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 mouthwatering dishes and various odd 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 a unique identity and a special charm during the holidays.
Christmas season in Romania kicks off with a series of wonderful celebrations right after St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), when according to 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 Orthodox religion, during these 40 days preceding Christmas, nobody is allowed to eat meat, eggs, or 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 (or window), 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 all 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 losing 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 their batteries and to create memories that will keep them 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 bizarre and delicious Romanian dishes whose names are sometimes hard to translate.
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 panettone, but more consistent.
Despite all financial problems, Christmas dinner is a rich, multi-course meal. Highlights of the menu always include roasted pork, pickled vegetables, the delicious boeuf 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 year, from the cobbled 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 and tools, as well as peculiar theatrical performances, generating a genuine spectacle. Some of the most popular are 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.
Further Christmas traditions and customs in Romania include 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 his 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, but Bucharest Christmas Fair is worth checking out, too.
These are just a few of some of the most popular Christmas traditions 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 for anyone visiting my country during the winter holidays.