Halloween or Kukeri: What Will You Celebrate This October?

Pumpkin season has come! The word pumpkin comes from the Greek “pepon,” which means a big melon. Although “pepon” is a Greek word, this is how my grandma referred to melons her entire lifetime. The pumpkin is not a vegetable, it is technically a fruit, and on top of everything it belongs to the class of berries. The tradition of carving pumpkins into lanterns for Halloween originated in Ireland. Nowadays, in autumn, all the children from the USA get hysterical if their parents eat their “Halloween candies.”

Halloween or Samhain

The Halloween holiday, also familiar as All Hallows’ Eve is a rendition of the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. It celebrated the successful finale of the harvest season, and prepared the stage for winter. On this night, it is believed the thin veil between the living and the departed is magically torn.

So, people take the poor pumpkin and carve a face in it, then they put a candle inside it and the face glows and is supposed to chase the evil spirits, and the whole installation is called a Jack-o’-Lantern. This tradition originated in Ireland with the carving of turnips or potatoes but was transferred to America, where they figured out that the pumpkin was much more susceptible to carving. Nowadays Americans take the Halloween celebration most seriously. It is trendy on this day to wear orange or black – in representation of the harvest and autumn, darkness and death. There is a tradition to wear scary costumes in order to ward off the wandering spirits of the dead. So kids dress as scary beings – vampires, trolls, witches, zombies, ghosts, mummies, werewolves, sorcerers, monsters, and other mythical evil figures, then they stop by your door and ask for a treat in a very impertinent manner.

“Trick or treat!” is meant to mean “Treat me something, or I will ruin your day!” This tradition is rooted in the medieval practice of “souling.” On All Souls’ Day – which is the second of November, poor people would knock on rich people’s doors and ask for food in exchange for a prayer for the dead in the family. So the first association one makes with Halloween is “horrific, but in the funniest and most delightful ways.” It is associated with haunted houses and superstitions such as “if a black cat crosses your way.” I would say – if a black cat crosses your way that means simply that the animal is going somewhere. Nowadays, Halloween is a big business – people buy all the brooms to look like witches, and billions of dollars are invested in costumes, decorations, and candies.

The Halloween tradition has leaked from the USA into Bulgaria, although many people protest against this foreign holiday, kids wear weird costumes and walk about at All Hallows in expectation of treats. Single ladies wear costumes of nurses or bridal gowns and go to parties, where people wear insane quantities of makeup and look like affable vampires and mummies. Obviously, there is something magical in dolling up as a fantasy character. The reason many people protest is that they respect our own tradition that is similar.

Kukers or Kukeri

The ritual I am going to describe is so ancient! It was created 6000 years ago when people used to celebrate the God of Merlot and merrymaking – Dionysius. The Kukeri Rites are an annual carnival masquerade in Bulgaria and some other neighboring countries (Southeastern Europe). It is usually organized in the beginning of the Great Fast, or between Christmas and Epiphany. Sad thing is I live in a major city in Bulgaria and I have never seen a real Kuker. Hence, the reason for the obviously vintage picture. It’s an almost obsolete tradition that used to happen when people here lived quiet and modest lives in small villages close to nature. Our world is deprived of the beauty of the simple life of bygone times. However, there is a wonderful presentation of this tradition in Wikipedia, from which I am going to borrow in this post.

The major participants in the Kukeri games and the delinquents for all the fun are:

The Kuker – this word stands for a “tall, masked man.” He is a leading character, fashioned in a scary costume similar to the Halloween ones, yet different in many aspects. First and foremost, the Kukeri is a traditional game for adults – even male adults, more concretely – male, single adults. You will not recognize the Kuker with the mask, though he could be your love interest. He looks like a scary satyr with a lot of facial hair. Some masks have two faces – on one side the nose is snub and the face looks like that of a kind dwarf, on the other side the nose is crooked and the face looks sinister and witchy. These dualistic masks are symbolic of the good and evil, they are deeply figurative and even the colors have their own meanings. The color red in the mask is predominant – symbolizing the fertility of rebirthing nature, of the power of the Sun and the fire. The black symbolizes the earth and her Mother Goddess, and the white is symbolic of water and light. The Kuker is armed with a broom or a wooden sword. Instead of a sword some of the Kukers carry directly a red phallic symbol. They even employ it to simulate sexual activities with the Grandma. Hence, I say it is a game for adults.

The Bride or the Grandma – (Baba) The Kuker’s wife dressed in a national costume, sometimes uglified with a hunchback, sometimes represented as being pregnant, though this character is not actually a real woman In some villages, the Kuker is killed three times and brought back to life by the Grandma.
Lads and Lassies – young people in their holiday wear, they don’t have masks, only makeup

King – often with a fake white beard like Santa but wearing a basket instead of a bag, and a hat or in some cases an ivy wreath instead of a crown, usually in a cart instead of a chart, which is dragged by the bodyguards, instead of donkeys
Keepers – also called soldiers – the companions who drag the chariot of the king
Qadi – an unpleasant figure carrying chains and a notebook and gathering taxes from the people they meet
Preacherman – usually wearing black, his job is to wed the kuker and the grandma, or lads and lassies
Gypsymen – with old raggy clothes and black faces
Barber – his role is to chase the people from the audience with a wooden razor threatening to shave them. He is the one who gets to kill the Kuker
Doctor – takes care of fallen or ill characters

Okay, so far – an entire movie cast. And what do they do? They walk about the entire village and “paint it red” – merrymaking the entire time – the streets and the yards of people and everyone who doesn’t work that day is considered a spectator. They imitate animal sounds and make really lot of noise to chase evil spirits. The audience can be engaged in the kidnapping of the grandma, and the Kukers will punish them for this. In the culmination the King appears – a man of good fortune and posterity – he is taken to the main square with the cart. There he sits on a table, but he is not allowed to delight in the food by himself – the keepers feed him only three bites, meanwhile, the people tie him to a plow. While he is drinking and blessing for health and good harvest, the other Kukers knock him down, and he gets up, takes the plow and starts plowing and sowing while everybody else tries to stop him. After the day is done, the king is brought to his home, where he makes a feast.

As I mentioned, the Kukeri games and customs are performed by men, especially single. Each Kuker group has a leader, who is the only married man, often with a male child or twin children. The first tradition is walking around all the homes of the village armed with musical instruments and with best wishes for health, fertility, and wellness. They start from the house of the mayor, who welcomes them with a feast. In every home hilarious scenes are performed – kids on Halloween only threaten, but the Kukers really do the tricks. They make mischief and do clutter and mess up the household. The Kuker, and the Grandma constantly indulge in games with sexual context. Ethnologists claim that these activities were remains of the ancient cult for the Sun and the Thracian mysteries. The householders gift the Kukers with food, money or beverages. Finally, on the village’s main square, the Kukers perform a ritual dance in circles called “horo.” They dance wildly ringing their bells. People believe the more noise they produce the more certain it is that they will chase the evil spirits away, and the year is going to be blessed. People believe that the entire ritual provides fertility in the fields.

The Kukers are related to the lifestyle of a farmer and they celebrate in the hope for good harvest, by chasing the evil from the fields and yards of the householders and their magical actions impregnate nature, so that it is “born and reborn.” The custom turns into a folk theatre everywhere. It can happen only in the magic of autumn.

“It was October again … a glorious October, all red and gold, with mellow mornings when the valleys were filled with delicate mists as if the spirit of autumn had poured them in for the sun to drain – amethyst, pearl, silver, rose, and smoke-blue. The dews were so heavy that the fields glistened like cloth of silver and there were such heaps of rustling leaves in the hollows of many-stemmed woods to run crisply through.”
– Lucy Maud Montgomery


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