Christmas Customs in Romania

Source: Radio Romania International

Ancient traditions from Neolithic Times
Romanians spend the Christmas holiday in a special way, which is closely connected with traditions and customs which are deeply rooted in centuries-old history, elements of the rituals performed today remind us of the Neolithic age. A very long time ago, in south-east of Europe, Christmas was a solstice celebration and the inhabitants of the area celebrated the solar deity bearing a similar name. The denomination “
Mos” indicates the worshipped character’s old age, a character that must die in order to be reborn at the same time with the New Year. In many European countries, Christmas and the New Year were jointly celebrated on December 25th, and the custom was preserved in Romanian Principalities until the end of the 19th century. The memory of those days continues to be alive in the collective memory of several dwelling places from Banat (Western Romania) and Transylvania (Central Romania), since The New Year is also known as Little Christmas. In Romanian Culture, Santa Claus, Mos Ajun’s elder brother, identified as Saturn, the Roman god and as Mithra, the Iranian God, is an ambivalent character, having miraculous powers typical for the heroes of folk tales, as well as shortcomings typical for the mortals. As an apocryphal character, Santa Claus was born “before all the saints”, being “the shepherds’ leader from the village where Jesus was born“. Santa Claus appears in big houses and stables full of cattle, as a rich, elderly man, an old shepherd with a beard of snow.

Nineteen days of celebration
Christmas celebration lasts 3 days (December 25th-27th), however, in a broader sense it lasts a total of 19 days (December 20th-January 7th). The customs, magical practices and rituals whereby the world is symbolically recreated, mainly through Santa’s annual’s death and rebirth, can be broken down into two symmetrical periods. These are separated by a moment of “cutting through time”, from which the counting of days begins; thus, the ensuing first period is a rather ill-fated one, spanning between the Ignat (the pig’s ritual sacrifice) and the midnight before Christmas or the New Year, followed by a beneficial period spanning between the midnight before Christmas or New Year and Saint John’s Day. The former period is abundant with customs remembering the deceased to which Dionysiac cult elements are added, whereas the latter includes temporal rebirth practices, typical for the new year’s creative beginning.
The ritual sequences commencing the celebration of Christmas begin on December 20th, also known as the “
Ignat’s day”, a day when a pig is sacrificed so that ritual food can be prepared for the Christmas feast out of its meat. Next comes Christmas Eve when the carolling begins, children being the first to perform this ritual, clustered in groups that will open with the carol “Oh, What Wondrous Tidings” (“O, ce veste minunata”), “Three Wise Men coming from the East” ( “Trei Crai de la rasarit”), usually known as the ‘star songs’.

On Christmas day, children and grown-ups alike wander around, singing carols. They may come from all over the country, for instance from central and southern Transylvania, Crisana and sometimes from Banat. Traditionally, they perform their carols wearing masks. The mask stands for a god in his zoomorphic instantiation, impersonated by the group leader, who wears the mask while performing the carol. Turca (the stag, BORITA) is born at the same time when the mask is made, and it revels and makes merry with the group of carollers acting as its divine company, dying violently, club-beaten, shot or drowned, so that it may be reborn in the New Year. Quite often, the group’s leader has fun scaring women and children with the mask; at the same time he may ask for his due, the money’s worth he thinks he should receive for the ritual he performed, being offered the most honoured guest’s seat at the group’s ceremonial table. Tradition has it that the heavens open on Christmas night, so that the spirits of the deceased may spend time with their beloved ones who are still on earth. Several biblical characters, such as St. Nicholas, St. Demetrius and St. George can be seen sitting at the princely feast.
During Christmas, a series of
ritual deeds are performed, meant to purify the space through lighting a fire and putting on the lights; in the olden days, the Christmas log was sacrificed, whereby a fir-tree trunk was cut and burnt in the hearth on the night of December 24th; the ritual symbolises the Divinity’s death and rebirth, impersonating the year to come. This yearly sacrifice is part of an ancient burial ritual which has been replaced by the adorned fir-tree, laden with many gifts brought to children by Santa Claus. This custom became pervasive in the countryside, coming from the urban area, at the beginning of the 19th century, being also attested by the Romans, Serbo-Croatians and the Latvians. Thus, the Christmas tree we know today and the native custom of the blazing of the fir tree overlapped.
St. Stephen’s Day, practically the first important sequence, that of temporal degradation, closes up with the burial ritual of Christmas, through a death and rebirth parody, organised by groups of young men, following the scenario of a genuine burial. Gathered at the “Folk dance house”, the young men pick up the one who will impersonate Christmas. He is seated on a wooden ladder, being covered, so that he may not be recognised. When the parodied burial ritual ends in humorous verses chanted on the melody of the funeral service, ”the dead” is thrown away, from the ladder onto the ice. That very moment, the reborn Christmas (The New Year) accompanied by young men and merry folk dance melodies, comes to the house where the dance is performed and the Christmas charity dinner is offered.
During the Christmas period until
St. Basil’s Day (January 1st ) in Maramures, the magical practice is known as “the tying up of the beast in the forest”, which consists of laying a loaf of ritual bread, named High Steward, on the table, which is then tied with an iron chain. After 8 days, on New Year’s Day, the loaf of bread is cut into slices eaten by children and animals, and the chain is put in front of the stable, so that the cattle may step over it.

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Top: The Colinda caroling ceremony: “During the first hours after dark on Christmas’ Eve is the time for children to go caroling and the adults stay home to greet them. As they go caroling from house to house, the children receive treats like candy, fruit, baked treats and sometimes even money in appreciation of their performance and as a sign of holiday good will.”
Source of Photo and Text: Romanian Embassy, Washington, D.C.

Below: Christmas rituals see more
a “bull-roarer” is a piece of wood with a string through it [when pulled] produces a deep sound like the lowing of a bullock
paper flowers from the slavonic for ‘bough’
Capra/Brezaia/Turca: carol-singers are sometimes accompanied by bogeys known as brezaia, capra or turca—that is, men with the head of a goat or bull and a long beak which claps now and again, when pulled by a string. They go from house to house, and dance and recite verses, mostly of a satirical turn

Source: Traditional elements of Christmas celebration [from Paganism and Romanian Folklore – Chapter 1: Christmas and New Year by Marcu Beza Lecturer at King’s College London University, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London and Toronto, 1928 see full text as referenced on Tom Kinter’s website

Below: Christmas mummers