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24th May – Day of the Slavic Writers

Posted by on May 16, 2013

The “Day of Bulgarian Education, Culture and Slavonic Script” is a traditional Bulgarian holiday which takes place annually on 24th May.  A national holiday, it celebrates Bulgarian culture, literature and the Cyrillic alphabet.  The “alphabet” part of this holiday is important and sometimes the day is referred to simply as “Alphabet, Culture and Education Day”.

Sofia, Bulgaria- Celebrating 24th May

Sofia, Bulgaria- Celebrating 24th May

The Cyrillic script is an alphabetic writing system and was created during the First Bulgarian Empire (680 – 1018 A.D.).  Today, Slavic languages such as Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian and Ukrainian still use the Cyrillic form of writing.   Cyrillic writing is derived from Saints Cyril and Methodius, two brothers and Byzantine scholars credited with writing the first Slavic alphabet in 855 A.D.  They are among the most celebrated saints in the Bulgarian Orthodox church.

Revered as outstanding theologians and linguists, Saints Cyril and Methodius first devised the “Glagolitic” alphabet.  The early Glagolitic alphabet as well as what followed it, the early Cyrillic alphabet, was based primarily on and most closely resembled the Greek alphabet.  The Glagolitic alphabet was considered the first Slavic alphabet and its letters were based on the three holy elements for Christianity namely, the cross, the triangle and the circle.  The Glagolitic alphabet was said to be devised for sounds not found in the Greek language and is thus regarded as the first Bulgarian alphabet as it was said to more accurately reflect the sounds of the Bulgarian language.

Saints Cyril and Methodius used this first alphabet to transcribe Old Church Slavonic, thereby allowing a greater part of the population to understand the mostly highly revered text of the time, the Bible.  The alphabet was subsequently used to translate other important documents and books for government and religious works.  In this way, Saints Cyril and Methodius not only brought Christianity to the southern Slavs but were also able to enlighten the masses and influence the cultural development of all Slavic people.

“Saints Cyril and Methodius holding the Cyrillic alphabet,” a mural by Bulgarian iconographer Z. Zograf, 1848, Troyan Monastery.

“Saints Cyril and Methodius holding the Cyrillic alphabet,” a mural by Bulgarian iconographer Z. Zograf, 1848, Troyan Monastery.

The greatest significance of the alphabet came to play when, after 886 A.D., the brothers were commissioned by Tsar Boris I of Bulgaria to instruct the future clergy of the state in the Slavonic language.  For thirty years up until then, since the adoption of Christianity in 865, clergymen sent from the Byzantine Empire conducted Bulgarian religious ceremonies, the root of culture at the time, in the Greek language.  Tsar Boris I feared such practices would allow the Byzantine influence to grow, thus weakening the state.  In the interest of preserving the political independence and stability of Bulgaria, Tsar Boris I pressed for the adoption of the Old Slavonic language and established two academies where theology and literature were to be taught in the Slavonic language.

Some historical accounts put forward that while Saint Cyril codified and expanded Glagolitic, his students are the ones who, in 890 A.D., develop Cyrillic from the Greek letters as a more appropriate script for church books.  Cyrillic later spread from the Bulgarians to other Slavs namely the Russians, Serbians and even non-Slavic peoples such as the Moldavians and Vlachs and eventually dominated Glagolitic in the 12th century.  Soon after, literature produced in the Old Bulgarian language extended all over the Balkans and became the lingua franca of Eastern Europe.  Modern day Church Slavonic still resembles early Cyrillic and today the Cyrillic we know is a developed form, adapted to the changes in spoken language since that time.

According to historical Bulgarian texts and chronicles, the 24th May holiday was celebrated ecclesiastically as far back as the 11th century, however, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the holiday was fêted as a secular celebration of “Day of the Bulgarian Script”.

While the Cyrillic alphabet has existed for over eleven centuries, it was only introduced into the European Union as a language in 2007, when Bulgaria obtained full membership to the EU.  With the adoption of Bulgarian as a European language, the total number of “linguae europeae” became 23.


© Kristina Tzaneff

One Response to 24th May – Day of the Slavic Writers

  1. Nicola Stevens

    Wow – what wonderful information Kristina – how interesting. I so wish we had a day of British Education, Culture and old English Scripts as a traditional British holiday. In spite of your wonderful rich English language that is spoken as the first language of North America and the unifying language of India, Pakistan and much of Asia and Africa – basically the old British empire that covered a thrid of the globe at one time or another – could be celebrated.

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