Bulgaria Marks 165 Years since 1st Celebration of Day of Bulgarian (Cyrillic) Alphabet and Culture (Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius)

A mural of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the Troyan Monastery by 19th century Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf. Photo: Mladifilozof, Wikipedia

A mural of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the Troyan Monastery by 19th century Bulgarian icon painter Zahari Zograf. Photo: Mladifilozof, Wikipedia

While celebrating one of its national holidays, May 24, the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, i.e. the Day of the Bulgarian Alphabet (more widely known internationally as the Cyrillic) and Bulgarian Culture, Bulgaria has also marked the 165 anniversary since the first Modern Era celebration of this holiday.

The Bulgarian alphabet, or the Cyrillic, as it is better known internationally, was developed at the end of the 9th century AD for the Old Bulgarian language, sometimes referred to today as Church Slavonic, possibly at the Preslav Literary School and/or the Ohrid Literary School in the First Bulgarian Empire by St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski.

St. Kliment Ohridski (St. Clement of Ohrid) and St. Naum Preslavski are two of the five major disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Byzantine diplomats and civil servants of Slavic (i.e. Bulgarian) origin who invented the first Slavic alphabet, the Glagolitic, in 855 AD or 862 AD.

In 886 AD, The Glagolitic alphabet was brought to the First Bulgarian Empire by three of the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius after they were chased away from the Central European kingdom of Great Moravia (today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia) by the Catholic Germanic clergy.

In Bulgaria, the disciples of the great Byzantine scholars, themselves Bulgarians, likely developed the new Bulgarian alphabet based on the Glagolitic, and allegedly called it Cyrillic in honor of their master, St. Cyril. Later Bulgarian clergymen, scholars, and missionaries spread their alphabet to other Slavic nations such as Russia and Serbia.

The first celebration of the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the Modern Era took place on May 11, 1851 (May 24 under the Gregorian Calendar adopted by Bulgaria in 1916).

It was organized at the St. Cyril and St. Methodius parish school in Plovdiv by Bulgarian educator and writer Nayden Gerov (1823-1900) to honor the deed of the authors of the first Slavic, respectively Bulgarian, alphabet.

Back then, Bulgaria was still a province of Ottoman Turkey, and the initiative was representative of the cultural upsurge of the Bulgarian National Revival (18th-19th) which eventually culminated into the end of the period of Ottoman Yoke and Bulgaria’s National Liberation in 1878 (1912 for some parts of the country).

The celebration of St. Cyril and St. Methodius organized by Nayden Gerov in Plovdiv in the middle of the 19th century started the tradition of honoring the Bulgarian alphabet, language, and culture which is today Bulgaria’s official holiday celebrated on May 24.

After the initial celebration in 1851 in Plovdiv, the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius was celebrated again in 1857 in the St. Stefan (St. Stephen) Church, which is the Bulgarian church in Istanbul, the then capital of the Ottoman Empire, opened in 1849.

Another celebration took place in Plovdiv in 1858; for the first time, it was followed by a spontaneous street procession with icons of St. Cyril and St. Methodius and their disciples.

The following years the celebration of the Bulgarian alphabet, language, and culture really caught on all over the Bulgarian-populated territories of the Ottoman Empire. Shumen and Lom started celebrating it in 1859, Skopje (today the capital of the Republic of Macedonia) – in 1860, Varna – in 1862, Sofia – in 1867.

The Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius was made an official church holiday by Exarch Anthim I right after the establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate, i.e. the autocephalous Bulgarian Orthodox Church essentially restoring the Bulgarian Orthodox Church from the Middle Ages, in 1870.

(The Tarnovo Patriarchate, i.e. the medieval Bulgarian Orthodox Church died with the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The last Bulgarian autocephalous church was the Ohrid Archbishopric (based in Ohrid in today’s Republic of Macedonia) was allowed by the Ottomans to survive into the early centuries of the Ottoman Yoke but was shut down in 1767 at the insistence of the Ecumenical (Greek) Patriarch leaving him to dominate completely the spiritual affairs of the Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians.

More about the establishment of the Bulgarian Exarchate and how it figured in the newly liberated Bulgaria learn here.)

After Bulgaria’s National Liberation in 1878, the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius and of the Bulgarian alphabet, language, and culture, was made an official school holiday. After Bulgaria’s adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1916, it has been celebrated on May 24.

However, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church continues to celebrate it on May 11, and it also honors the two saints and their five disciples, also saints, on the respective dates of their deaths. For example, the Dormition of St. Cyril is honored on February 14, and of St. Methodius on April 6.

On November 15, 1990, about a year after the collapse of the communist regime in Bulgaria on November 10, 1989, Bulgaria’s Grand National Assembly declared May 24 an official national holiday. The same day it also formally renamed the country from “the People’s Republic of Bulgaria" to “the Republic of Bulgaria".

A special report dedicated to the holiday of the Bulgarian alphabet, language, and culture, the Bulgarian daily “168 Chasa" notes that the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius may have been celebrated for the first time in the Middle Ages since a 12th century chronicle mentions that after their successful rebellion (Asen and Petar’s Uprising) against Byzantium and the restoration of the Bulgarian state (establishing the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396)) in 1185, the then Bulgarian co-emperors, brothers Asen and Petar (Tsar Asen I and Tsar Petar IV) decided to honor the following year, 1186, the 300th anniversary since the arrival of the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius in the First Bulgarian Empire back in 886 AD.

Thus, the first formal Bulgarian celebration dedicated to the deed of the holy brothers and their disciples might have taken place 830 years ago, and in 2016, Bulgaria also marks the 1130th anniversary since the arrival of St. Kliment (Clement), St. Naum, and St. Angelarius who brought with them the Glagolithic alphabet and later developed the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet.

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Background Infonotes:

The Bulgarian Alphabet, the Cyrillic, as it is more known internationally), was developed at the end of the 9th century AD for the Old Bulgarian language, also known today as Church Slavonic, possibly at the Preslav Literary School and/or the Ohrid Literary School in the First Bulgarian Empire by St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski. St. Kliment Ohridski (St. Clement of Ohrid) and St. Naum Preslavski are two of the five major disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Byzantine diplomats and civil servants of Slavic (i.e. Bulgarian) origin who invented the first Slavic alphabet, the Glagolitic, in 855 AD or 862 AD). Among other reasons connected with the foreign policy goals of the Byzantine Empire, St. Cyril and St. Methodius invented the Glagolitic to help convert Slavs all over Eastern Europe to Christianity.

The Glagolitic alphabet was brought to the First Bulgarian Empire by St. Cyril and St. Methodius’s disciples (St. Kliment Orhidski, St. Naum Preslavski, St. Angelarius, St. Gorazd, and St. Sava) in 886 AD, after they were chased away from the Central European kingdom of Great Moravia by the Catholic Germanic clergy. In Bulgaria, the disciples, who were themselves Bulgarians, likely developed the new Bulgarian alphabet based on the Glagolitic script and allegedly called it Cyrillic in honor of their master, St. Cyril. Later Bulgarian clergymen, scholars, and missionaries spread this alphabet to other Slavic nations such as Russia and Serbia.

The Cyrillic (Bulgarian) alphabet is used today by about 300 million people in 12 countries in Eastern Europe and Northern and Central Asia; these are Slavic countries or non-Slavic countries that have been under Russian cultural influence, such as Mongolia which adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s. With Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union in 2007, the Bulgarian alphabet (the Cyrillic) became the EU’s third official script, after the Latin and Greek alphabets.

Bulgaria and Bulgarians around the world celebrate the Day of the Bulgarian Alphabet (the Cyrillic) and Bulgarian Culture on May 24, the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, a tradition which started during Bulgaria’s National Revival Period in the 19th century.