A tradition-filled December in Romania: Orthodox holidays, caroling season, pig slaughtering

Romania’s traditions during the winter holidays vary from region to region, and some have mixed with imported, Western European traditions. But the traveler will still find there’s a lot to learn and discover during the month of December in Romania when it comes to traditions.

Romania is an Orthodox country, so a lot of the traditions during the holiday will have some connection to religion. But there will be many others with pagan roots. Here are the main traditions you should try to discover and even take part in while in Romania as well as the main saint celebrations, which are also name days for Romanians.

St. Andrew day

The winter holiday season has a soft start with St. Andrew – Sfantul Andrei – on November 30. This is when many Romanians plant wheat in a small pot, and see it grow until New Year’s Eve. In some regions of the country, people take small branches of fruit trees, place them in water and leave them in a warm room, only to see them blossoming towards the end of the year. Both the green wheat grass and the blossoming branches say something about the person’s future in the new year. If the wheat grass is healthy, green and tall, the new year will be rich for the person who planted it.

St. Nicholas’s day

On St. Nicholas’s day – December 6, Sfantul Nicolae – it’s the official beginning of the winter holiday season. Kids rejoice in this holiday, as they get sweets and small gifts from the saint – also called Mos Nicolae; mos is a Romanian word for an old man. But the celebration has spread and friends and especially families exchange gifts on this occasion. The novelty is that they place these gifts in the person’s boots the night between December 5 and 6, so as to be found in the morning of St. Nicholas. The tradition says kids who did not behave during the year will get a whip instead of a gift, which is why on the evening of December 5, some corner street flower shops in Romania will sell whips.

St. Ignatie day – Preparing the Pig

Then on December 20 there’s another tradition to discover. It’s the day of the year when Romanians traditionally slaughter the pigs for Christmas. The day is also an orthodox celebration of Saint Ignatie, but it is a regular celebration – in the Orthodox calendar there’s a saint day every day, but only some are very important and marked with red. The Saint Ignatie one is marked with black, as a regular saint day.

The name however is used to mark the day, which is popularly called Ignat. The tradition goes that on the night before Ignat, pigs dream they will be killed. The pig slaughtering on this day is, according to the traditional belief, a symbol of the deity who dies and is resurrected. The pig killing and all the preparations that follow are something more frequently found in rural areas. The EU decided to allow Romania to slaughter pigs the traditional way before Christmas. So in Romania this is still done using a knife, rather than using the standard, pain free pig killing procedures required by EU regulations.

After being slaughtered, the pig’s skin is burned, then the remaining hair is removed with a knife. It is then cleaned with hot water, and after that, in some regions of the country, kids get to ride the pig. The family then start preparing the traditional food for Christmas using the pork, including homemade sausages, as well as the traditional delicatessens called toba and caltabosi.

On this day, Romanians who want to respect the tradition usually feast. The Lenten is a period of religious preparations for the great feast of Christmas, and it is called Postul Craciunului. The lenten starts on November 15 and ends on December 24. Religious people don’t eat meat, nor other animal products during the 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 periods of Lent are set before more important Orthodox holidays during the year. Before the beginning of the 20th century, in the Lenten period, women proudly displayed their mastery in hand-craft art. Nowadays, the Lenten period is no longer celebrated as it used to be.

The Christmas tree and Caroling

Just before Christmas, traditionally men bring home the Christmas tree that will be decorated on Christmas’ Eve, December 24. The Christmas tree will stay in the house until January 6, when Orthodox Romanians celebrate Boboteaza, or Jesus’ baptism.

On this day, the caroling season officially starts. This applies mostly to rural Romania, as in the cities, carolers start much earlier in the first part of December. But according to the tradition, the first carolers will come during the morning on Christmas Eve, singing a carol called ‘ Buna dimineata’ (a translation of Good morning). Families usually either leave the carolers sing outside their door or their windows, and then go out and give them goodies, apples, nuts, cookies, sweet bread – and money, something which has been added into the tradition – or invite them into their home, at the entrance. Usually the entire family gathers to listen to the carolers, with several groups of carolers visiting during the Christmas Eve day. During this period, in the main cities several caroling concerts are usually organized, which is the city version of the traditional caroling. But for those who live in Bucharest blocks, don’t worry,  carolers will also come there too; unfortunately however, many of the carolers who come during this period are in it for the money. Kids, however, settle for RON 5 or 10 for the whole group.

The tradition goes that those who do not receive the carolers in their homes will have a bad year.

The most famous carols, some of which involve not only singing, but dancing and small costume shows as well, are the Bear Dance, the Masked Carolers, and the Goat.

Traditionally, carolers have bells, whips and drums and make noise to dispel the malevolent spirits. Some of them also wear costumes and masks symbolizing diverse animals such as: bears, goats and horses, which representing the evil forces. From Christmas until Epiphany, they also visit the houses in the neighborhood singing the Carol of The Star and other religious carols, holding a stick with a Star made of cardboard or 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 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 and dance to a pipe tune. See video below.

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. They can make beautiful gifts however. See video below.

Finally, another caroling tradition is called Plugusorul (rough translation – the Small Plow), which is mostly spoken – not sung- and which is meant to wish listeners a good and fruitful year. This is a carol for the last day of the year. See video below.

Christmas and New Year

On Christmas, December 25, Orthodox Romanians celebrate the birth of Jesus. The day is usually spent at home, celebrating with a large meal. Family members usually come over for lunch, but nowadays many young Romanians prefer to spend Christmas in the mountains, or even abroad. They usually have time off from work – starting from just before Christmas, and ending in the first days of the New Year.

For traditional Romanians, the New Year’s Eve and the first day of the year are not the peak of the season, which tends to be the case with those who embraced the Western European tradition. Parties will be thrown, either at home, in bars and pubs, or in various resorts, many Romanians choose to spend New Year’s Eve abroad, sometimes in exotic places. But in the countryside the night between the years is not as tradition heavy as Christmas and the days around it.

The first day of the new year however has more traditional ties to it. It marks the celebration of Saint Vasile – Sfantul Vasile, another name day. On this day, which is considered to be magic, children come caroling a carol called Sorcova, wishing people a rich, fruitful year.

[email protected]