Romania is a country with a long and complicated history. It also has a variety of customs, traditions and holidays. Some of the holidays are celebrated throughout the whole country; others are designated for specific regions of the country.
Situated in the southeastern part of central Europe, Romania can trace its origins to the Thracian Dacian period. The Romanian traditions have retained myths and rites from that age, thus drawing Romania close to the cradle of the European culture. In particular, the Romanian culture resembles that of eastern Mediterranean regions.
The Romanian holidays have preserved the foundations of family structure and organizations, as well as the patterns defining social groups. The holidays reflect rules of behavior that originated in the Roman and Byzantine civilization.
The Romanian folklore developed within the borders of the two great regions of European civilization--the west and the southeast. Over the centuries, the Romanian people crystallized their own popular culture. This culture expresses the need for communication between man and nature, between man and man, and among different human groups.
The Romanian customs have also been an instrument in the exchange of goods, services and information. Matrimonial ceremonies exemplify the customs in a specific way.
The Romanian practice of faith and spirituality have been in synchrony and in harmony with aspects of popular trades and facets of Romanian geography.
The Romanian holidays, while diversified by regional traditions, have common threads running through them. The same unity can be found in the traditions and customs throughout the country. They include the Christian holidays. Since Romania is mainly and Eastern Orthodox country, this form of Christianity permeates the spirit of the holidays, with other themes such as the seasons or common trades being blended within religious themes.
Two main groups of people appear in the expression of Romanian customs: those who are living and the ancestors who receded them. Romanian culture carefully preserves the memory of ancestral peoples.
The focus of most Romanian spirituality is found in each village. The trades of the villages were mainly agricultural. Romanians traditionally were farmers who worked the land, kept vineyards, raised cattle or lived as shepherds.
Spring and summer were known as the time to work the land. Autumn represented the harvest and winter was dedicated to the formation of artistic creativity or spiritual growth.
Delicate, graceful and sober--the popular art of Romania was preserved by the village. Village leaders assumed the tasks of guarding the originality, individuality and permanency of artisans' work.
The nature of the village was driven to be in strict harmony with the natural environment of the entire country. Today, traveling throughout Romania, one can be pleasantly surprised when observing the extent to which one village differs from another village in terms of their general outlook. These differences underscore not only the cultural influences of a location, but also the specific details of the land surrounding a village.
Villages existed with a life of their own. The life of the village expressed an intense thirst for life by the inhabitants of Romania. Peasants possessed a deep knowledge of the way to tend the earth. They had the ability to enjoy life and to dream into the future. They were regular observers of the feasts for the earth, their cattle, the flowers and crops, and the overall beauty of living.
The Romanian customs can be divided into family customs, calendar-based customs and religious customs. They represent a "triptych" marked by the three major life changes: birth, marriage and death.
Customarily, death represents the transition from the material life to the spiritual life of one's ancestors. Marriage is considered mainly as the transition from youth to adulthood. Birth signifies the establishment of a new biological life.
A birth signifies its own customs, related to the mother and to the baby. During a pregnancy, a prospective mother must observe some interdictions that will protect the baby from supposed evil spirits.
The birth itself represents the transition from the unknown to the known world--or from the "blackness" to the "whiteness."
The ceremony of the "first bath" is one of the most important Romanian traditions. Only the women can assist in the bathing of the newborn child, and the oldest woman related to the father of the baby is in charge of the event. Fresh, clean water enriched with flowers, money, honey and milk are thought to purify and join the newborn to the family. The elder woman gives the cleansed baby to the mother with wishes for the child's moral, spiritual and physical integrity. She wishes for the child to marry, to be good-looking and healthy, to be respectful of his or her parents and to be a patient person. She wishes that the child thrives, grows to maturity, becomes hardworking and experiences good luck in life.
The second important moment related to birth is the Christening of the child, a ceremony in which the child is named. In the Eastern Orthodox church, the spiritual, or "God-parents" of the child have an important ceremonial function. Usually, the child will be named after the God-father, or after a close family member. Later, the God-parents will play an important role in the wedding ceremony of the child.
The practice of weddings includes the moments when young people separate from their social groups. Additionally, there is the separation of the bride from her parents which is followed by her joining the bridegroom's family. Lastly, there is the union of the two young people and the integration of the bride into her new family. (Prior to the marriage is the betrothal which is followed by a long process of acceptance towards the prospective couple by the existing group of those who are already married.)
The wedding is a performance with well-established rituals. Poetry, song, dance and ceremonial costumes all have a detailed role in the wedding ceremony.
This ceremony begins when the spokesman of the bridegroom comes to the bride's home to woo her. During this time, the best men go throughout the village inviting the relative and friends to the wedding. Then, before the closed gates guarded by the bride's relatives, the bridegroom's best man tells a story. It is the story of a young emperor who gathered a great army and went hunting. While hunting, he saw a fairy and sent his warriors to look for her. Following the fairy's trail, they arrive at the bride's house. They have been told that there is a certain flower in the garden. This flower cannot bear fruit because of the unsuitable soil in which it grows. The warriors came to pick the flower and plant it in the young emperor's garden. There, the soil was known to be good and provide the nutrients enabling the flower to bear fruit.
The dress and hairdressing of the bride is also important. She wears a ceremonial costume and flowers in her hair.
In the western part of Transylvania, in Bihor, the bridegroom must pass a test of cleverness. He must solve a series of riddles in order to prove that he is able to be part of the married community.
The entrance of the bride into the community of married women is marked by a change of her hair style, and the covering of her head with a scarf. The scarf is a symbol of the married women. This ceremony is also accompanied by a song.
Just as for a medieval meal, the wedding meal provides an opportunity for singing, dancing and listening to epic hero songs. Dance forms, especially for the young people, are an essential part of the wedding, as well as the birth ceremonies. One dance, called a "hora" marks the decisive moments of the ceremonial. It is a seal of the marriage contract.
The above wedding ceremonials in Romania last for three days. The final day ends with a "dance of masks."
In addition to the focus on ceremonies, the faith of Romanians encompasses a belief that for each man, there exists a star and a tree. The falling of the star marks the death of a person. The fir, the tree of life, is placed at the head on the grave of a deceased person. The fir is brought from the forest by a group of young men. They are met at the entrance of the village by a group of women. The women sing a song about the link of the man with the tree of life. The song talks about the grief of the fir as it becomes obliged to dry and to rot near its brother, the deceased person.
Another funeral custom is the dawn song, or the Great Song. It is sung by a group of appointed old women at the dawn of the two days between a death and a funeral.
This song advises the dead person and describes the journey that he or she will make into the land of the dead ancestors. It is a song of a poetic metaphor of the myth of the great transition.
Also expressed is a wish for the sun to rise later in the day, so that the family of the deceased have more time to prepare for the ceremonies. The preparation of the funeral consists of greeting the relatives, making the funeral objects, such as the coffin, the vial that will cover the body, the funeral candle and the carriage with bulls, as well as the preparation of the food to be served to relatives and friends during the meal after the funeral. During all of the funeral proceedings, there is a wake organized for the deceased. A body is never left alone, and those present at the wake tell stories about the deceased. A group o old women mourn the body as well.
As previously described, these are the family customs of the Romanian people. The calendar-based holidays are divided by the four seasons. Winter is designated as the season of rest, gatherings and spiritual expressions. Spring represents the rejuvenation of nature and the beginning of the farming season. It is the season of birth and blooming. Summer is dominated by the busy farming season. Fall is the season of wealth, the harvest and beginning preparations for the long winter ahead.
Among all of the religious holidays, Christmas and Easter are the most beloved.
The Christmas celebration starts with a six-week fast prior to the holiday. The orthodox fasting pattern excludes from the diet any animal product such as meat, eggs, fish, milk or cheese. The celebration of the Christening of Jesus occurs on January 6--a date commonly considered to be the coldest day of the year.
Another important date is December 6, when St. Nicholas brings small gifts to the young children who have polished their shoes and placed them in front of a window in their home.
Christmas carols, traditional foods and decorated trees are part of the Christmas traditions. Children start to sing carols during a ceremony in which a white newborn lamb is carried by a child, thus symbolizing religious faith and purity. Three days before Christmas, one may detect a heavy aroma of freshly baked walnut and raisin cakes. Two days prior to the celebration, the main cooking activities begin. Pigs-in-the-blanket and beef salad are two favorite dishes. Christmas Eve is reserved for decorating the tree, to be followed by the Christmas Eve dinner. This dinner is usually celebrated within the family. Christmas carols are sung and Santa is expected to leave presents under the tree; families with small children are likely to receive a visit from Santa in person. Christmas Day is celebrated among friends and family.
In Romania, the Christmas and New Year celebrations become merged, and elements of the Christian faith are blended with hopes for a prosperous New Year.
Some of the many traditions or symbols include:
Regarding the traditions and symbols listed above, the carol singers arrive during the afternoon of and evening on Christmas Eve. The well-wishers are expected during the afternoon of New Year's Eve--these are groups who extend wishes for a happy life, prosperity and fertility in the coming year. The children, who symbolize purity and hope, usually receive apples, nuts and home-baked bread.
The old fertility rite is a poem describing, in a mythical manner, the labors to be performed by the plowman--ranging from seeding to bread making, and including reaping of the harvest.
New Year's Eve is one holiday that is celebrated throughout the country. It is an occasion for night-long parties. On this night, the traditional turkey is served. It is believed that no person should spend the night alone, as it is the night when the new year, represented by a baby, is born--and the old year, represented by the tired old man, is replaced.
The first day of the new year is celebrated through songs and dances. The songs mostly symbolize the desire for a prosperous new year as characterized by fair weather, good crops, health and happiness.
Some of the above traditions also involve the use of masks and costumes. Wheat often appears as a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
One particular folk tale suggests that during the New Year's night, the sky opens for an instant. At that moment, God is visible to observers as he oversees all below the heavens.
During the long winter nights, young girls and women will gather at a certain house in order to sit together, spin or embroider--as they are known to do with extraordinary talent in Romania.
Regarding the spring customs, the PLOWMAN is a celebration of the man who first plows the fields in the spring. Represented by song and dance, it actually represents hope at the end of the winter and the beginning of a new and prosperous year.
In the Orthodox faith, it is customary to celebrate the lives of the saints. If a person's name has a religious meaning, he or she celebrates the anniversary of the respective saint's day.
St. John, St. Constantine, St. Elena, St. Ilie and St. Mary are some of the more renowned names. Those people whose names have no religious meaning celebrate on March 9 by enjoying some traditional cookies which happen to be prepared differently in different regions of the country.
The first day of March is the celebration of MARTISOR (mar-tsi-shor), a day when gifts of small objects--plants, shells, flowers, animals, snowmen or tools--as well as a red and white ribbon symbolizing life and purity--are given to young girls and women. The little gift brings good luck, it is said, during the month of March and throughout the year ahead. Overall, Martisor signifies the end of winter and the arrival of spring.
The Sunday before Easter Sunday is called FLOWERS' SUNDAY. On that day, a special celebration takes place for all who have names associated with flowers. Fish may be eaten that day.
Easter is the second largest religious celebration in Romania. A six-week fast precedes the holiday, and the rituals of traditional food preparation resemble those of Christmas. Lamb, cheese cake, colored eggs and feta cheese make an appearance in every Easter dinner.
The egg as a symbol represents the miracle of creation. A ritual coloring of the eggs takes place to express this symbolism. The first egg colored for Easter belongs to the children and it must be colored red. It is placed in the children's room to protect them from evil. The second egg colored is blue, representing the "love of young women." It is meant to bring good luck in a marriage. On the first day of Easter, one egg is placed in a pot of water. A silver coin and some fresh basil are added to the water. All household members will wash their faces with this water.
Also during Easter, a midnight Mass takes place with a remarkable candle procession as part of the ceremony. Easter Eve is marked by total fasting and the first Easter meal takes place that night following the Mass.
In addition to the Easter celebrations, there is a spring celebration in which, before the shepherds leave for the mountains, all who plan to send their sheep along with them gather on a particular Sunday. Each person milks a sheep and afterwards, a meal, songs and dances take place. This manner of expressing good wishes through dance is present in most Romanian customs.
Other customs related with the main trades of Romania include PAPARUDA during which wishes are offered to ensure that the rain will bring forth a good autumn crop.
On June 23, SINZIENELE is celebrated. This day represents a ritual honoring the beginning of summer. It is a ceremonial ritual performed by young girls who are the symbol of purity. They are to invoke the spirits of wealth and crops and to bring forth a good year in general.
Summer, as a season of intensive field work, has relatively few traditional customs taking place within it. Fairs transpire during the summer, including the well-known Fair of the Gaina Mountain. The fair has had a dual purpose: It is a time for the exchange of goods and celebrating summer--and it is an opportunity for matchmaking between young maidens and men. The chance to meet and fall in love at a fair was a highly anticipated event each year.
As the year moved into autumn, September 14 brought the celebration of the RISE OF THE HOLY CROSS. In the orthodox faith, the deep meaning of the Holy Cross indicated that it could produce miracles. The frail and elderly particularly prayed for their own well-being on this day.
The harvest is celebrated by each family, as well as by the entire community. DRAGAICA is an interesting custom centered around a beauty contest. The most beautiful girl would become covered with fruit from the land. Thus decorated, she would run through the streets of the village, followed by the other girls, wishing the people well and supposedly bringing good luck to them.
The harvest time also includes a feast to recognize the craft of Romanian wine-making--with sweet, freshly squeezed wine and spicy smoked ham being served at that time.
For all Romanian celebrations, song is an essential component. The songs reveal all sides of the sensitive hearts of Romanians. There are ceremonial songs, such as the song of the bride and the song of the dawn. There are "Doinele" or songs of sorrow, melancholy, love or rebellion. These were determined to evoke either the longing for loved ones or social injustice. The ballads, or epic songs, represent various human experiences. They will describe events such as the sunrise, or historical events, heroism, the death of freedom fighters and the like. They occasionally focus on the trades of the people as well.
Love songs, lullabies and party songs are also present in the Romanian folklore. Besides song, artistic and religious artifacts reveal the traditions of Romanian people.
Over the long course of time, Romanian spirituality was externalized and manifested throughout the territory of the country, and it was always created to be attuned to the soul of the land. Nature endowed Moldovia, at the foot of the legendary mountains, with irresistible scenic places rarely seen elsewhere. In the recesses of the valleys, in the hiding places of the wood and meadow-covered mountains, and at the bottom of the gently sloping hills, are found the renowned monasteries of Moldovia. The churches and the monks' quarters of the Voronet, Humor, Moldovita, Sucevita, Andore, Putna and Dragomirna monasteries are unforgettable. They represent a perfection of unity between design and pictorial coloring, as well as a stately past.
On their walls, the entire Byzantine religion's art is depicted with a unique Romanian artistic vision.
In the northern part of Transylvania, in the proud region of Maramures, where it seems that nothing can disturb the peace, Romanians grasped the inner sense of nature and, in accordance with its gentleness, gifted it with the unpretentious, graceful, and small wooden churches which are unique compared to other churches throughout the world. Their pointed towers seem to permanently pierce the infinite sky. As the sun declines in the twilight, the towers' shadows are elongated against the earth--as if reaching towards another infinite place.
The harmony of the scenery is reflected artistically and synthesized in traditional dresses, differing from region to region; in the aspect of the interior of the houses; in the objects of the folk art; in the country songs and dances and in traditional customs.
There are embroidered peasant blouses and skirts are made of cocoon silk, cotton or linens; as well as sheepskin waistcoats. The pottery, gates, fountains and icons on wood or glass are the expression of a profound romantic civilization. Here noteworthy craftsmanship portrayed artistic feeling.
Symbolizing Christianity, the attendant spirit of peace and eternity, one finds Romanian hermitages carved in rocks and caves, monasteries, churches, roadside crosses and icons. They express the entire force of the spiritual liberty of the Romanian people.