The ritual masking in Bulgarian lands comes from ancient times and is still actual today. The holyday Surova in Central Western Bulgaria takes a special place amongst the traditional masquerade games. It is performed every year on 13 and 14 January – the folk New Year (St Basil’s day according to the old Julian church calendar). For the local settlement communities today Surova is the most anticipated feast of the year. The main core in it is the masquerade ritual, through which a positive transition between the old and the New Year is realized.
Ritual masking on the Surova feast is a living tradition in the settlements of Banishte, Batanovtsi, Begunovtsi, Bela Voda, Berende, Bogdanov Dol, Velkovtsi, Viskyar, Vitanovtsi, Gabrov Dol, Gigintsi, Golemo Buchino, Gorna Vrabcha, Divotino, Dolna Sekirna, Divlya, Dolni Rakovets, Dragichevo, Drugan, Elov Dol, Zemen, Zidartsi, Izvor, Kalishte, Kovachevtsi, Kondofrey, Kosacha, Kopanitsa, Kosharevo, Kralev Dol, Leskovets, Lobosh, Lyulin, Meshtitsa, Mureno, Nepraznentsi, Noevtsi, Peshtera, Priboy, Radomir, Rakilovtsi, Rasnik, Rebro, Sadovik, Svetlya, Selishten Dol, Sirishtnik, Slakovtsi, Sopitsa, Stefanovo, Tsarkva, Chepino, Cherna Gora, Yardzhilovtsi. In many of those settlements the population has seriously decreased in number, but in the days around Surova they become lively again and a center of unseen spectacle and beauty.
The direct participants of this old but live tradition are the masquerade groups, which are called “survakari”, “survashkarye”, “sirviskarye”, “mechkarye”, “startsi”. Most of the masked participants are dressed in skins of wild and domestic animals with the fur turned outside, or with costumes from many-colored textile fringes. Each of them is carrying a few dozens of bells and cowbells on his waist, and a mask (local name – “lik”) on his head. The mask is made of wood, stuffed parts of domestic animals, leather, horns, wings and feathers. The masks are zoomorphic and more rarely anthropomorphic. Amongst the multitude of masked men, mandatory characters with special roles are “the leader” (bolyubasha), “the newlyweds”, “the wedding kin”, “the priest”, “the bear and the bear keeper”. Participants make their masks by themselves, hence each of them is a unique piece of applied art. In recent decades in some villages there are artisans making masks through the whole year for everyone willing to take part in the feast. The bells are made by blacksmiths and are attuned by the participants themselves.
On the evening on 13 January the survakari go out to the center of the settlement, light fires, dance around them, play around with the crowd, visit neighboring villages, welcome other masquerade groups, and everyone takes part in the chain dance – horo, and has fun. Early in the morning on 14 January, the masked men gather again to walk around the village. As a rule, they visit every house and people interpret this as a wish for good health and well-being. In each house, “the priest” weds “the newlyweds”, “the bear mauls people for good health” and everyone else noisily dances and plays in the yard around. The hosts wait for them with love and impatience, welcome them with traditional food, feed them and generously gift them.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, only young non-married men from the local community were wearing masks, because the custom had initiation functions, connected with their future marriage. Today men of all ages, women and children also wear masks. In some villages, there are numerous children groups with some of the characters like those in the groups of the adults. All of the survakari participate willingly, as in tradition, like their predecessors thousands of years ago.
Every Surva group has between 50 and 100 participants, so the masked men on the Surova folk feast on 13 and 14 January in the Pernik region are several thousand.
After the feast, on their gatherings the survakari, knowing well the problems of the village, decide how to spend the acquired funds and gifts. Usually they help in meeting the local community and the cultural house (chitalishte) needs.
Based on the living masquerade tradition, in 1966 in the town of Pernik an International festival of masquerade games was founded, which with its half-century history has no analogue in Europe. The groups, which participate from Bulgaria and all over the world, are always more than a hundred and the masked people – over 5000. Every year in the last weekend of January Pernik welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors, willing to enjoy together the glee and unmatched beauty of the masquerade.