Christmas is the time of festivities and getting together. The 25th of December is a day that is celebrated throughout the world and due to the diversity of cultures, different countries celebrate it with their own mix of traditions. Romania is no different. They have their own ways of celebrating the festival. To start with, the festivities last 19 days, from 20th of december to 7th of january. In Romania, Christmas begins with fasting (as the majority is represented by the Orthodox Church), which takes six weeks (from November 15th to December 24th). Fasting implies giving up on meat, eggs and milk, or like our grandfathers would say, restraining from sweet foods.
A true fasting would mean giving up on physical love, on alcohol and paying back any dues. People from villages do not listen to the radio during the fasting period, they don't watch TV and they don't throw or go to any parties. The fasting ends on Christmas night. Romanians are very religious and follow their customs and traditions well. Now let us go through the festivities and understand them.
On December 20th, people celebrate "the Ignat Day." On that day, they aren't allowed to do any work, but prepare the pork. According to the tradition, those who are poor and have no pig (which is usually sacrificed and prepared at the farmer's home) should sacrifice another animal. An old belief was that in the night before Ignat, the pig dreams of its knife. Those who are faint at heart and feel sorry for the pig are not allowed to participate in this ceremony, unless it dies slowly and its meat is no longer good. Grandfathers usually make the sign of the Cross on their grandchildren's foreheads, in order for them to be healthy. As always, there is a legend behind this custom. The legend says that a man called Ignat, trying to slaughter the pig, accidentally hit his father in the head with an ax.
Then comes the christmas eve. In some Romanian areas, on Christmas Eve, farmers gather back everything they've lent during the year. In Mehedinti county, parents put coins in their children's pockets, in order for them to have a bountiful new year. Also, on Christmas Eve, bread is placed under the table to bear luck for the whole family, and wheat is placed under the tablecloth, to bring good crops.
Men and women start by cutting and preparing the lard bacon, the sausages and other traditional specialties. And thus, begin the preparations for the Christmas feast. Housewives choose meat for their delicious cabbage rolls, for steaks, and the grease for baking cookies. In the old times, children were given pretzels, nuts and apples. Today, they receive money, candy and cookies. Both parents and children go carol-singing on Christmas Eve. The houses are beautifully adorned on that eve, perfectly clean and ready to receive the carol-singers.
Carol-singing is a ritual made of ceremonial texts (carols), dances and gestures. Carols give messages and wishes of good health, prosperity, good crops and the fulfillment of all wishes. Carol-singing is the most widespread Romanian tradition. Generally people make a star and decorate it with colors. An image of Jesus, Nativity or different scenes from Bible are put in its center. Then while singing the carol, the star is held by the group members.
In Transylvania, the tables are laid, waiting for the carol-singers. Carol-singers start their day at dawn, and end it at dusk. After they sing two or three carols in the courtyard, the youth are invited inside, to be properly welcomed and fed with traditional meals and drinks. Christmas Eve is a great opportunity for Romanians to visit their friends, neighbors and relatives.
In some parts of the country, there is a custom called "carrying the icon", which symbolizes the birth of Jesus Christ. In the north of Moldavia, the Christmas Eve feast is made of fasting food. And no one is allowed to uncover the table, until the priest comes through the door.
The priest blesses the feast, he is the first to taste the meals, and only after that do the rest of the household start eating. The pig slaughter on Ignat day is a purely Romanian custom, which was in fact "Christianized" at the end of the middle age.
There are other customs like the Goat tradition (Capra), where people dress in multicolored goat mask and costume and go from door to door in large groups, dancing on the flute tunes. this is an ancient Roman custom. Then there is the Bear custom (Ursul), known only in Moldavia, where young people dress up as bear and cubs and go out in groups to sing and dance.
In the Romanian Christmas traditions, within the typical Romanian family, there is a lot of love, poetry, fairy tales and respect. Whoever wants to get to know the Romanian spirit has to enter a Romanian house, especially in wintertime. He will see the Romanian bowing to the East, where light comes from, and how he makes the sign of the cross before eating, or how before cutting the bread, the traditional Romanian woman makes the sign of the cross three times.
There are many, very beautiful traditions and customs that focus on the two great winter holidays: Christmas, i.e. the birth of our Lord Jesus, and the New Year's Eve. Customs and traditions are common for all places on the planet...yet the hearts of the people are the most important during a feast. As you already know, many celebrate Christmas but without The Celebrated One, without the One whose birthday Christmas is. Feast or no feast...without the very core of Christmas which is Jesus Christ Himself, Christmas is nothing but another tradition.