Romania is a land of many more traditions than you’d normally expect from some lesser-known Eastern European country, and Christmas is no exception. From lovely groups of children singing carols from door to door to mouth-watering dishes and various eccentric habits, the homeland of Dracula and other cool things you’ve probably never heard of, is kind of a truly amazing place to spend Christmas. Some of these customs and traditions are old, unusual and authentic, others borrowed from overseas, but together they dress up Romania in bright holiday clothes, offering it an identity and a special charm.
Christmas season in Romania kicks off with a series of wonderful celebrations right after St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), when according to the local legends, vampires and evil spirits come to light. Other major holidays taking place during the Advent include Romania’s National Day (December 1st) and St. Nicholas (Mos Nicolae), when all children receive gifts. So, let’s see what to expect from a Christmas vacation in Romania:
Christmas Fasting (Postul Craciunului)
Romanians are religious people and they usually practice fasting throughout the year, each Monday and Friday, by abstaining from eating animal products. The Christmas fast begins on November 14th and ends on December 24th. According to the Orthodox religion, during these 40 days preceding Christmas, no one is allowed to eat meat, eggs and milk, with few exceptions when fish is permitted (St Ignatius).
St. Nicholas (Sfantul Nicolae)
Especially appreciated among children, St. Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th with great fanfare and plenty of gifts. On Saint Nicholas’ Eve all the children clean their boots, place them at the door and go to sleep waiting for Mos Nicolae to fill them with plenty of gifts. In the morning, the most obedient of them will discover lots of sweets tucked into their shoes, while the naughty ones will only find the symbolic rod.
Pig Slaughter (Taierea porcului)
Pig slaughter is not actually that kind of national custom that one might be proud of, but is a long-lasting Christmas tradition that Romania keeps stubbornly. Each year, on Ignat Day (St. Ignatius), on December 20th, Romanian families, especially those in the countryside, sacrifice their pig in order to have a rich meal for Christmas. It sounds cruel, I know, and it actually is, but behind this horror there’s a very complex ceremony which has been part of the local customs for as long as history can record. It starts early in the morning with the killing itself and continues with a series of proceedings through which all the meat is carefully prepared. From the fat melting to the preparation of sausages, one thing is for sure – Romanians really know how to cook the entire pig, without loosing anything.
In Romania, Christmas has always been a great opportunity for family members to get together in order to spend some time in the warm, loving and cozy atmosphere of their home. A large part of Romania’s population lives outside the country and those who don’t, are usually trying to make a better living by working in large cities, away from their families.
However, during Christmas, most of Romanian houses are filled with neighbors, relatives and good will – a pleasant comfortable jamboree where everyone giggles, dances, cooks and tells stories, not to mention the carol singers constantly knocking at the door. It’s a chance for any family member to recharge his batteries and to create memories that will keep him warm throughout the year to come.
Food is probably the main part of any holiday in Romania, but Christmas is a true feast for the senses. Preparation begins with pig slaughtering, when a good part of the poor animal is turned into smoked ham, bacon, sausages, liver sausage, pig’s trotter and other goodies whose names are untranslatable. On Christmas Eve women make sarmale (delicious meat-and-rice rolls wrapped in cabbage, served with polenta) and bake cozonaci, a sort of sponge cake with nuts, cocoa and Turkish delights, similar to the Italian panetone, but more consistent. Despite all financial problems, Christmas dinner is always a rich, multi-course meal. Highlights of the menu always include roasted pork, pickled vegetables, the delicious beouf salad, home-made wine and plum brandy, as well as various fancy cakes.
Romanian Carols (Colinde)
Probably the best part of a Romanian Christmas is the laborious, magical suite of carols that can be heard all over the country during this wonderful time of the year, from the paths of the most remote villages to the classiest venues in the capital. Often accompanied by wishes for health, prosperity and fulfillment, Romanian carols are far from being just simple Christmas songs. They usually come together with rituals, special costumes, tools and even short theatrical performances, generating a genuine spectacle. Most popular include Steaua (the Star boys’ singing procession), Capra (The Goat) and Plugusorul. Overall, Romanian Christmas carols, whether religious songs, pure folklore or theatrical performances, are all wonderful.
Other Christmas traditions and customs in Romania comprise: the decorating of Christmas Tree, which is usually made by the whole family a couple of days before Christmas; the arrival of Santa Claus with its bag full of gifts, a practice that takes place on Christmas Eve; the decorating of each city with millions of glowing lights and of course, the charming Christmas Markets sprinkled all over the country.
Although this is a relatively new practice in Romania, it has enjoyed a resounding success, becoming an important part of Christmas. The most beautiful Christmas markets in Romania can be found in the medieval cities of Transylvania, including Sibiu, Brasov and Cluj.
These are just a few common Christmas practices in Romania, but the real spectacle takes place in the countryside, where each region features its own parade of folklore, old customs, traditions and festivals – a truly authentic experience that you’ll never forget.