There are three things about Romania that people need to know that influence their Christmas to make it different from Christmases in other countries. To begin with, Romania has one of the oldest Christmas traditions in the world. Romania is one of the countries where an apostle actually took the gospel. Constantinople, right across the border, in Turkey (now a days, it is called Istanbul) was the old central “capital” of Christianity. I call it that because that is where all the big church councils took place before Protestantism existed and before the Catholic and Orthodox churches were two churches instead of one. Another thing people need to know about Romania that has influenced how they celebrate Christmas is that they came out of Communism slightly less than twenty years ago. On top of that, Romania is filled with several people groups, not just Romanian. There are Romanians, Hungarians, people of German decent from Austria, and Gypsies living in Romania, and each bring something to the table.
Their old Christian tradition causes several things to happen. Romania has several original Christmas carols that have not been translated like the other Christmas carols around the world. Several Christmas carols in other countries were translated from English or German, but there are several uniquely Romanian Christmas carols that have been around forever. I blogged about one of them: “Trei Pastori” meaning “Three Shepherds.” Around Christmas time, groups of carolers go from house to house singing Christmas carols in Romania. In America, we may bring Christmas carols cookies, popcorn, or something like that. We even sing a carol that came from England about them bringing Fig pudding to the carolers. However, in Romania, they don’t give food to the carolers. They give them money. It is usually a group of young people going from house to house, and they take that money and have a party with it, and yes, sadly several may get drunk.
Since the Romanian Christmas tradition is so old, they know about the oldest traditions of Christmas like the Advent. They also have two Santas and two Christmases. December sixth, St. Nicholas Day, is not a Christmas day. It is a special day that begins the Christmas season. St. Nicholas is Santa’s poor brother that brings fruit and candy to kids who clean their shoes and put them by the front door. Many Americans have heard about the twelve days of Christmas, but we really don’t get it, but the Romanians get it. They understand the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” better than we do even though it is an English Christmas carol. they actually talk about the twelve days of Christmas. What we need to remember, also, about Romania is that the Romanian people’s old tradition is Orthodoxy, but the German and Hungarian’s tradition is Catholicism. The Germans and Hungarians came to Romania during the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire. These people brought Catholicism with them, and it meshed into the Romanian culture too. Because of this, December 25th is the Catholic Christmas, but the whole country celebrates it anyway. However, there is a different day for the Orthodox Christmas, January 7th. Only the Orthodox people would celebrate it, and they may also celebrate December 25th. A very large portion of the Romanian population is Orthodox. Even if they never go to church, they may identify themselves as Orthodox. According to Wikipedia, 81% of the people in Romania identify as Orthodox. However, as I said, they may not go to church at all. One Orthodox priest said to me they were “atheist Orthodox.” This came about because they never left their old traditions, but Communism tried to pull them away from God. The die hard Orthodox have a fast they observe around Christmas time. Under Communism, there wasn’t much on TV, but since the revolution, there are lots of Christmas shows on TV in Romania. Around Christmas time in Romania, there were lots of movies about Bible stories that I really enjoyed.
The fact that Romania was Communist really influenced their culture a lot! I have already mentioned in another blog that the Communists tried to get rid of any signs of Christianity, but were unable to eradicate it. They wanted to call Santa Claus (Mos Craciun) Old Man Ice (Mos Gheata), but the people didn’t go for it. Communism made the Romanians very poor. When we were there, they wanted to celebrate Christmas, and they tried, but they just couldn’t celebrate the way they wanted to. Some of them told me that just having a Christmas tree was their gifts, but they had no other gifts because they couldn’t afford them. They would decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. In the village, many people couldn’t afford even a Christmas tree, so we bought a small apartment and among many other things we did there, we had Christmas parties for the children in the village. One man from the church was responsible for cutting down a Christmas tree. I brought my students from the university. I taught them to make paper decorations like Japanese origami birds and balls and paper chains, and we decorated the tree. A lady from the church went around to merchants in the bigger town, in Sibiu, and got donations for the children of food and gifts. One place donated pizza for all the kids. We made sure each kid had a toy and a gift of clothing. One seventeen year old boy accidently got a teddy bear as his gift, and we wanted to take it back and exchange it for something more appropriate, but he refused. He had never had a gift or a toy, and he was not going to give that teddy bear up because it meant the world to him. The church also bought bags of rice and meat and took it around to poor people in the village, mostly the parents of the children we were ministering to, so the families in the village could have a nice Christmas dinner. This was right after the revolution, when the poverty was terrible in Romania. However, I have kept in contact with Romanians, they have made progress. One of my students who has left Romania is in eastern Europe working as a translator at a government organization. She post pictures of overflowing gifts for her kids on Facebook all the time. From what I understand, all of Romania isn’t quite like that yet, but it is better than it was right after the revolution. We had our salary from outside the country or we couldn’t have stayed because the salary at the university was only about enough to take us out to each about twice a month. A good salary like a doctor or lawyer would make was about $100 a month. From what I understand, it has improved a lot, but experts still tell me to live in Romania, I would have to have a salary from outside of the country still. I have seen appeals to Romanians who have left the country posted on the internet in Romanian saying they were the lucky ones who could leave the country, but they need to understand that there are still people left behind who are living in poverty who need their help, and many Romanians go back to help.
The lack of food under Communism caused several traditions to begin. The week just before Christmas, you will wake up to the sound of squealing pigs every morning. The week before Christmas is when they butcher their pigs. Every house, even the ones in town, has at least one pig in the back yard, and some even more. If you live in an apartment, you try to get a house in the country where you can raise a garden and a pig to ensure you can eat. You will be laying in bed in the early morning the week before Christmas, and hear a pig squealing. You know it is because they are killing the pig. They choose pigs because they are cheap to raise. Pigs have huge liters, and if you have no money, you don’t have to even buy pig food. You can feed them left overs from your table and weeds, and they will grow just fine. Some buy food for the pigs, but the poorer people don’t. They even feed them stinging nettles. When they butcher that pig, and their words are “cut the pig,” it will supply them with all the meat they will be eating all year. There are butcher shops in the towns, but many people couldn’t afford to shop there, and they just relied on the meat from their pigs.
The gypsies also influence things at Christmas time. Never leave your door unlocked in Romania, especially around the holidays. My husband got up early one New Years day and went into the village to preach a New Year’s Day sermon. He left the kids and I in bed. I had gotten out of bed, and I heard a noise in the front hall. My husband had left the front door unlocked when he left, and a gypsy lady had let herself in. She was jingling bells and chanting something. We were new in Romania, and I was scared to death!! I didn’t know anything about her except that she was a gypsy and she had come in uninvited. I ran into the foyer and bodily pushed her out the door and locked the door! Something similar happened when we lived in the village, after we had been there for several years. On New Year’s Eve, a family in the village wanted to make ciorba de burta for us. That translates “stomach soup.” It is basically tripe, soup from the stomach of the cow. My husband had gone with the car to pick the family up and bring them back with their ciorba de burta. He left the door unlocked again. A group of gypsies let themselves into the house. They were chanting, ringing in bells, yelling, and running at me with a dead goat’s head on a stick. Again, I was scared to death! I had no idea what they wanted. They began demanding money, but I had not money. I showed them my purse, and there was nothing but a little change in there. They took the change and kept demanding money and running at me with the goat’s head on the stick and screaming. Finally, I offered them some Christmas cookies. They were satisfied with Christmas cookies and left. Never leave your door open around the holidays in Romania. If you do, the gypsies will come in without knocking.
The Romanians know how to party. There will be lots of Christmas parties around Christmas. Romanian ladies are the best cooks in the world, and you will be amazed at their wonderful dishes they serve!! The holiday dishes you will find on every table are sarmale with mamaliga with sour cream all over the top and cozanac. Sarmale are cabbage rolls with ground pork, rice, tomato paste, and condiments in them. I think I blogged about them once, and they are downright delicious!! Mamaliga is corn meal mush. The Romanians feel like mamaliga symbolizes the Romanian people because the people who couldn’t buy bread under Communism could at least make corn meal mush. I wrote a blog once upon a time teaching people how to make corn meal mush. You put the sarmale and the corn meal mush on the plate together, and you drizzle sour cream over it. It is so delicious that it is indescribable!! The cozanac is a type of sweet yeast bread with nuts, perhaps cocoa, or perhaps fruit. Everyone makes cozanac a little different. I made cozanac for a group of Korean students once, and they were in love with it! They kept saying to me, “You need to go into business selling this ‘choc bread’ ” because they thought it was so wonderful, and they were right. Cozanac is wonderful! Besides these two, there will be numerous other dishes on the table. Romanians know how to really do it up right at the holidays! They are also extremely good cooks! They may be the best cooks on the planet.
Also, around Christmas time in Romania, another unique tradition happened in our village. Romania is a very cold country. They usually get snow every year beginning before Christmas. I have seen them get snow as early as October. One of the things that made the revolution possible was that on that particular year, there was no snow. People told me stories about their Christmas trees being on their balconies, but they couldn’t go out to get them that year and bring them in to decorate them because there were people shooting in the streets, so the Christmas tree stayed on the balcony. However, usually, there is lots of snow in the winter in Romania. The children will be on ice skates out in the streets skating or pulling a sled around and finding a good slope where they can go sledding. People go to the mountains and go skiing. In our village, something else was happening that could only happen where there is lots of snow. There was a sleigh, like a Santa’s sleigh, that we heard going up and down the street in front of our house pulled by horses with jingle bells and lots of happy voices of people laughing and talking as they went by in the sleigh.
Romania is actually a really nice place to be in the Christmas season if you can just remember to keep your door locked and keep those gypsies out. Romania is rich in culture!! If you want to see a real old fashioned Christmas, Romania is the place to go. Many homes were heated by wood in the village, and may still be, but only in the villages. In the beginning, when we first got there, most of the homes were heated by wood, even in the fifth largest city where we were living, Sibiu, but they installed gas in Sibiu, and not so many are using wood to heat anymore. However, the heating and cooking with wood was nice. It gave the place a nice atmosphere, but it was difficult to constantly be stuffing those fires. We even had a hot water heater for a while we had to stuff with wood if we wanted a bath. We drove into Hungary and found an electric hot water heater to stop that. When they installed gas in our village, we no longer had to heat with wood, but we kept the terracotta chimneys and burned a fire in them like you would in a fire place because they were beautiful. There were relief pictures of deer on the one in our living room. When I had pneumonia, I put blankets and pillows down on the floor in front of the terracotta stove and laid there and read novels. It was a wonderful atmosphere! Romanians have a very romantic nature and a very old Christian tradition, and Communism didn’t stop them from having rich cultural traditions for the holidays. And, you better be good in Romania, because if you aren’t, Santa will bring you switches instead of gifts, and I actually knew some one who got switches one year.