Romania knows some millennial, incredible Christmas and winter Traditions. I am excited to share them with you.
Admit it, Winter Solstice time and there’s a tingle in the air, a crispness in the wind, a shadow nearly caught out of the corner of one’s eye. After all, the life-giving Sun is the furthest away…
But before modern telescopes or even sundials were used, people relied on their inner gut and celebrated the winter solstice as a time of honoring life, of spiritually connecting with a higher power, the source of all light, and fertility. Why? Because fertility meant not only procreation, but also an abundant harvest, plenty of livestock, food on the table and subsequently good health – prosperous villages, a strong army, a chance for peace.
At time of Winter Solstice pagans celebrated “the birth of the sun” when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on December 21st) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on December 22nd), a time span marking the longest night of the year. Of course the new Sun would be celebrated and welcomed as it will soon bring more heat and light, as well as longer and warmer days.
Celebrating Mos Nicolae, Saint Nicholas, on December 6th
Ever since (yes!) I was a child on the night of December 6th I would place my boots by the window, hoping, wishing that “Mos Nicolae” would leave a sweetie, or n orange, in them for me. Small joys for a small child.
But today I can’t not connect the Winter Solstice and the seeing off of the Old Sun (old…) with Saint Nicholas’ celebration… is a Christian holiday celebrating Saint Nicholas on December 6 in Romania.
Saint Nicholas is also said to bring winter’ first snow – and here’s a story that charmed many, about Saint Nicholas, snow, and hopes.
The Bear Dance on New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve a sleuth of bears can be observed parading and dancing along the main road. Accompanied by drummers, pan flutes musicians, and whistles blowers, under the command of a bear tamer, the Bear Dance is supposed to bring a fertile New Year to the crowds of cheerful onlookers.
How else, when the strong bear defeats winter and announces spring? Discover all about the old bear in Romanian mythology and folklore here.
Caroling with Plugusorul (little plow) and Steaua (the Star), Christmas Eve – 6th January
Only between Christmas Eve and the 6th of January can children go caroling with the Star, fashioned of paper, wood or wire, with an icon of Saint Mary and the Infant in the middle. A Christian winter tradition to remind us the miracle of Jesus’ birth.
Plugusorul (little plow) is an agrarian carol song. With the use of bells and the cracking of whips, carolers call out blessings and make noise to chase away bad spirits. They wish the host they visit for rich crops and healthy livestock. At the end of their singing a handful of grains are symbolically sowed in each garden, for good luck and a fertile next year.
Caroling on Christmas Eve
A meaningful winter tradition in Romania is caroling. Children ( pure at heart ) go a-caroling in the morning on Christmas Eve (JOY to the World) while young, single men (cete de feciori) go chanting in the evening. Young couples carol on Christmas Day. They get round pretzels (symbolizing the SUN, nuts, and sometimes money.
The Goat Dance
At Christmas and New Year, The Goat Dance (stag or ewe) symbolizes nature’s death during winter & its renewal in coming spring. Just like the bear, the goat dies & returns to life in its dance. Its vibrant colors are a reminder of joyful spring. They are connected to fertility and the hope for a fruitful year. Colorful ribbons, which represent the rich colors of spring, are thus present in most costumes and dances.
Mascatii (the masked men) at Winter Solstice
Mascatii (the masked men) use animal-like masks, sing, dance and generally make a clamor to scare away evil spirits ahead of the new year. Their dance symbolizes the fight between good and evil, between light and darkness, mimicking nature’s transformation at Winter Solstice. Thus, by scaring away evil and darkness they help the Sun win and thus bringing a good year.
“Candles lit up the night sky,(Anotimpurile Luncaviței – Petru Bruma)
Old men ring bells in the valley,
Masks are caught in ancestral dances,
And the carolers are coming…
Fire, Rituals and the Winter Solstice
During many winter rituals, fire is often used to symbolize the sun – bringer of light, warmth, energy. Sun, through the presence of fire, cleanses the darkness and coldness of the (almost) passing winter.
Bringing offerings to those who passed away and lighting bonfires in the eve of Saint Dumitru (St Demetrios, a Christian holiday observed on the 26 October) is said to bring good harvest in the new year.
In certain regions of Romania maidens lit bonfires and then jump over them to be rid of evil spirits and find a spouse in the new year. In Wallachia, on Christmas Eve family members poke the fire while reciting a few verses of protection for their household and bring a fruitful year.
Going with Sorcova, on New Year’s Day
I remember going with sorcova on New Year’s Day and saying the old rhyme supposed to wish the elders a new year of good health and hopes of a long, prosperous life. I would hold a branch decorated with colorful paper flowers and gently hit the shoulder of the elders I’d bring the good wishes to… singing at the top of my voice:
Sorcova, cheerful one
May you live and slow decline,
Like an apple, like a pear tree,
Like a stalk of tall, red rose;
Hard as iron, fast as steel,
Hard as stone, fast as arrow keel.
‘Till next year, a happy new year!
Epiphany , January 6th and the Blessing of Waters
On Epiphany Day the celebration of the Great Blessing of Waters is observed. A priest will throw a holy wooden cross a moving water and fires are lit on the shore to ward off evil spirits and purify the water. Youngsters will dive in the frigid waters to retrieve the cross. All the waters of the Earth are then considered sanctified.
The Christian priests also baptize the homes. They walk from one home to the next, and I remember welcoming the priest in our home.
Căluşarii and their dance goes back as far as the Thracians and Dacians. Were those more peaceful times? I hope so, as the rituals developed then and involving important life stages have survived and have reached us.
Cozonac at Christmas Day
Perhaps one tradition closest to my heart – after caroling – is the preparation of cozonac, a delicious sweet bread baked filled Turkish delight, nuts, cocoa… for Christmas Day. It involves an entire ritual and here is the recipe of how we prepare it in out home.