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February 6, 2023

The traditional Christmas in Romania versus today’s marketing-based Christmas

Not much is left until all of us will enjoy the magic of winter holidays, as well as the great celebration of the Nativity. Children and grown-ups alike, we will all adequately honour the meaning of the moment and we will all thank Santa Clause for the gifts we received. Under the decorated tree, in the sound of Christmas carols, we will be together with our loved ones and happy. We, people of today, see the celebration through the eyes of a modern person who may afford, by one simple gesture, to buy anything they need for the celebration, in one visit to the supermarket. Where are grandma’s flavoured nut cakes, the apples, nuts and ring biscuits offered to carol singers, the cold and the snow of yesteryear? Sabina Ispas, folklorist and researcher at the Ethnography and Folklore Institute in Bucharest, carries us through the world of traditional Christmas, unknown to many of us.


“There are ceremonials and festive activities practiced with greater intensity during the first half of the 20th century and during the previous centuries. There are events with theatrical influence that include carol singing, journeying with the star, the Herods and the Bethlehem, that may still be found today in some places in Romania. Therefore, we are talking about an attested age of 1,000 years, that lets us see that we have one of the richest and most complex celebrations. The celebration of Christmas starts on Christmas Eve, in the evening of December 24 and lasts until St. John’s Day. Now, we may confidently say that there were not significant differences in the way the community was involved in the celebration of Christmas and highlighting major ritual moments in cities and at the countryside”, researcher Sabina Ispas points out.


Caroling in groups


In the old days, throughout the entire festive period, that started on St. Andrew’s Day, reached an important point on St. Nicholas’ Day and a sacrificial one on Ignat’s Day, almost each member of the family had something to do. The children were the messengers.

The researcher of the Ethnography and Folklore Institute in Bucharest says: “Children’s caroling, “pitaraii” or roving with the calf, usually done a day before, on December 23, usually signified purity, represented in the sacred writings by the chorus of angels who announced the Nativity. The only gifts received by children were dried fruit and ring biscuits, eaten at a joint meal. These messengers marked a space of purification, previous to the holidays. They carried the so-called “colindite”, but there are local differences. These “colindite” are beautifully decorated sticks used by the children to poke up the coal in the fireplace. It may be established that this is the first expression of the relation between the celebrating ritual and the concept of light. The meaning of the children’s action was to intermediate, to amplify the light generated by fire. Nowadays, this tradition is out of practice. There is proof documenting this tradition in the case of Pre-Germanic and Pre-Christian populations as well, yet the significance was completely different”, Sabina Ispas points out.

Children were followed by grown-up carolers, “one of the most important ritual components of the entire cycle of the year. There were two carolers’ groups, consisting of men. There are only two or three localities with groups of women, in Arges and Braila. Usually the groups of carolers included men and had an almost esoteric character of initiation. These groups of carolers had specific repertoires, a certaibn succession of songs and well established locations, starting by the gate, by the door, by the window and, finally, around the table, under the icons. The repertoires included general carols, household-dedicated carols, home-dedicated carols, and then ones for each member of the family”, the manager of the Ethnography and Folklore Institute also added.

The subjects of the carols were various; most of them were based on the cycle of family life, the happy family or the young family. Also, older carols carried messages connected to the Seven Mysteries, catechistic messages. Newer ones present, as we know it, the birth, the joy of birth, the presence of Virgin Mary, the Saints, and sometimes the proto-parents, Adam and Eve.


The tradition of un-caroling


On the same matter, Sabina Ispas added: “Another interesting event that cannot be found everywhere but seems to have enjoyed plenty of notoriety in the past was named by Petre Caraman un-caroling. It refers to a series of negative actions against those who refused to receive carolers in their household. Many times, these actions were interpreted as a sign of aggressiveness from behalf of the group of Carolers, yet, the reality is different. It was merely a way of eliminating the households that threatened the unity of the community from the ritual structure. One of the meanings of the caroling was to recreate the sacred space and time, the spiritual unity under the circumstances of the Christmas epiphany.

Caroling started in the evening of December 24 and lasted until December 25, when the so-called “agape” was organized (a common, brotherly meal at ancient Christians, editor’s note). Caroling was also traditional on the Twelfth Day and on Saint John’s Day. Also, folklorist Sabina Ispas points out that a terrible confusion is made today among Christmas songs and Christmas carols. The latter category included components of the old rituals, while the songs we sing today are Christmas songs. Caroling does not mean going from one place to the next, roving one house after the other, it means carrying a message. Also, the song dedicated to the star is not a carol. It is not properly said “caroling with the star”; actually it is “wandering with the star”. Apparently, the song dedicated to the star seems newer, yet hints to the tradition of wandering with the star are present since the Ninth Century, which means that it was just the repertoire that was improved and adapted to people of newer times.


“Plugusorul” and “Sorcova”, specific Romanian traditions


The traditions of “sorcova” and “plugusorul” may not be found in other cultures. “Plugusorul” (translated literally as “little plough”, editor’s note) is a text by which the community is expiated and the tortured grain overtakes the sins of humans. “I also think that wandering with the goat must be mentioned. Usually, the goat accompanied the groups of carolers, it was not found separately in the New Year celebration. This tradition spread during the latest 50 years”, Sabina Ispas explained.

“The entire period of winter holidays is based on what we may call the development of a theatrical system. The caroling is a liturgical drama, similarly to wandering with the star and sowing with the “Plugusorul”.  Also, what happens on the Twelfth Day is also a theatrical development. We are therefore facing a dramatic structure built by the gestures of the performers who are usually men, the detainers of authority, sacrifice-makers and officiators. Women had other types of duties. During the twelve days, these theatrical acts are performed in sacred space and time, she continues.


The traditional dinner symbolized sacrifice


As for the traditional dinner dedicated to the holiday, greatly enjoyed after the fasting, researcher Sabina Ispas said that it was the time for consuming dishes based on pork, the sacrificed animal. They were accompanied by the ring biscuit, another form of sacrifice, that of Jesus Christ, and the wine.

The centre of the table was decorated by the green branch, the guarantee of resurrection. The green branch is a hint to the tree of paradise, mentioned in the text of the carol, the vegetal form that assures life after death. Also, straws were placed on the table. If the ring biscuit on the table was considered Jesus’ Christ’s body, straws symbolized the mergers. Beside all of these, the table was decorated with the sprouted grain or the branches with flowers, brought on St. Andrew’s Day and the fire was lighted in the fireplace.


The Christmas tree decorated with candles, symbol of life


The Christmas tree, as documented by written sources, appeared during the seconf half of the ninth century, most likely due to our connections with the Germanic world. In our tradition, the Christmas tree was connected to the important moments of life: birth, marriage, death. To put it short, the Christmas tree symbolized the idea of the tree of life. It is interesting that, in a few Germanic regions, tree decorations were not accidentals. There were apples, nuts, the ship that symbolized the church, the angels and the candles.


Today’s Christmas is marketing-based


This year, Christmas knocks on our doors for the 2014th time. We are once again caught in the fever of actions generated by the Christmas holiday, in a spree of lights, gifts, copious meals, carols and plenty of joy that provide the scenery of this celebration of this holiday. Captured by Christmas magic, our generation prepares festive clothes as well. The Christian world, above all, now put on their specific Christmas garments intended to carry on the initial meanings. Yet, how much do the garments of today’s Christmas resemble the original ones?

Today, people spend more times in stores than at the church on Christmas day. As it is a holiday, they spend more time in front of their TV set than in front of the Bible and they get imbibed more by fine spirits than by sacred spirit. Undoubtedly, our generation started wearing Christmas clothes that do not resemble the ones initially conceived by God. Today’s Christmas is mostly focused on shopping and satisfying our generation’s insane hunger for consumption.

It is not a surprise that, for our contemporaries, Christmas joy fully depends on how much they receive (gifts, attention, religious programs, food, time off, etc.) Is anyone wondering whether this Christmas garment is indeed the appropriate one? We may be shocked of the differences.

As for today’s Christmas celebration, Sabina Ispas concludes: “It is not only marketing, but a reconsidering of the position of the human in the Universe. It is based on the fundamentally secular existence in the same place. The sacred and the profane cannot co-exist in the same place. It is a change of mentality, a change in the relation of human and God. Today, the celebration is a festivity based mostly on entertainment, not on the actual meaning of the respective holiday. The Christmas is an offer made by God to the human. The individual accepts it or not. It solely depends on him.”





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