“December” is a chapter from The Folk Calendar authored by Professor Ion Ghinoiu, the internationally noted ethnographer (see).
The book is structured around the 365 days of the year and folk traditions associated with those days or periods are detailed. This is an exceptional work for its clarity and in opening a window on unique living traditions still to be found in Romania.
COMOARA SATELOR:Calendar Popular, by Ion Ghinoiu, Editura Academiei Romane, Bucharest, 2005 (ISBN 973-27-1232-5)
[English translation in process by Doina Carlsson to be published in the U.S.]
Copyright © 2005 by Ion Ghinoiu, Bucharest, Romania
December (Undrea) is the 10th month in the Roman Calendar which begins March 1, and the 12th month in the Julian Calendar and in the Gregorian Calendar that starts January 1. The common name Neios indicates the abundance of snow in this month, while the other names: Andrea, Indrea and Undrea remind of Saint Andrew celebrated in the last day of November. Throughout this month, several starting points for winte are noted: 1 December (official modern calendar), 6 December – Saint Nicolae (Folk Calendar), and winter solstice (Astronomic Calendar). Naturally, the economic life in the countryside became more informal while the spiritual manifestations related to Christmas and New Year intensified.
During the month are folk holidays and customs specific for the end of the year as well as for the beginning of the New Year, the latter having been celebrated at Christmas (December 25), before being moved to 1 January. The most important holidays of this month are: Bubatul, Sava, Father Nicolae, Ana Zacetenia, Modest, Ignat, Father Christmas Eve, Father Christmas and Christmas Burial.
12.1. The Night, the Time of Great Transitions
12.2. Foretelling the Year
12.3. Camberwell Beauty, the Devil’s Daughter
12.5. Holy Mary and Saint Nicolae
12.6. Father Nicolae
12.7. The Old Style Winter and Summer
12.9. Ana Zacetenia
12.10. The Vulture
12.11. God and the Hedgehog
12.12. Sweet Basil of Love
12.13. The Pantheon from Târgu Jiu
12.14. Swollen Tonsils
12.15. Calloused Skin
12.16. The Hiccup
12.17. The Christmas Log
12.18. The Clucking Hen
12.21. The Pig, Dissatisfied with God’s Decisions
12.22. The Opening of the Graves
12.23. The Opening of the Sky and the Burning of the Treasures
12.24. Christmas Eve Father
12.25. Father Christmas
12.28. Christmas Burial
12.30. The Meteorological Calendars
12.31. The New Year’s Party
12.1. The Night, the Time of Great Transitions
It is notable that the most important holidays in both the Folk Calendar and the Church Calendar are nightly ones: New Year’s Eve (the Birth of the Year), Christmas (The Birth of Jesus Christ), Easter (Christ’s Resurrection), Saint Andrew (Strigoi Night), The Fire of Sâmedru, and others. The holidays belonging to the family cycle followed the model of the divinities who die and are reborn in the nigh, for example predicting children’s fate is made in the third night after birth (The Fates’ Table),or the nuptial act and the beginning of a new vital cycle in the wedding night, or the death watch with games and masks in the night before the funeral.
The nightly holidays and customs are linked to an ancient lunar and agrarian cult, dating far back to when time was measured in nights and not in days. The night is the ritual time most favorable for significant events to take place in a man’s life and in the life of his divinities. In the peaceful darkness of the intrauterine life, man spends his heavenly pre-existence time.
The magic practices of foretelling the year, notably of predicting the harvest of fruit-trees, were performed on one of the holidays which marked the end of The Old Year and the start of The New Year: Saint Andrew, Varvara, Sânnocoara˘ and Epiphany. Boughs cut off from various fruit trees were placed in a pot with water at room temperature in the night of these holidays. Judging from the way the leaves and the flowers grew on these boughs it could be estimated if the year would beabundant or meager in fruit. In some regions, children would use these boughs in blossom as a “sorcova” in one of New Year rituals (Moldavia, Walachia, Oltenia, Southern Transylvania). Foretelling the harvest of the fields was also carried out by planting wheat grains in a clay pot.
12.3. Camberwell Beauty, The Devil’s Daughter
The Camberwell Beauty (in Romania it refers to a “nun”), the carnivorous insect with front legs like hooks for catching its prey, appears in some folk legends personified as the Devil’s Daughter: “They say that the Devil, God help us, had a wicked daughter, so wicked that there was no one worse than her in the world. Well, the time came when the Devil, devilish as he might have been, seeing that there was no way he could tame his daughter, decided to take her to a monastery to become a nun. He hoped that in this way, his crazy daughter would change for the better and be more pious. But the girl didn’t change a bit. God became very upset seeing that a Devil’s Daughter was living in a monastery and that the wicked Devil’s offspring kept doing things herown way so, in anger, he turned her into an insect. The other insects called her “nun” and from then on, that insect has been called “nun” until today (Legends of the Fauna, 1994, p.280).
Varvara is a case in which a mythical representation acquires various functions in the Folk Calendar, celebrated by miners as a patron of the mines and by farmers and shepherds as a master of smallpox and other children diseases. Varvara took over her name and her celebration date from The Great Saint Martyr Varvara in the Orthodox Calendar (4 December). On her celebration day, to prevent smallpox from growing and getting hard as kernels, children were not allowed to eat beans, lentil, peas, maize or pumpkin seeds, neither boiled or baked (Bucovina, Moldavia, Basarabia).
As an anthropomorphic representation, Varvara appears in various ways in the folk tradition: as a fairy, as an old woman, or as a master over children’s diseases. Some of her features belong to the Mother Goddess. In some villages from the southwestern part of the country, the holiday, also called Smallpox Days, lasted three days and was observed by mothers as they wished to protect their children from smallpox. The same divinity would show miners where to dig for gold.
12.5. Holy Mary and Saint Nicoale
The main criteria for ranking mythical representations in the Romanian pantheon were based on the power and functions they embodied. Some of them release rain, others stop them; some of them help young girls to marry and mothers to give birth to their children, others cause people to become ill and even to die; some of them guard and carry the Sun in the sky, while others devour food during eclipses.
Thus, in some legends, Saint Nicolae, patron of the sailor, saves people from drowning while Holy Mary drowns them: “The drowned ones belong to Holy Mary, they are her people in the beyond. She is happy when someone drowns. She makes those who are in danger of drowning sink deeper into the water. When you pass by a water course, never pray to Holy Mary to help you, because it’s not a good thing to do, you should pray to Saint Nicolae. A man was once swimming across a wide river and he was praying Holy Mary to help him all the time. But the more he was praying the deeper he was sinking since She was drawing him down. Then, all of a sudden he cried:<<Saint Nicolae! Don’t leave me, help me!>> and he rosehim above water at once.” “Saint Nicolae is master of the water, otherwise why would sailors celebrate his day by organizing great feasts?!”; “Saint Nicolae stopped the water during the deluge, or else Noah’s Ark would have sunk”; “Saint Nicolae looks after those who cross the water”.(Moldavia, Bucovina)
The divinity belonging to the generation of aged saints, who took over the name and the celebration date of Saint Nicolae (6 December) from the Christian Calendar is called Sânnicoara˘ (Transylvania) and FatheNicolae (Muntenia), in the Folk Calendar.
Saint Nicolae was a real person, a bishop from Myrna, defending the faith in JesusChrist. He probably died in the year 342 A.D. In the Romanian traditions his duties are sometimes unusuafor a saint. He appears on a white horse (reference to the first snow which falls in December); he watches the Sun that tries to creep around him and travels northward so that the world will be devoid of light and heat; he is the Devil’s spy; he is the master of the water and the patron of the sailors whom he saves from drowning; he protects the soldiers who fight in war, therefore they invoke him during the battles; he helps the widows, the orphans and the poor girls to get married; he brings gifts to children in the night 5/6 December, but he also punishes children when they are lazy and naughty. On his day, spells, charms and meteorological predictions are made, as noted above, by putting fruit-tree boughs (apple-tree, pear-tree, plum-tree) in a bowl with water at room’s temperature so that they will blossom at New Year when the harvest of the orchards could be estimated an then the boughs could be used for the Sorcova ritual.
This holiday announces the victory of the good forces over the evil forces, of light over darkness. “At Saint Nicolae the night turns towards day as much as the chick turns in its shell”, says a proverb from Muscel (Codin, Mihalache, 1909, p.91). In comparison with other Christian saints Father Nicolae is quite favored by God; on Christmas night, when the sky opens at midnight, the saint can be seen sitting at the magnificent table, right besides God. The 6th of December is a holiday which ends a cycle of customs dedicated to the wolf and to the Dacian New Year: Autumn Philippies, the Limping Philip, Ovidenia, The Strigoi Night, Saint Andrew or Father Andrew, and others.
12.7. The Old Style Winter and Summer
The old style dates for the changing of seasons, before the calendar was modified, are presented in the following legend: “they say that a long time ago, when people were more virtuous, the sun rose earlier; until noon they had plenty of time to work. In the summer it travels higher and in the winter it travels lower. Right on Ana Zacetenia day (9 December, the solstice day in the old style) it jumps towards summer as much as the rooster jumps on the threshold, and the day starts to grow until Epiphany, when it becomes one hour longer. At Stretenie Day (2 February), the winter meets the summer; when the sun climbs higher and higher and the night becomes smaller and smaller, then winter starts its journey. The longest day is at Saint Onofrei (12 June), and after that day the sun starts to withdraw going towards winter, which means that from Saint Pantelimon (27 July) onwards summer starts its journey and autumn begins. Then the water gets cold, the stag goes out of the river, the sky configuration changes, summer changes for winter, the two seasons meet and say: <<Well, dear summer, you may leave now, for I, winter, will take your place!>>”.
The magic practice of forcing fate, notably of predicting who the future spouse will be, carried out during the nights of the main holidays of the year (Christmas, New Year, Epiphany, Shrovetide, Easter) was calledGogea, in Banat and in Transylvania. The ceremony was attended not only by unmarried young men and women, but also by people of various ages and social status. The usual ritual objectswere two wooden twigs with green bark, substitutes of the predicting divinity, one for the men and one for the women, one or two containers with water (wooden pails or plates), and a bed sheet or a large trough made of willow tree or of poplar tree. In Bihor region, when the night began, the participants gathered at the diviner’s house (the host being called Gogea, Vergelator or New Year’s Announcer). After a small party, theceremonyl began. Each of the young men and women threw their rings in the wooden pail with water; Gogea covered himself with the sheet or hid under the trough in order not to be seen by the audience and stirred the water with the two twigs, while invoking the divinity to bring rich crops in the new year; at the same time, the young participantssang a ceremonial song asking Gogea to take out the rings, symbols of marriage; Gogea took out the rings, one from each pail (containing women’s rings and men’s rings); when the participants had identified their rings, in pairs, it could be predicted that they would marry each other. The procedure was repeated until Gogea had finished taking out all the rings and pairing up for marriage all the participants.
In Bucovina as well, the young men would choose the host for the ceremony, buy drinks and pay for the musicians. At New Year’s evening, the sound of horns and trumpets announced people to gather for the ceremonial of Vergel. The New Year Announcer also called Vergelator, placed a wooden pail with wooden water on a table in which each participant threw a particular object (a sign: a ring, an earring, a button, etc.). The New Year Announcer would hitting the pail rim with twigs producing a sound similar to the church beat of the wooden plate while he was reciting a carol, wishing prosperity in the new year. Then, a chaste 10-13 year old bowould take out an object from the pail and, when it had been identified by the owner, Vergelator predicted the kind of luck which would be brought to that person by Saint Vasile, the saint who was celebrated first in the new year. The procedure was repeated until all the objects had been taken out from the water and until all the luck bringing saints from the Folk Calendar had been invoked. The ceremony ended with a feast at which the participants enjoyed themselveby singing and dancing.
The custom has survived until today, but in a different form. New Year’s Night people can play various games (cards, dice, backgammon, roulette) or eat a special pie in which predictive messages have been placed.
The ninth of December, the winter solstice day in the old style calendar and the day in which the sun begins its ascension towards summer, is an important landmark in measuring the calendar time. Christian theologists transposed the celebration of Holy Mary’sconceiving by Saint Ana over the astronomical phenomenon of the winter solstice (9 December).
The vulture, present on the monuments commemorating heroes, on the Arms of Romania, and on the funeral poles in cemeteries, is a substitute for the souls of the dead fathers and forefathers. In the prehistoric sanctuary from Çatal Hűyűk (VII millennium B.C.), where the vulture appears as a rapacious bird attacking the beheaded bodies, it represents the Goddess of Death. Tearing the flesh off from the dead bodies, which were abandoned to be devoured by the carnivorous animals and birds, is mentioned as a funeral ritual by Christian theologians in connection with Judgment Day. The peoples who practice that type of ritual believed that the dead would not be able to reach the happy realm of the souls, if they were in flesh and blood.
The Romanian curses meant to result in someone’s death also contain elements hinting at various funeral rituals, mainly the burial one (“May earth eat you up!”, “May earth swallow you up!”) and the cremation one (“May fire burn your body!”). But, in some death curses from the erotic folklore, some day predator birds are invoked such as the raven or the vulture to tear off the flesh of those who separate lovers: “May the ravens drag the flesh/ Of those who separate lovers,/ Into the beech-tree forest,/ And drag their bones under the trees”; “May the ravens tear off/ The flesh of those who separated us,/ And carry it far in the valleys,/ And drag their bones through the trees;/ May God scatter their flesh over the beech-trees,/ And drag their bones through the trees,/ As they separated two lovers.” (Ispas, 1989, p.27) In some funeral songs from the Romanian Book of the Dead the vulture is included in the funeral ritual, as the bird which caries the dead people’s souls into the world beyond.
Two of the reflexes by which the hedgehog defends itself by rolling its body into a ball and emanating a bad smelling substance, are explained in a funny way by a legend recorded in Boureni, Dolj County: “God summoned the hedgehog to Him and said: <<I thought I should have you design the Earth.>> <<How could I, a small animal, design such a large earth, with all the valleys, the hills, the mountains and the rivers?>> <<Don’t worry! I shall help you!>> <<Oh, well, that’s better!>> Now, the hedgehog, being so happy for receiving such an important task, prepared a basket with eggs to take to God as a gift, when he reached God’s palace and saw God, so very old and with white hair and white beard, sitting on His royal throne, the hedgehog was so impressed and so nervous that he tripped over the threshold and fell on the basket with eggs. In that moment, God slipped the following words: <Ugh! You couldn’t find a better place to let that stinking air out!>> The hedgehog felt very ashamed, lowered his head, looking at his feet.” And from then on the hedgehog would roll itself into a ball as soon as he sees a man and has the bad habit of releasing a bad smell. (The Legends of the Fauna, 1994, p. 112-113)
The sweet basil, a herb of the Labiatae family originating from India and China and with a very strong smell, was planted by girls and women on the day of Sângiorz. Due to its diuretic, antispasmodic and anti fever qualities, the sweet basil is used both in the folk medicine and in thecult Christian practices, as well as in the family and calendar customs.
The tradition says that sweet basil first grew on the tomb of a younggirl where it was watered with her lover’s tears whose name was Basil. In order to gain healing qualities and predicting power, the sweet basil of love had to be planted in the morning of Saint George Day, then weeded, watered, gathered and kept according to certain rules.
The plant is endowed with miraculous powers: it helps young girls to find out who their future husband will be (young or old, handsome or ugly), and also to become loving and attractive for the young men, as in the folk saying: “They are attracted to each other, as love is attracted by the sweet basil.” Although it does not have a beautiful flower, sweet basil is among the dearest plants to the Romanians. Every girl who was wearing it at her waist-band, in her bosom, in her hair, or was putting it under her pillow in the nights preceding the great holidays (Christmas, New Year, Epiphany, Easter, Sângiorz, etc.) would dream of her future husband, would have luck in love and in marriage, would be pleasant and attractive. This plant is constantly present in the rituals connected with birth, marriage and funeral. It also appears in fairy tales (as Petrea, Green Sweet Basil, and others), in the dance thatcarries its name and in the dance songs. (Evseev, 1997, p. 212-247)
12.13. The Pantheon from Târgu Jiu
The famed sculpture complex in Târgu Jiu was created by Brâncusi in the open air similarly to the temples of prehistoric civilizations. The disposition of its components from east to west marks man’s journey from birth to death. The critical moments of the human existence (birth, marriage and death) are indicated by a miniature temple: The Table of Silence, The Kiss Gate and The Infinite Column.
Like the Fates’ Table around which the fates foresee the new-born baby’s future, The Table of Silence is the oracle where the fate of an entire nation was predicted. From the table of destiny, placed by Brâncusi on the Jiu River bank, near “The running water/ Never flowing back” of the soul, unfolds, from east to west on a distance of 1,653 m, man’s life consisting of some decades, with the three physical and psychical thresholds: birth (The Table of Silence), marriage (Kiss Gate) and funeral (The Infinite Column). The end of this particular road, marked by The Infinite Column, becomes, through the cyclic vertical disposition of the rhombohedrous of this funeral pole, the beginning of the soul’s ascending road, from man’s terrestrial time in our world towards the everlasting time in the beyond. (Ghinoiu, 2001, p. 143)
Swollen tonsils is the name commonly used for tonsillitis, usually caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. In some charms performed against tonsillitis, nine young souls of Ciandalina or Măndălina are mentioned. After removing the swelling from the throat by means of various healing techniques (herb tea, throat wash with plum brandy mixed with oil, compress with crushed onions mixed with oil, compress with fried onion or with warm maize porridge sprinkled with salt, friction, massage, etc.), the nine brothers were sent to death, through the psychotherapy and the melotherapy of the charm. Tonsillitis being mainly a children’s disease the therapeuthical techniques were accompanied by some short stories which captivated the children and soothed their suffering. In a charm against “Lizard” (a local name of tonsillitis), the disease was driven away from the body as a result of the dialogue between the lizard and the spellbinder: “-Flat lizard,/ Have you been to the lake?/ -Yes I have./ – Have you caught any fish? – Yes I have./ – Have you boiled it?/ – Yes I have./ – Have you salted it?/ – Yes I have./ – Have you eaten it?/ – Yes I have./ – Have you left any for Nick?/ – Sorry, I forgot to/ And the swelling disappeared.”
The personification of the suffering caused by the hardening of the skin on the palms, or on the feet as a result of repeated rubbing, is commonly called hard flesh or corn. Its treatment (a compress with onion macerated in plum brandy) was accompanied by a charm: “Hard flesh,/ Hard flesh,/ Roaming about in the world,/ It rubbed itself here and there/ And it stopped just here,/ But Nick came up to us/ And cried to us in suffering./ We began our spell/ Right away,/ With our words/ We cursed it,/ And drove it far away,/ Over nine seas/ And nine countries…”
Melotherapy (some of the charms were being sung) and psychotherapy, chiropractic techniques and other folk medicine.
The hiccup is the personification of the involuntary act caused by the imitation of the nerves in the digestive system. When the hiccup was not repeated, people believe it is a sign that their relatives, friends or enemies mentioned their names. The person who hiccups usually, curses the one who might have mentioned his/her name in a mean way, or, even worse, threaten the alleged enemy by using abusive language: Damn him/her!
The Christmas Log used to be, for a long time, the substitute of the dead god, represented by an oak-tree trunk, which had been cut in the forest and brought home to be burnt in the stove in the night of 24/25 December. The cut tree (actually the log) symbolized the yearly death of the native god Christmas, who, before the Christian era, was reborn through the incineration ritual practiced by the Geto-Dacians. The log has funeral significance in Romanian: the expression “To find someone lying like a log” refers to a man who died without a lighted candle at his deathbed, while “To tie someone up like a log” refers to someone who is immobilized and cannot move, as if he were a dead man.
When a family tree is drawn up, the log is the name of the forefather from which the lines of descendents emerge. In Mehedint¸i area is recorded a custom by which a log of cerris (Quercus cerris) was burnt on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day, and the embers were kept to be used for healing certain diseases. Decorating the Christmas tree was a practice that overlapped the native custom of incinerating the dead phytomorphic body, namely the Christmas log. Starting with the second half of the 19th century, the western European tradition of trimming the Christmas tree penetrated into the country from north to south and from towns to villages. The custom of burning the Christmas log, which has disappeared today, has been confirmed with the Romanians, the Macedo-Romanians, the Latvians and with the Serbo-Croatians.
The tree that was cut off from the forest, a substitute of the inanimate body of the god Christmas who was reborn through a funeral ritual of incineration held during the winter solstice holidays, was called by some Meglen-Romanians Clucking Hen, similar to the Christmas Log, or to “Boadnic”. A man, holding Clucking the Clucking Hen (the log) in his arms, his children with boughs, called the Hen’s Chicks in their hands and his wife, carrying a tray filled with special fasting food and all sorts of fruit (oranges, pears, raisins) go out into their yard, up to the mid pole (a stake, placed in the middle of the courtyard, where the horse used for threshing the wheat was tied); there they lay a flat cake with a silver coin in it on the tray and then they thank the Hen: “Dear God, dear God, come and eat the rich dinner we have prepared in good health and in good luck; we thank you for all these gifts that you have given us!” Next, the head of the familywould call his children, imitating the hen calling its chicks and they answered him as if they had been chicks. Finally they went back into the house and put the Clucking Hen (The Christmas Log) on fire in the stove, where it would continue to burn during all the days left until Epiphany, when it had to be burnt out. The ashes resulting from the incineration of the Clucking Hen were kept and then thrown at the foot of the fruit-trees.
The members of the family would sit at the table and eat a clove of garlic each, so that they should be healthy throughout the year, and then divide the flat cake into several pieces: one for the Hen, one for the cattle, and one for each member of the household. It was believed that the person who found the silver coin would have luck in the new year. All the family members had to drink or to taste wine at the dinner which they had on Christmas Eve. The next morning, when the family members came back home from church, they would step over a piece of iron so that they should be in good health in the new year, and get inside the house carrying a piece of wood (a twig, a chip, a sliver) in their hands, put that wood on fire and pray: May God bring good luck! Next, they would eat fried chicken liver and then take a nap without cleaning the table. When they woke up, they would eat a plentiful dinner and then go out visiting relatives and friends, greeting them with the formula: “Bird, bird! May God bring you luck!” (the custom was recorded with Megleno-Romanians).
Several millennia after the pig was confirmed as a divinity, the Romanians have maintained lots of elements of its cult: they sacrifice it in a ritual way at a holiday called the Pigs’ Ignat (20 December), they prepare ritual food of its meat (sausages, pig’s trotters, black pudding), they imitate its voice with an instrument called surla (fife); the pig appears in nursery rhymes and in children’s games (Playing the Pig, or the Sow); most significantly, the pig is present in a special carol, called Siva, probably the name of the great Indian God Shiva.
The Siva custom, structured by the model of the old Romanian carols, was practiced until the middle of the 20th century in the New Year’s night or in the New Year’s Day. The well known mask worn by carol singers (usually by young men dancing The Goat, Turca, The Stag dances) is replaced, in the case of the Siva Carol, with a decorated head of the pig which has been sacrificed at Ignat. The custom has been rendered in Europe only with the Romanians and the Macedo-Romanians and in Asia with the Indians. In Romania, the custom has a rich regional synonymy: Siva, Siva’s Baby, or Vasilica, Sila, terms which resulted from a merge with the name Vasile. The Siva ceremonial had several ritual episodes: the pig’s head, decorated with rings, earrings, bracelets and flowers, was displayed at the window or in the house which was to be subject of the ceremony; the singers sang the carol which narrated Siva’s life in the heavenly beech-tree and oak-tree forests; the singers descended in the valley to drink water; the pig died of a violent death and its inanimate body was incinerated (singed); Siva was judged by a jury which often included The Old Christmas and Holy Mary; the carol singers wish “Happy New Year!” to the hosts from whom they received gifts. In the last century the Siva Carol has been taken over by the gypsies who have turned it into a source of making some money. (Ghinoiu, 2001, p. 175)
The pig, due to its prolific qualities, ten to eighteen piglets at a time, and to its short gestation period, three months, three weeks and three days, has become the symbol of the wheat ear. In ancient times it was associated with the divinities of vegetation: Demeter, Persephone, Attis, Adonis, Ossyris, Dionysus. Those who worshipped God Attis, and seemingly also those who worshipped God Adonis, refused to eat pork, because it personified the respective god himself. An ambiguous attitude towards the pig was also shown by the Jews, about whom the ancient Greeks could not really determine if they detested or adored the controversial animal. In ancient Egypt, although the pig was considered a disgusting animal, people would sacrifice it and eat it within a ritual dedicated to God Ossyris, in a certain day of the year.
The divinity in the Folk Calendar related to the cult of fire and of the Sun which took its name and celebration date from Saint Ignatie Teofan (20 December), present in the Orthodox Calendar, is called Ignat or The Pigs’ Ignat. The bloody sacrifice of the pig, as a prehistoric substitute of the spirit of the wheat, as well as the incineration ritual (singing of the pig) on Ignat Day (Ignis=fire) are some prehistoric practices that still survive in most ethnographical areas in Romania. There are certain ethnological arguments which support the theory that the ritual sacrifice of the pig was carried out in spring time, in the period when the wheat was planted. Like other customs typical for the holiday of New Year that used to be celebrated in spring (“sorcova”, the sowing custom, “plugus¸orul”, etc.), the ritual sacrifice of the pig was transferred from the vernal equinox to the winter solstice.
All the beliefs, the customs and the magic practices related to predicting the violent death, catching and stabbing the victim which leaves signs on its body (on the forehead, on the nape, on the back), stripping the hair off to be used for making brushes, skinning off the animal to use the skin for making peasant sandals (“opinca”), singing and chopping the body, using the fat to perform spells and charms as well as to prepare certain medicines, making ritual food out of some vital organs of the animal, uttering particular magic formulas and many others are relics of the sacrifice, by substitution, of the god who dies and is reborn yearly, together with the time, at the winter solstice. The custom has been evidenced, in various stages of regression, throughout Romania.
12.21. The Pig, Dissatisfied with God’s Decisions
As a prehistoric divinity of the wheat, as a sacrificed offering at Christmas and as a symbol of the Year that dies and is reborn after 365 days, the pig appears, in some Romanian traditions, dissatisfied with God’s decisions, or usurped by God: “When God finished creating all the living creatures of the world, He summoned them to let each of them know what their fate would be. He told the horse that it would help the man, it would be ridden by him, it would be clad in mail and taken to the battle field. He told the dog that it would guard the man’s house, it would be fed, beaten and stroked by man. And so He went on telling each creature about their duties in the world. All the animals obeyed God’s decisions, for who could dare to stand against God Almighty? Only the poor pig kept grunting in discontent, sounding like a broken drum. When its turn came and when it heard what its fate would be, it started to grunt even worse. When God saw how shameless the pig was, He punished it to be grunting all its life, and to look for what had lacked, namely the shame, in the ground. That is why the pig is always grunting, whether it is hungry or not, and is always looking for the shame in the ground…” (Legends of the Fauna, 1994, p. 78-79)
12.22. The Opening of the Graves
The belief according to which the spirits of the dead return to the eve of the great holidays throughout the year (Christmas, the Forty Four Martyrs, Sângiorz, Sânziene, Sâmedru), to meet and to enjoy themselves with the living ones, has been confirmed in several ethnographical areas of the country. The innocent souls of the dead are welcomed with good food laid on the tables in people’s houses (The Eve’s Meal in Bucovina and Moldavia), or in their courtyard (The Fires at Joimari in Walachia and in Oltenia); canes are made for them, which are struck in the graves (western Oltenia and eastern Banat) to be used by them while they travel on earth; their shelter is purified by incensing the graves and offerings are distributed for them, as alms. On that occasion they are asked to help solve certain problems, such as a girl’s marriage, the prosperity of the fields and of the sheep flocks, men’s health, or punishment of enemies. However at certain dates and at some precise moments (at midnight on New Year’s Night, at Sângiorz, at Pentecost, at Saint Andrew), the spirits of the dead are forced by various means (disorienting the horses, Ca˘lus¸ Dance, alms, cries and loud noises produced by whips, bells, etc.) to return to their underground dwellings. (Ghinoiu, 1997, p. 63)
12.23. The Opening of the Sky and the Burning of the Treasures
There used to be awidespread belief according to which during the nights of the great holidays, mainly the New Year’s night, that the sky and graves opened themselves ,that animals could speak and treasures started to burn. If people looked up in the sky in those particular nights, they had a chance to cat to see God sitting at the royal table, together with His closest saints. Then, they believed that any wish they had would come true. Once there was a man waiting at his window and watching for the sky to open. When that happened he asked God to make him smarter. But when he wanted to close the window, he could not do it, because his head was too big for the window frame. The poor man had to wait until the next year when the sky opened again and he could ask God to change him back and make him as smart as he had been a year before. (The Legends of the Cosmos, 1994 p. 61-62)
When the treasures start burning, people say that the buried money start dancing or washing themselves. People could find treasures, orienting themselves by the flames, which were bluish and had no heat. The most favorable time for “burning” and “washing” money was each night before one of the great holidays of the Year: Christmas, New Year, Saint George, Easter, Sânziene. The treasures could be clean (not influenced by any spell or curse) and unclean (spellbound and cursed). Few treasures could be discovered, and among them even fewer could be dug out because they were unclean, that is under spells dedicated to the devil.
Christmas Eve Father is a mythical representation in the RomanianPantheon. He is Father Christmas’ brother and he is very old, having reached, after 365 days, the time when he is very close to death. One day younger than his brother, Christmas, he is celebrated on 24 December. The legend says that Holy Mary was in labor pains and asked Christmas Eve Father to give Her shelter. But he told Her that he was too poor and had no place for Her. He asked Her to go to his brother and neighbor, Father Christmas, who was richer than himself. He sent Her from number 24 house to number 25 house (the numbers of the houses were similar to the particular days in December). In other legends Christmas Eve Father is a shepherd or a watchman for Christmas’s sheep flocks. That is an interesting example of the way most abstract philosophical notions of time and space have been humanized and introduced in the cultural fiber of a nation.
Christmas is a phytomorphic solar god, typical for the territories inhabited by the Geto-Dacians that was identified with the Roman god Saturn and with the Iranian god Mithra. For over a millennium the Christians had celebrated the New Year on Christmas Day (25 December), very close to the winter solstice: in Rome until the 13th century, in France until the year 1564, in Russia until the time of Peter the Great, and in the Romanian Provinces until the end of the 19th century.
The Romanians still keep those times fresh in their memory, since, in some villages from Banat and from Transylvania, the New Year’s Day (1 January) is called Little Christmas. The determinant old father indicates the age of the worshipped god who must die and be reborn, together with the calendar time, at New Year. In the Folk Calendar, the ages of the Christian saints dressed in pagan clothes, and the ages of the pagan gods dressed in Christian clothes, determined by counting the days starting with 1st January. The Roman Saturnalia, then the birth of Mithra, the solar god or Iranian origin, and, after the Christian faith appeared, the birth of Jesus Christ, overlapped the native Christmas holiday. All the customs held at Christmas, New Year and Epiphany make up together the scenario of the death and the rebirth of the divinity: the ritual sacrifice of the pig at Ignat (20 December), the pig being an animal that represented the spirit of the wheat, with some ancient peoples; preparing certain ritual food, mainly the Christmas knot-shaped bread; numerous customs and beliefs illustrating the degrading of time and the chaos existing before the Creation (excessive eating, drinking, feasting, an avalanche of bad language, the ritual “Perinit¸a” dance, the grotesque dances with masks, etc.); the death of the Old Year, marked by turning off the lights at midnight on Christmas and New Year; the birth of the New Year, marked by turning on the lights; people’s cheering, hugging and congratulating each other, signifies that the world has been saved from destruction; the evil spirits being chased away by cries, bangs and loud noises produced by whips, horns and “buhai” (an instrument imitating the roaring of a bull); nightly illumination; purification of people by sprinkling water on them and by the young men bathing in the cold river water; purification of the air by Disorienting or chasing the horses; the great number of agrarian and shepherd customs (Plugus¸or, Sorcova, Sowing and Vasilica), etc. The fact that the Christian customs overlapped the ancient pre-Christian ones, the Greek-Roman and oriental customs overlapped the native ones (Geto-Dacian) generated a spiritual reality which is unique in Europe, whose component parts can hardly be determined throughout the millennia.
Christmas’s wife and the midwife of Holy Child, Jesus Christ, is called Crăciuneasa in the legends of conception. She is a well intended mythical representation, who gives Holy Mary shelter and helps Her to give birth to the Holy Baby, without Christmas knowing about it. When her husband finds out, he punishes her severely by cutting off her arms from the elbow. But Virgin Mary puts the arms back and even makes them shine like the Sun.
Boadnicu, a custom observed by the Megleno-Romanians, synonymous with the Clucking Hen and the Christmas Log, represents the inanimate body of the god Christmas who dies, through the cutting off of a tree, and is reborn through an incineration funeral ritual, at the winter solstice holidays. On Christmas Eve, the head of the family would cut a tree from the forest and bring it home
The parodied burial of the Old Year and the rebirth of the New Year, organized by young men groups from the Somes¸ valley on the 28th December, was called Christmas Burial. The young men met at the house of the game, where they chose the one who would play the role of the dead Christmas. He was laid on a wooden ladder (the funeral stretcher) and covered for not being recognized. While the dead man was accompanied to the river on his last journey, the funeral procession sung a funeral song (mourn), the priest and the church singers held the funeral service, and the musicians played the music specific for the unmarried dead people. The ritual text, sung on the melody of the funeral song, reveals the significance of the custom: “Dear Christmas,/ Dear Old Man,/ Today we bury you./ Come, come everyone,/ To carry Christmas to the valley,/ To put him in the ice hole/ And lay a log over it./ Oh, Christmas/ Oh, Old Man/ farewell, go from us,/ Go on Saturday water,/ And do not come back,/ As a new Christmas will come,/ A better one than you.” When the procession reached the ice hole on the river, the dead man was forgiven his sins, and then was thrown from the ladder onto the ice. In that moment the dead Christmas was reborn and stood up to be seen by the whole audience. The New Christmas, accompanied by the young men, singing and playing joyful songs, returned to the village where they had the funeral meal, actually a real feast. (Medan, 1978, p.91-99)
Buhai is an agrarian custom structured by the model of the carols, practiced at New Year, synonymous with “Plugus¸or” (Moldavia). Buhai, the Romanian folk name for “bull”, used to be, before the introduction of the Christian religion, one of the zoomorphic substitutes of the Thracian god Dionysus and of the Iranian god Mithra, sacrificed on 25 December. The same name, buhai, is also used for the ritual object used by the group who perform the plugus¸or or buhai custom. With that musical instrument (Buhai) the sound of a roaring bull (ancient agrarian divinity) was imitated during the performance.
The buhai is made from a wooden container (a small barrel, a cask) from which the two bottoms have been removed. One of the container’s mouths is covered with an animal skin (sheep skin, goat skin or veal skin) which is very well stretched, and in which there is a hole. Through that hole a tuft of horse hair is passed. The instrument is decorated on the outside and is carried by one member of the group, or, if it is too large, it is carried in a sledge or a cart drawn by oxen or by horses. By pulling the tuft of hair with wet hands, a grave sound is obtained, which recalls the roaring sound of an infuriated bull. The instrument and its sound keep the memory of the bloody scene when the bull was sacrificed, as a substitute of god Dionysus and of god Mithra, over which the Christians transferred the celebration of the Birth of Jesus Christ. The “buhai” was used by Romanians and Macedo-Romanians from south-eastern Europe and was borrowed by other neighboring nations.
12.30. The Meteorological Calendars
At Christmas and at New Year, the old people of the village estimate, through ingenious means, if the coming months of the year will be rainy or dry. These meteorological predictions are calledcalendars of onion leaves, of nutshells, of glowing embers. The most well-known calendar is the one made of onion leaves. The method consists of several steps: a large onion is divided into two equal parts; 12 onion leaves (cups) are chosen; the inside skin is removed from the cups; each cup is given the name of a month of the year; equal quantities of salt is put in the cups; the cups representing the months are lined up, starting with January and ending with December, and are placed in the pantry or between the windows of a room. The next morning one can see, from the amount of water in the cups, which months will be rainy and which ones will be draughty.
For a short-term forecast (week, day and even hour of a day) another type of calendar was used, the living creatures’ oracle, based on the fact that animals and insects (pig, mouse, bees, roster, ants and many others) change their behavior in accordance with the changes in pressure and humidity level of the atmosphere.
The New Year’s Party is the nightly holiday dedicated to the oldest god of mankind, the Year, personification of the Sun. He is called Old Year before he dies at midnight and New Year as soon as it is reborn. The Year, father of the great gods of mankind (Zeus, Saturn, Christmas, Shiva, Mithra) is born, grows, becomes mature, then gets old and dies. After 365 days he is reborn. In relation to the dates of his birth and of his death, the Saints in the Folk Calendar are older or younger ones: Saint Vasile (1 January) is, according to the folk legends, a young man who sits on a barrel, who loves women and enjoys himself; Dragobete (24 February), Dochia’s son, represents the god of love in the Carpathian regions; Sângiorz (23 April) and Sântoader are young men, riding on horseback; Sântilie (20 July) and Sâmedru (26 October) are mature men; then comes the generation of old-aged saints: Father Andrew (30 November), Father Nicolae (6 December) and Father Christmas (25 December). The old age of those divinities announces the death of the Year, identified in the folk culture with Christmas.
For over one millennium and a half, until the 19th century, the Romanians celebrated the New Year on Christmas Day. New Year celebration, after being separated from the Christian holiday of Jesus’ Birth and after being transferred on 1 January (when the Roman celebrated the January Calends), was called Little Christmas, Christmas Burial, Year Burial, and finally New Year’s Party. The holidays belonging to the New Year cycle is divided by the New Year’s night into two symmetrical parts. The first part, between the ritual sacrifice of the pig at Ignat and New Year’s Midnight, overlaps the days preceding the winter solstice, when the night grows longer and when it gets colder and darker. These natural phenomena made people fear that the world would be destroyed and that the time would come when the Sun disappeared from the sky forever. Then come the spectacular phenomenon of the winter solstice when the Sun starts to go up in the sky, and when the days gradually become longer. The second part of the cycle, governed by optimism, generated by the rebirth of the Year, is the period between New Year’s Midnight and Epiphany. The customs, the ritual acts and the magic practices reflect, in the first part of the cycle, fear, disorder and chaos caused by the fact that The Old Year becomes old and dies, while, in the second part, after New Year’s midnight, it reflects optimism, joy, order and balance.
Through holidays and customs, Romanians make the implacable course of time easier to cope with, by humanizing the natural phenomena that happen independent of their will: the ritual sacrifice of the pig, preparing the ritual food of wheat (knot-shaped bread, flat cakes), of pork (sausages, pig’s trotters); the belief that the graves open and that the spirits of the dead return among the living ones; the numerous parties and feasts with excessive food, drinks, with enjoyment, trivial gestures, abusive language, “Perinit¸a” dance, all of them being surviving relics of the ancient orgies; the young men groups who express, in their carol singing and in their ritual acts, the yearly dramatic birth and rebirth of the divinity; and, finally, turning off the lights at midnight to symbolize the total darkness and chaos caused by the death of the divinity. After a few moments, the lights are turned on again, which means that the god Year is reborn, and, together with it, the time and the surrounding world. People believed that, in that favorable moment, the sky opened, the treasures started to burn and the animals could speak. The evil spirits are driven away with all kinds of loud sounds (cries, bells, whips), the rich harvest is invoked by various customs (“Plugus¸or”, Sowing, “Sorcova”) and by ritual acts; people try their luck, they also predict the future spouse and make meteorological calendars (of onion leaves, of nutshells, etc.); people reconcile and become more tolerant; they also start work symbolically. Due to the fact that the New Year’s celebration is an ancient one and to the fact that Christ’s birth celebration has been transferred from 6 January to 25 December, overlapping the holiday of god Christmas, the order of these ritual scenarios is not entirely respected.
RETURN TO TOP