Winter holidays and Christmas traditions in Romania: the Bear dance, the Masked carolers and the Goat

Romania is a rich country when it comes to traditions and superstitions. Modern Romanians only keep a few of them, but many of the old traditions can be discovered in the countryside, in remote areas of the country. 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 [email protected]

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 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 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. 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 caroling on Christmas Eve. Actually, in Bucharest and in other cities they start long before that, as they try to go to as many houses as possible. If you live in a block of flats, chances are you’ll be visited by carolers as early as the beginning of December. Not only children go caroling. 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, 5 or 10 RON should be enough.

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 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 and dance to 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. 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. 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, to avoid grievances and damages, the chimneys are cleaned and the ash is thrown on the vineyard, to ensure a bountiful harvest in the year to come. Children bring home fruits, nuts, money, knot-baked breads and other goods they received from caroling and wait for the arrival of Santa Claus.

In Romanian folklore, Christmas comes from an ancient tradition called “Saturnalia” 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 giving gifts. 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 caroling. If you’re visiting Romanian friends for Christmas, expect to eat a traditional cake called Cozonac, lots of Sarmale – Stuffed cabbage, Caltabosi- similar to hog’s pudding, Toba and many others. Listen to carolers and watch as many traditions as possible, if you happen to visit any of the villages in Transylvania or Moldova where the ancient ways are still alive.

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(photo credits: Corina Chirileasa)