On New Year’s Eve and Zagovezni, in Bulgaria, special rituals called Kukeri (Mummer’s) games take place. The Kukeri games are performed by men only. They put on special masks, hand-made by each of the participants. Most of the masks are made of wood. Different colored threads are glued on it as well as pieces of multicolored fabrics, mirrors and other shiny elements. The masks represent a ram, a goat or a bull. Their necessary part of the Kukeri games proves the thesis that their origin is connected to the ancient Dionysius’ games. The impact that the masked mummers make, gets even bigger by the sound of the copper and bronze bells that hang on them.
Some of the masks have two faces. On one of the sides, the nose is snubbed and the face is good-humored, on the other side, the nose is hooked and the face is ominous. Those masks symbolize the good and the bad which coexist in the world and are inevitable. A very important thing for the symbolic meaning of the masks is the color and the decoration. Red is the most used color – a symbol of the fertility of the reviving nature, of the sun and the fire; the black color embodies the earth and her goddess mother and white is a symbol of water and light. The Kukeri aim to scary and sweep away forever the evil spirits with the help of special magic dances and the scary masks, so that the crops for the next year are rich.
In some villages, in the night before New Year’s Eve the ritual “camels” is performed. The supply of the ritual requisite is among the most important things in the preparation. The main thing in the ritual is the ancient idea of reincarnation and that is why the mask is very important as a main characterizing component. In an exquisite way the masks show a great craftsmanship and fantasy. They are carefully saved and are refreshed each year. There is a tradition in the choice of specific materials as well as in the faces, the symbols and in the way the masks and the clothes are made. Each epoch brings a new character in the ritual. “The camel” is made of two willow trees each one meter tall. They are put together in both their ends with two small perpendicular wooden sticks. The two willow trees are also put together by a few bent hornbeam or cornel-tree sticks. The skeleton is covered with a caparison. The head of the “camel” is covered with a piece of leather or weasel fir. They also put bells on the front side and on the back side of the “camel” and a tail on the back of it. The camel is carried by a young man dressed in a national costume with white socks and black strings around the socks and sandals. The young man should be healthy and strong so that he could play the camel and beat other “camels”.
There are men called “dividzhii” dressed in coats with the firry side turned inside out. They have leather belts around their waists with bells on it. They put a mask on their heads. The mask is made of frieze decorated with colorful threads, ribbons and laces. They have a wooden sword in one of their hands and a mace in the other. In the past only unmarried men were allowed to take part in the ritual, but nowadays married men can participate as well. After Christmas singers go out in the yard, the “dividzhii” and the “camel” called Mary come out and start playing. They talk a little and do different rituals. The people that participate in the rituals should not be recognized by the other people in the village so that the year is fertile and the games are successful. The masks gives them the opportunity to do things that otherwise might seem inappropriate. The masked men jump, jingle with the bells, roll on the ground, sharpen their swords with the frieze and make jokes. They rock and fall on the ground to represent the weight of the ears of corn. They roll on the ground to gain power from it so that they are healthy. The jingle of the bells chases away all bad spirits. The bells are always used in different rituals in all cultures as protection from magic.
“The camel” falls on the ground and the “dividzhii” start sharpening their swords saying: “my camel comes a long way and it needs money for new shoes or otherwise I’ll have to kill it”. The host gives a piece of sausage and some money. The “dividzhii” put the shoes on the camel by holding the frieze to its foot and hitting it with the sword. But the “camel” is still on the ground because it’s sick and needs medicine – a piece of meat so it can get better. The “dividzii” rub the meat against the animal’s body and it gets on its feet. This “death” followed by “reincarnation” symbolizes the death of nature during the winter time and its coming back to life in the spring. The ritual murder which is often seen in carnival games could be seen as an act of magic. The visit to all the houses in the village is made only at night time, because they should not see the sun when they are outside. After they have gone around the whole village the Christmas singers, the “dividzhii” and the “camel” gather together on the meadow early in the morning where all the people from the village have gone. They entertain them with games and dances. They jump high so that the crops are tall, jingle the bells and wave their swords and friezes. The camels separated in two groups fight each other and the results of the fight show how good the New Year will be. They believe that if blood drops on the ground the year will be fertile. The ritual ends with a big horo in the centre of the village. They make a feast with the food and the money they have gathered during the carnival. In the plays and the dialogue between the masked men one can sense grotesque and parody and if the participants are good actors the plays can be not only entertaining but aesthetic as well.
In the night before St. Vassil’s day the troop goes from house to house making jokes with the hosts. They receive money and bread. During the visits whenever they meat people on the streets, strangers or people gathered for the show the mummers make comic and even cynical jokes and play different games. The spectacles joke and tease them all well. The parade is noisy and funny. The games are full of joy, conflicts, different costumes and persons, comical plays and improvisations. It is a real national celebration full of freshness, humor, satire, a theatre in the open in which both the spectacles and the people making the games are performers. Laughter has special magical powers so people laugh to influence the flora and fauna. Quite often the function of magic is full of theatric elements. That is why a lot of researchers think that the mask games are in the beginning of theatre itself.