We've all heard of kukers, and many of us have witnessed the loud and colorful festivals where they are the main actors. The tradition of the masquerade ritual in our country dates back to ancient pagan times, more than 6000 years ago.
According to some scholars, the Kuker games are part of our Thracian heritage, with their predecessors being worshipers of the god of fun, Dionysus. The origin of the word "kukeri" is also Thracian and means "tall, masked people". You can also meet them with some of the many names that are used in different parts of Bulgaria - jamals, aushis, babugers, stanchinaris, dervishes, old men, surts or jamalars.
What do kuker customs really symbolize? The ritual symbolizes the passing of winter and the arrival of spring. Kukers perform ritual actions such as harvest, sowing, wedding for health and fertility. Wearing hideous masks on their heads, dressed in sheep or goat skins, hanging clappers, bells and sticks, their aim is to drive away evil spirits.
If you visit a Kukker festival, you will see individual groups, mostly men dressed in similar costumes, begin a rhythmic dance or hop, accompanied by the jingling of bells, the clattering of sticks, or the flapping of their long-haired furs. Both the dances and the rhythm of the claps are interesting and memorable, which will subsequently reverberate in your ears for a long time. It is these noisy rituals that are performed to ward off evil forces.
You can see cooking games in the period between Christmas and Sirni Zagovezni in different regions of Bulgaria. The Kuker masquerade games are colorful and comprehensive - from the colors and variety of the costumes, through the age groups of the participants, the content and symbolism of the scenes, the names of the groups to their geographical coverage.
At kuker festivals you can see women, children and men dressed in a wide variety of costumes, masks and folk costumes, equipped with a wide variety of props, including animals. Often the groups play plays with different participants - the king, the grandmother, the bear, the newlyweds, the priest, the donkey and many others. Various folklore ensembles also participate in the festivals, so you can always enjoy the colorful Bulgarian costumes from different ethnographic regions of the country. Torchlight processions and fires are lit at some of the events.
Making the masks can take more than a year, and creating them is a real art. Most of the masks are made of a wooden structure, pasted with colorful ribbons, feathers, pieces of fabric, sequins, mirrors, etc. There are also those that resemble different animals – a ram, a bull, a goat – all looking scary.
In recent years, cooking festivals and holidays have become increasingly popular. The largest among them is "Surva", which takes place every year in the town of Pernik. It is "the most authoritative performance of traditional folk games and customs with masks in Bulgaria and the Balkans", as he defines himself. In 2009, Pernik was declared the European capital of Survakar and Kuker traditions, with the participation of about 6,000 people from 100 masquerade groups from all ethnographic regions of the country and various countries, mostly from Europe.
There are also a number of other cities that host cooking festivals, such as "Kukerlandia" in Yambol, "Festival of masquerade games" in Stara Zagora, "Starchovden" in Karlovo, "Na gosti u Shopsko" in Elin Pelin and many others.
It is interesting that similar masquerade games are also found in many countries of Central and Southern Europe – Romania, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy, Spain, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, etc.