgarianʼ (AIEFSEM No. 983-III: 51).

Outside the family environment Christmas is marked with numerous activities. An important part of them is the charity activity, which, according to some, is adopted under the influence of the receiving English society. Bulgarian organizations in the UK organize concerts and initiatives to support orphanages and nursing homes in Bulgaria. Schools do recitals and celebrations to represent the traditions and customs of Christmas holidays. Various Christmas parties are organized for adults as well as for children.

Most of the Bulgarians in the UK continue to observe the tradition of egg dyeing and even making spesific Easter cakes (kozunatsi). An interesting example was the collective painting of eggs organized in Manchester in 2013. The individual elements of the local British culture as Egg Hunting and exchange of chocolate eggs and rabbits for Easter have gradually entered into the rituals of Bulgarians in the UK. Besides the individual rituals, some immigrants even perceive the English term Easter to name the holiday instead Velikden or Vaskresenie Hristovo. But most of the interlocutors they adhere to Bulgarian traditions after their settling in Britain:

ʽI do not celebrate their Easter. For ours I traditionally paint eggs and even go to the Greek church occasionally... So the last few years if I have an opportunity to return to Bulgaria for Easter.ʼ[12]

Easter is one of the few holidays when the immigrants visit a Bulgarian chapel in London. According to them, many people are flocking, for whom the yard is not enough, and there is even outside on the street. By the definition of an emigrant, the ʽEaster Christiansʼ appear on the day because it is the one day of the year when they visit the temple. Other Bulgarians prefer the nearby Greek temples, where they can safely light a candle and pray.

It is not uncommon for immigrants in the UK to celebrate Easter on the Catholic / Protestant calendar according to the local traditions and Orthodox according to Bulgarian customs:

ʽI'll tell you what the holidays are celebrating. I'll have mixed guests tomorrow, some of them Catholics. For the Catholic Easter I will not cook on our traditions, but for ours we will paint eggs. This year I decide to make a homemade kozunak and a stuffed lamb. I love holidays, it's important to become a party.ʼ[13]

The Bulgarians also celebrate St. George (May 6th) and after settling in the UK. The day is conceived as one of the ʽBulgarianʼ holidays and it is associated with the name day and the traditional table with lamb and green salad. In emigration the holiday acquires a new shade of mass. Since 2007 to 2009 ʽNational Assembly of the Bulgarians Abroadʼ was organized on this day in London. From 2012 the charity organization ʽBulgarian folklore and traditionsʼ and the dance club "Bulgara" have started to organize annually St. George's dance. Its goal is to gather Bulgarians who like Bulgarian dancing and singing. The choir strives to: ʽunite the Bulgarians living in London at one of Bulgaria's brightest holidays, St. George's Day.ʼ[14] The organizers set the ambitious task of the choir entering the Guinness Book of Records for the longest horo. The participants wear red T-shirts, costumes or a T-shirt with Bulgarian symbols. Others usually wave the Bulgarian flag. And because in 2013 the holiday coincided with Easter especially for the occasion is organized and fight with red eggs. The dances are accompanied by Bulgarian food provided by the sponsors - the Bulgarian grocery stores and a sweet shop in London. According to the participants:

ʽWe all rejoiced from the heart far away and at the same time - near the Motherland, in the rhythm of the wonderful Bulgarian folklore. On May 5, a London park turned into a small beautiful Bulgaria. Let us be united in the festivals of the Bulgarian folk tradition, to support each other and to give each other beauty and emotions.ʽ[15]

Some of the emigrants in England are trying to defend their traditions because:

ʽWe keep Christmas and Easter traditions and they are not as commercial as here. I like Egg Hunting, but it's very, very far from our lavish, traditional celebrations around Palm Sunday, Lazarus Saturday and Easter.ʼ[16]

With the expansion of Bulgarians in the UK, the immigrants have looked for different occasions for unification and public organization. The festivals, nevertheless the most important elements alive there are just music, songs and food, whether public or traditional, are the occasions for ʽBulgarianʼ and ʽnationalʼ celebrations. From family, they become public and official and are an attempt to unite the Bulgarian community. Moved from homeland to the UK, transformed and modernized, the holidays contribute to the strengthening of "everyday nationalism" (Billig, 1995) in the host country. Their understanding as "Bulgarian" and "national" make them an integral part of the system of building and maintaining collective memory among the natives in England. But this collective memory often does not mean attachment to the whole Bulgarian community. It is understood as linking to a particular subgroup, which has certain frameworks. That is why the holidays are largely situated within the boundaries of a Bulgarian school or the folklore ensemble in which the migrant is integrated. Within this group nevertheless it is friendly, kinship, social or cultural, the holidays are celebrated: ʽWe will celebrate st. Nicholas in the frameworks of our dancing ensembleʼ (AIEFSEM No. 983-III: 14). The lack of a community celebration is described not so much by the reluctance of Bulgarians to celebrate in groups, but by their different understanding of a collective celebration. Such relations among Bulgarian emigrants reinforce their vision of limiting the celebration within their own subgroup, where they feel good and appreciated by their compatriots. The subgroups and holiday celebration are one of the important mechanism to create comfort zones for Bulgarians in the UK and make them feel safe, calm and at home there[17].


AIEFSEMArchive of Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum – Bulgarian Academy of Sciences


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[1] The study is realized in the framework of postdoctoral project Bulgarian Immigration to the UKʼ (POST DOC 02.4/14.01.2010), financed by Bulgarian Science Fund, Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science.

[2] About cultural memory and collective memory see Halbwachs, 1950.

[3]Stuart Hall defines 'cultural identity' in terms of one, shared culture, a sort of collective 'one true self', hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed 'selves', which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common. Within the terms of this definition, our cultural identities reflect the common historical experiences and shared cultural codes which provide us, as 'one people', with stable, unchanging and continuous frames of reference and meaning, beneath the shifting divisions and vicissitudes of our actual history (Hall, p.3).

[4] National Insurance Number Allocations to Adult Overseas Nationals Entering the UK for 2016. Available at: [Accessed 1th Dec. 2017].

[5] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[6] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[7] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[8] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[9] About food and nostalgia see Locher et al., 2005.

[10] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[11] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[12] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[13] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[14] BG BEN, (10), May 2013, p. 4.

[15] BG BEN, (10), May 2013, p. 4.

[16] [Accessed 10 Apr. 2018].

[17] About comfort zone see McCreanor et al., 2016 and Glick Schiller, 2014.