Romanian Christmas Traditions

If I were in my childhood’s Romania, winter and the holidays would be the best time of the year. I remember the anticipation of the first snow and how as soon as we saw the white flakes start falling, our attention would shift from the classroom to the window. Our teachers’ best choice was to let us go outside and enjoy it. The snow would start falling sometime in late fall and keep piling up through the winter, blanketing everything in fluffy and sparkly white coat.

(I don’t own the copyright to the following three photos but they are too nice not to include.)

As kids, there was no better thing than playing outside and the snow provided many good options from sledding, to building entire living spaces out of snow, to skating at the rink or even on the sidewalks, and to snow fights. I remember going Christmas caroling with my classmates, visiting some of our teachers and receiving oranges, walnuts, and homemade traditional cake. I remember friends coming over to our apartment to carol around our modest but festive tree. I was lucky to live in Brasov, a mountainous town only minutes away from Poiana Brasov, a ski resort and a paradise for all winter sports enthusiasts. I remember my parents getting our sled out, a beautiful blonde wood and red metal number I called Steluta (little star). We hopped on and the parents pulled the sled, walking through the beautiful snow to go visit friends or just to get some air.

(The next three photos are from Poiana Brasov/Romania Facebook Page. Check it out for some great videos, too.)

Even if the Christmas tree didn’t arrive and get decorated until Christmas Eve (the earliest we managed to convince our parents to do it was on the 21st of December), the celebrations started early. On December 5th, we excitedly placed our clean shoes by the door, hoping that Saint Nicholas would leave some goodies in them come the following morning. We didn’t have a ton of toys available, and there were hardly any sweets, unless homemade, but somehow the parents always managed to get us something – I mean, Santa. I remember always questioning how Santa got into our apartment, since there was no chimney available and we kept the doors locked at night…. I resolved that he used magic to shrink himself, then slide through the keyhole, turn back to normal size, leave the gifts, and move on.

Closer to the holidays, my mom got busy in the kitchen, as winter was the time to have a pig cut and (almost) every single part of it prepared into different types of sausages, piftie (meat in gelatin with garlic), toba (our version of head cheese, a gelatinous amalgamation of organs – yum), and various meat cuts for later stews or for making soup. No Romanian Christmas is complete without two things: sarmale – stuffed cabbage rolls and cozonac – traditional cake/roll with walnut filling (or sometimes with other fillings like Turkish delight or raisins).

Romania is very rich in cultural traditions. Each region of the country has its own flavor of these traditions, from clothing, to songs, to food – and all good. One of the traditional Christmas Eve carols is the Star, which entails carrying a star manufactured from colorful paper, adorned with tinsel and bells. A popular New Year’s Eve carol is the carol of the Goat – Capra. Someone dresses up as a woolly goat with pompoms and bells or carries a wooden one that would clap its jaw to the music. Ursul (the Bear) and Plugusorul (the Plow) are two other well-known carols around the holidays. The carols announce the birth of Jesus, and also bestow blessings and good wishes of prosperity upon the listeners.

Today, visitors and locals alike can enjoy the beautiful traditions in the countryside as well as in the city. It is nice to see a renaissance of these ancient traditions in today’s cynical modern world. A few years ago, I had the pleasure of reuniting with my family in Romania for the holidays. We spent some time in Maramures, the picturesque northwestern area of the country were local traditions are alive and well. We also attended a comprehensive folk festival, and witnessed traditions from all around the country. It was such a delight!

Read more about Maramures and some of its attractions, like The Merry Cemetery at Sapanta, Traditions Festival in Sighetul Marmatiei, Ieud Monasteries, the famous wood carvings of Mos Pupaza, and Ples Folk Museum.

I’ve lived in the U.S. for 22 years now, and I am still not used to the lack of time off around the holidays to enjoy with family…. In Romania, everything shuts down for a few extra days because Christmas really is celebrated over three days, plus Christmas Eve, and, then we have to celebrate the New Year appropriately. So, we party through the night, take a nap, then do it all over again the second day, since there is still much food and alcohol to finish up. Although I have new family and friends here now, there is no place like home for the holidays, and I will always miss the long holiday celebrations, Romanian-style.

For all Romanians close or far, Craciun Fericit si La Multi Ani! And for all my readers, Merry Chrismahanukwanzakah and a happy, peaceful, and sane New Year! May you be surrounded by your loved ones and enjoy your holidays!

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