This Easter in Bulgaria I was fortunate enough to experience a truly traditional event, the Easter service at Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia.
I knew that Bulgarian’s visited a midnight church service at Easter, but I wasn’t sure that the incredible Alexander Nevsky Cathedral was open to the public for this. At 10pm, the night before Easter Sunday, I decided to go and find out!
When we arrived at Alexander Nevsky there were lots of TV crews setting up outside, we couldn’t get to the main entrance as it was fenced off, but we were told we could go inside through one of the side doors. The entrances had airport style security so there was a bit of a queue, but after a few minutes we were inside.
First, we bought our candles from the little kiosk inside. The tradition is that everyone in the church will light their candle from the candle lit by the Priest at midnight. The candles only cost a few Stotinki and you can also buy some extra ones to light in memory of a lost loved one and leave in the cathedral.
As it got closer to midnight, the cathedral got very busy. We had positioned ourself near the red carpet in order to get a good view of the service and had waited there for around an hour. I think if you arrived any time after 11pm you would struggle to even get inside!
At about 11:30pm the service started. The Bulgarian President was part of the procession, which explained the high security when we arrived. For me the most magical part of the service was the choir. They were absolutely incredible. I don’t often go to church but this choir gave me goosebumps.
At midnight, the candle was lit and the procession made their way back along the red carpet, lighting candles along the way. We were close to the front and lucky enough to have our candles lit by the President himself. Then, everyone lights a candle from each other. You have to be careful as people lean over each other with their lit candles and it’s very crowded, but thankfully it was very calm. We made our way outside through the crowd, lighting many candles along the way!
Once outside the service continued and there was a surprise fireworks display … something which apparently is not traditional and caused a bit of controversy after! Shortly after this, we began our walk around the cathedral. It is tradition that you should walk 3 times around the church with your lit candle, each time your candle goes out will represent how many sins you have … I won’t tell you how many times my candle went out, but I will tell you that you can cheat a little and bring a paper cup to protect your flame from the wind! Also, keep in mind that Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Orthodox cathedrals in the world – walking around this building 3 times can take quite a while!
At the end of the walk, everyone leaves with their candles still lit and they make their way home. If you are in Bulgaria at Easter and you see people walking the streets or driving in cars carrying lit candles, now you know why! I made it home with my candle still lit and the whole evening was a wonderful experience.