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 cheerful groups of children singing carols from door to door to mouthwatering dishes and various odd habits, the homeland of Dracula 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 put Romania in festive mood, offering it a unique identity and a special charm during the winter holidays.
Christmas season in Romania kicks off right after St. Andrew’s Day (November 30), when according to local legends, vampires and evil spirits come to light. The period leading up to Christmas is filled with wonderful celebrations, including Romania’s National Day (December 1st) and Saint 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 (Mondays and Fridays) by abstaining from eating animal products. All the more important is the Nativity Fast, which runs from November 14th to December 24th. According to the 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).
Saint Nicholas (Sfantul Nicolae)
Especially popular among the little ones, Saint Nicholas is celebrated on December 6th with great fanfare and lots of gifts. On Saint Nicholas’ Eve, all Romanian children clean their boots, place them at the door (or window), and go to sleep waiting for Mos Nicolae to fill them with presents. In the morning, the most obedient of them will discover lots of little surprises, mostly sweets, tucked into their shoes, while the naughty ones will only find the symbolic rod.
Pig Slaughter (Taierea porcului)
Pig slaughter is not actually the kind of national custom that one might be proud of, but it’s a long-lasting Christmas tradition that Romania keeps stubbornly.
Each year, on Ignat Day (St. Ignatius), on December 20th, Romanian families throughout 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 that 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 every bit of the poor animal.
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 Romanian houses are filled with neighbors, friends, relatives, and goodwill – a pleasant, comfortable jamboree where everyone giggles, dances, cooks, and tells stories. Carol singers constantly knocking at the door and colorful decorations throughout add a cheerful festive touch to the scene.
This time of year really is 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 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/sauerkraut, served with polenta, hot pepper, and sour cream) and bake cozonaci, a sort of sponge cake with nuts, cocoa, and Turkish delights, similar to the Italian panettone, but more consistent.
Christmas dinner is a rich, multi-course meal, with highlights including roasted pork, pickled vegetables, the delicious boeuf salad, and lots of homemade wine to wash it all down.
Romanian Carols (Colinde)
Probably the most beautiful 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.
Whether religious songs, pure folklore, or theatrical performances, Romanian Christmas carols are especially wonderful and full of meaning.
Other Christmas Traditions
Further Christmas traditions and customs in Romania include the decorating of Christmas Tree, which is usually performed 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.
The latter is a relatively new practice in Romania, but has enjoyed 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 folklore comes to life as each region showcases its own distinctive old customs and traditions passed down from generation to generation – a truly authentic experience for anyone visiting my country during the winter holidays.