Romania is a country of many customs and traditions where Christmas is undoubtedly the most tradition-filled time of the year. Many of these Christmas traditions are very old and quite unique.. Others are newer and most likely borrowed from other European countries. Although some customs may differ from region to region, Christmas in Romania is celebrated in the same manner throughout the country. During the Communist era the religious meaning of Christmas was banished. “Christmas Time” became “Winter Celebrations,” and “Old Father Christmas” became “Old Man Frost.” Romanians however continued to secretly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in their families and observe the old Christmas customs and traditions.
The Christmas season in Romania is kicked off by the arrival of St.Nicholas (Mos Niculae) on December 6. This is one of the most awaited holidays of the year by children who receive small gifts in their boots from St. Nicholas on this day. But only if they are good! Otherwise, instead of presents they receive a stick. On the evening of December 5 every child must clean a pair of their shoes and leave it by the door, hoping that Old St. Nick will leave a present for them. The gifts are usually small and symbolic, like crayons, or watercolors, often just oranges or chocolate. But children enjoy them just the same.
Most Romanians practice Eastern Orthodoxy and are very religious people. The Christmas Fasting starts on November 14 and ends on Christmas Day. During this 40-day period people prepare themselves to properly celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. This preparation includes fasting, confessing and Holy Communion. The fasting means that no meat, eggs or dairy products can be consumed during this time. Although the fasting lasts for six weeks, it’s surprising to see how many people consciously respect this religious practice.
Romanians really love to eat pork and are very skilled in preparing it. Christmas is usually celebrated with lots of pork dishes, so one of the most important tradition at this time of year is the slaughtering of the pig. Each year on Saint Ignat Day (St. Ignatius) –December 20th– Romanian families in rural areas sacrifice one of their pigs and use the meat for cooking the Christmas meals. The ritual may seem gruesome, but its purpose is not “entertainment.” It is the old-fashioned way of killing an animal in order to feed the family. Even though people in the cities no longer do this ritual, in the countryside the custom is still a long-lasting Christmas tradition that has been practiced for centuries.
The ceremony starts early in the morning with the sacrifice of the animal and continues with the cutting of the meat and melting of the fat. Almost every single part of the pig is being used, including the guts that are being stuffed with sausage mix. For three days, all women in the family help prepare the dishes for the Christmas feast.
The Christmas celebration really begins when it’s time to decorate the Christmas tree. The tree is usually bought just a couple of days before Christmas and the decorating is done by the whole family on Christmas Eve. The Christmas tree stays in the house till January 7.
Christmas Eve is the most anticipated day of the year in Romania. It’s the night when Santa Claus (Mos Craciun) arrives at every house carrying his big bag of presents. Very few children in Romania manage to sleep that night hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa as he places the packages under the Tree. Santa is coming from a far away land at the North Pole. He is old and fat and can barely move under the weight of that big bag, but somehow he never missed a date in all these years. He will surely come tonight too.
A very important part of the Romanian Christmas festivities is the caroling (“colindatul”). Throughout the Christmas season groups of small children and students, especially those in the villages, go from door to door singing beautiful Romanian carols. Carolers usually receive pretzels, cookies or other goodies like nuts or fruits. The caroling tradition comes in different forms, depending on the area of the country. In the big cities there is only the simple caroling, which involves only people singing. In the countryside, the caroling also includes dancing and some ritual performances.
On Christmas Day many carolers walk through the streets of the towns and villages holding a large wooden star called “Steaua.” The star that displays an image of the Nativity is wrapped up in aluminum foil, adorned with bells and colorful ribbons and attached to the end of a broom stick.
Some of the carolers are dressed in costumes representing different animals like goats, bears, or horses. These animals symbolize the evil forces that need to be chased away from the village. Other carolers wearing grotesque masks come with large bells, drums, and whips and start dancing and making lout noises intended to scare away the evil forces.
Christmas Day is usually spent with all the family around the table, after attending the Christmas church service. Christmas dinner in Romania is a rich, multi-course meal, consisting of various kinds of pork sausages, “sarmale” (pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of pork, beef and rice, and seasoned with pepper, thyme and other spices), smoked pork knuckle with beans sauce, beef or turkey roast, “piftie” or pig’s trotters (a jelly dish with pieces of meat and garlic), beef salad, grilled eggplant salad, “cozonaci” (a cake filled with nuts and raisins) and lots of red wine and “tuica” (a strong traditional spirit that contains 40-45% alcohol and is made from plums).
What are the most beloved Christmas traditions in your country?
* Featured photo courtesy of Stefan Nicolae