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Spending the winter holidays in Romania: local traditions

Romania is a rich country when it comes to traditions and superstitions. Modern Romanians only keep a few of them, but most of the local traditions can be discovered in the countryside, in remote areas of the country. Romania-Insider.com presents some of the winter traditions and customs in Romania that you are likely to witness during December, if you spend your holidays in the country. If you learned of a custom and you’d like to share, drop us an e-mail at editor@romania-insider.com.

By Alina Andriescu, Corina Saceanu

The Lenten is a period of religious preparations for the great feast of Christmas. Religious people don’t eat meat, nor other animal products during this period before Christmas. It is not the only Lent period during the year. Religious Romanians usually keep the Lenten tradition during Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, while longer period of Lent are set before more important Orthodox holidays during the year. Before the beginning of the 20th century, in the Lenten period, women were proudly showing off their mastery in hand – craft art.  Nowadays, the Lenten period is no longer celebrated as it used to be. Other traditions have also been forgotten, while some have taken a different shape. The legendary visit of the three Magi – traditionally the Epiphania- has an echo in our days in the tradition of gifts giving. Romanians share gifts usually on Christmas Eve. The Santa Claus – a more modern tradition – exists in Romania, although during the communist period Santa was replaced with the Frost Man (Mos Gerila).

In Romania children go carolling on Christmas Eve. Actually, in Bucharest and in other cities they start long before that, as they try to go as many houses as possible. If you live in a block of flats, chances are you’ll be visited by carolers. Not only children go carolling. Groups of students – usually theology students, with beautiful voices- start caroling sometime in the second half of December.  Carolers usually expect small food and beverage goodies- fruits, nuts, cookies, glasses of wine for adult carolers- in exchange for their performances. Nowadays kids usually settle for money, a couple of RON should be enough.

Traditionally, carolers have bells, whips and drums and make noise to send away the malefic spirits. Some of them also wear costumes and masks symbolizing diverse animals such as: bears, goats and horses representing these malefic forces. From Christmas until Epiphany, they also visit the houses in the neighbourhood singing the Carol of The Star and other religious carols, holding a stick with a Star made of cardboard or different other materials on top of it. In the first day of the New Year they walk again from house to house chanting a song about luck, throwing rice in the doorways of their receivers.

In the countryside, the caroling tradition comes in different forms. There is the simple caroling, which involves only people singing, and there are special carols, which include dancing and more complex performances. The latter are usually to be found in villages, but you might see some street performances in cities as well.

There is the Christmas carol which involves carolers dressed as bears. In the past, a real bear was also included in the dance. The tradition, called Ursul (the Bear Dance), is mostly kept in Bucovina and Moldova on New Year’s Eve. The tradition aims to purify and fertilize the soil for the next year. The bear cult is of Geto-Dacian origins; back then, the bear was a sacred animal.  See video below.

Another special carol is called Capra (the Goat). In this case, one or several carolers dress up as goats which dance on a pipe tune. See video below.

There there is the carol called Mascatii (the Masked People). Carolers wearing hideous masks and large bells try to scare off the old year. They dance and sing and make a lot of noise. The tradition goes back hundreds of years and the masks used on this occasion are hand crafted by traditional craftsmen- although they are not that popular anymore.   See video below.

Finally, another caroling tradition is called Plugusorul (rough translation – the Small Plough), which is mostly spoken – not sung-  and which is meant to wish listeners a good and fruitful years. See video below.

Orthodox holidays in December

Saint Nicholas comes on December 6. He is the symbol of charity, protector of the poor and giver of good fortune. The tradition, mostly kept for children, is that in the night between December 5 and 6, St. Nicholas comes and places sweets and gifts in their shoes if they have been nice or places whips if they have been naughty. Children clean their shoes properly and wait to find their desired sweets and toys in the coming morning.

On December 20, St Ignatie is celebrated. The day of Ignat is usually celebrated in the Romanian tradition with the ritual of pig slaughtering. It is said that the night before the Ignat the pig dreams of a knife and already starts to squeal. Traditionally, in some families – who don’t keep the Lent tradition – a first meal will be served immediately after the pig is slaughtered. The meal is called Pomana Porcului – the Pig’s Alms.

The Christmas Eve is on December 24. A traditional Romanian sweet served on the occasion is called “nappy Jesus”  (in Romanian called Turte or Scutecele lui Hristos) made of thin layers baked on a hotplate and filled with honey and nuts. Usually, everyone cooks Christmas dishes during this day. In the evening, the tradition goes that the garbage must not be thrown out so as not to have grieves and damages, the chimneys are cleaned and the ash is thrown on the vineyard, to have a bountiful harvest in the year to come. Children bring home fruits, nuts, money, knot-baked breads and other goods they received from carolling and wait for the arrival of Santa Claus.

In the Romanian folklore, Christmas comes from an ancient tradition called “Saturnalii” or the “Winter Sun” connected to the winter solstice. Because days are shorter at the end of December, the sun must be helped with all kinds of magical elements and rituals to remain alive and not to disappear forever. A great festivity is made during these three days of Christmas, with drinks, traditional food, pork, fish, bread, corns, sweets, fruits and nuts.

Nowadays Christmas is above all a general occasion for gifts giving. It is mostly considered the celebration of peace and joy, when all conflicts and wrath should disappear and when all family members gather around the table after attending church services and after a full day of carolling. If you’re visiting Romanian friends for Christmas, expect to eat a traditional cake called Cozonac, lots of Sarmale – Stuffed cabagge, Caltabosi- similar to hog’s pudding, Toba and many others. Check back this section as we’re preparing a special article on Romanian food on Christmas.

alina@romania-insider.com, corina@romania-insider.com