The Kuker custom on the Bulgarian lands comes from the Thracians, who through it celebrated the days devoted to the Thracian god of joy Dionysus at the beginning of the new agricultural year. Kukers welcome the end of winter and the expectation of summer fertility.
In the rest of Europe, such a custom is widespread in Southern and Central Europe - Romania, Moldova, Serbia, Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, Slovenia, Croatia and others. Similar carnival masks exist in Italy on the island of Sardinia. In Cantabria, Spain, a very close ritual is celebrated always on the first Sunday of the New Year. Kukers can also be found in Poland, Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia, as well as in Austria, where they are called percht.
The dance of the masked men is a mystical unity of rhythm, sounds and colors. They move in a special step, wear impressive masks and unique costumes and fill the air of the villages with sounds of hundreds of chans and bells whispering spells for fertility.
According to folklore beliefs, the mask protects against the harmful influence of evil forces. Bulgarian ritual masks are a rich source of information about the different ethnographic regions of the country (each region has its own way of creating costumes). It is believed that the sounds of the chans hanging from the dancers' belts reinforce the protective properties of the masks.
There are all kinds of characters in the group of masked people. Traditionally, women are not allowed to participate because all roles are played by men. In the past, their dance began in early dawn in small villages and towns. They danced in the streets of the villages to frighten the evil spirits and deliver health, happiness and rich year to everyone who allowed them to visit their house.
In some regions of the country, Kuker groups play mini-plays. Each member of the group has a certain role in history - the king, the grandmother, the horse, the bear, and so on. Everything in the play is grotesque and should make the audience laugh. Symbolically, Kuker actors often recreate weddings, sowing, harvesting and other rituals. It usually takes more than a year to create the costumes of these grotesque but hypnotic humorous demons.
The biggest Kuker festival of the year, the festival Surva, is held in the town of Pernik, 50 km from Sofia. In fact, it is a race between all the Kuker groups all over the country and the preparation lasts months. Tens of thousands of people gather from all over Bulgaria to watch the three-day fest, which takes place in late January or early February.
In the Plovdiv region, Kuker masquerade games begin to run from the beginning of March, with different towns having separate dates. The biggest carnival for the region is the International Festival of Kukeri and Masquerade Games Kukovein the town of Rakovski. It is held annually on Friday and Saturday before Sirni Zagovezni on the Catholic calendar. Even closer to Plovdiv you can meet them in Hisar, the villages of Parvenets, Hrabrino, Brestovitsa and many others. They usually go out on Sunday of the Sirni Zagovezni to expel evil forces and welcome spring and the good.