The approach of Bulgarian scholarship and culture to folklore is characterized by some specific features. As a rule, the Bulgarian folklore is defined as the aspect of tradition associated with the agrarian times of society and involving forms of creativity that can be described as artistic. By this are meant music and folk art, songs and dances mostly, the oral tradition in all its various forms - from popular tales to proverbs and sayings - and the plastic art, which is found in embroidery, stone work, wood-carving, figures shaped on bread, etc. As a whole, this folk art developed until the second half of the 19th century and it has been perceived by the Bulgarian scholars as the classical folklore of the Bulgarian people who have their specific place in the Balkan and European cultural tradition. From the middle of the 19th century on there began a change in the Bulgarian cultural model represented by the establishment of an autonomous artistic culture - literature, music, theatre, etc. At all its stages of growth, this new model has implied a constant interest in folklore. Since then other forms of folk art have appeared and developed, and they have been connected most generally with the urban tradition in a society that has its own path in the modern world.
The classical Bulgarian folklore bears all the characteristics of a rich and still vital cultural system. In regional terms, it developed in the lands inhabited by the Bulgarian ethnos, i.e it took shape on a territory in southeastern Europe which stretches beyond the frontiers of present-day Bulgaria. Bearer of this culture is also a numerous diaspora living in southern Russia, in the Ukraine and Moldova, as well as in the region of Banat in contemporary Roumania. The intensive studies carried out in the past decades have shown the strong continuity of classical Bulgarian folklore and the spiritual life of the ancient Thracians, as well as a complex transformation of the Slavonic and Proto-Bulgarian tradition that took place with particular intensity in the 9th century after their conversion to Christianity and the establishment of the Slavonic-Bulgarian script. The rich documentation, gathered in the 19th and 20th centuries, demonstrates that the Bulgarian folklore connects deeply the spiritual growth of the Bulgarians with the cultural traditions of the other Balkan nations, irrespective of their religious identification and independent ethnic history. At the same time, this folklore reveals, intrinsically, a profound relationship with the life of the Bulgarian ethnos, in terms of both concrete daily experience and historical destiny. Hence, the dual character of the Bulgarian folklore as a type of culture. On the one hand, it is displayed as a spiritual expression of an agrarian type of sociality, where the central point is to recreate the annual farming cycle and the human life cycle in a cultural tradition based on folklore ritualism. On the other hand, it is permeated by the historical time of the Bulgarians; the interpretation of this time has found its most imposing expression in the Bulgarian heroic epic, which is kindred to the Serb's epos and comensurate with sagas like "Kalevala", the Russian bylini epic, the epic corpora of some Asian and Caucasian peoples. Both aspects of the Bulgarian folklore are based on a mythology; which underlies all - the beliefs in vampires and goblins, the fascinating characters of woodland fairies /samodivi/ and dragons, the sinister mythologizations of maladies, the essentially mythological plots as "A Lad Outruns the Sun", "A Maiden Outshines the Sun", etc.
The Bulgarian calendar and family rituals, along with all other things, contain one main motif - the marriage theme, and one main type of characters - those who are going to be married. It is noteworthy that in the centre of wintertime rituals are the ceremonial companies of unmarried young lads who, after midnight, on 24 December (6 January) take their ritual route from house to house, forming bands called koledari or survakari who sing a cycle of songs with an intricate mythical content. An analogue of these are the springtime maiden rituals, particularly what are known as lazarki - ritual groups of girls performing a specific repertory full of tragic themes. In this context, the Bulgarian masquerade ritualism is very rich, but it does not include the carnival in its West-European tradition. A deep ritualization of the male-female relation is found in such ancient forms of joint work as the sedenki and tlaki /working-bees/, in harvesting or in the magnificent festive horos, especially picturesque on days like Easter and Saint George's Day. As far as the human life cycle is concerned, the focus of the system of rituals is associated with the event of birth, with a well-developed practice of wedding festivities united by the figure of the bride, and an elaborate tradition of funeral ceremonies fostering the further growth of the cult of the dead.
If we go back to the Bulgarian epic, we should turn our attention to the figure of the yunak /hero/, most often this is Krali Marko with his gigantic power and the specific reflexion of the Turkish invasion in the Balkans during the 14th century, which gave rise to the balladic characters of the last tzar, most often Ivan Shishman, of the martyrs in the cause of faith, as a rule young girls, of the growing resistence, personified by the Bulgarian haidouks /rebels/.
The musical expression of this cultural system has its regional and general characteristics. We distinguish the Rhodope song and the Thracian song, the Shopp song, the Macedonian song, etc. and, at the same time - the specific Bulgarian two-voice songs, the phenomenon of irregular beats, etc.
As regards story-telling, the Bulgarian folk tale is characterised by its interest in the magic, its commitment with various everyday life events, confronting the rich and the poor, the clever and the fool, as well as by its abundance of candid and natural humour. The main comical character in the Bulgarian tradition is Hitar Petar, who is permanently engaged in a specific contest with Nasreddin Hodja, a well-known character in a much wider, Euro-Asian area. The Bulgarian has a feeling for the legendary, most often associated with an old-testament imagery, and a live sense of historical narrative, conserved in toponymy. The limit of the Bulgarian's historical memory is the 14th century - the time when Bulgaria fell under Turkish rule, and what is more, beyond this verge there come the mythical notions of water bulls, buried treasures etc., which once again remind of the remote roots of the Bulgarian folk culture.
This culture corresponds, without any particular contradictions, with Orthodox Christianity. The Bulgarians have their own religious epic in which the main characters are God, Mother of God, Saint George, Saint Peter and Saint Dimitri. In some prosaic texts the Bulgarian Saint Ivan Rilski stands out. Those Bulgarians who adopted Islam are characterized by a kind of crypto-Christianity in addition to a still live authentic Bulgarian folklore tradition with only some changes in the system of names and the structure of rituals.
At the turn of the century, the Bulgarian folklore tradition was given some new impulses, mainly in Macedonia and Thrace, where influenced by the revolutionary reality, a considerable number of songs were created. The same process was seen later in Dobrudzha. The urban culture engendered some new phenomena the most prominent among which was the emergence of the anecdotes related with the character of Bay Ganyo, the urban popular tunes, etc. Today the Bulgarian folk tradition is revived in the context of the specific new phenomena in music, where various styles and forms of genre meet. We now witness a curious intervention by composers and performers, which produces some unexpected results. At the same time, there is a growing presence of performers coming from different ethnic groups, chiefly Gypsies, whose musical art has been exerting its influence on the Bulgarian folklore for a good while. Internationally, the Bulgarian folklore enjoys the recognition of both the general public and the experts.
The studies of Bulgarian folklore began in the mid-19th century. Of central importance in its comprehension is the capital collection of "Bulgarian Folk Songs" compiled by the brothers Dimitar and Kostadin Miladinov and published in 1861. Basically, the reasearch documentation has been published in the unique "Collection of Folklore and Etnography" founded in 1889 by the outstanding Bulgarian scholar and public figure prof. Ivan D. Shishmanov. As many as 65 volumes of this collection have been published since then.
In Bulgaria the major research centre in the field of folklore is the Institute of Folklore at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Lectures in this field are read in all philological departments of the Bulgarian universities, in the higher schools of music, and at the National Academy of Theatre and Cinema Art. The fundamental publications in folklore studies can be found in the Bulgarski folklor journal initiated in 1975.