Dyed eggs, fasting followed by massive meals, ceremonies at churches, bringing Light home, bunnies and gifts; these are the most common Easter customs. Nonetheless, the celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection means much more, and Romanian folklore traditions of inestimable complexity, of outstanding value granted by their age and specificity, are proof to this fact. And, as any unique treasure, they must be sought in all corners of this country, discovered in cities and villages alike, delved into and appreciated as they deserve to. University Professor Doctor Ioana-Ruxandra Fruntelata from the Letters Department of the University of Bucharest brings the Light in the beautiful Mystery that surrounds in a sacred aura the ancient Romanian Easter habits.
“Red eggs bring fertility to the household, health and beauty to householders”
In Romania, according to the Census of 2011, there are 16.3 million Orthodox believers. What does Easter represent to Romanians?
Easter is the most important holiday of Orthodox Christians, and is unanimously acknowledged in Romanian folklore traditions, besides Christmas, as one of the major holidays of the year. At the same time, Easter is highly important in providing rhythm to popular calendar, considering that the festive Easter cycle starts with the Grand Lent – the Shrove Tuesday – and ends with the Descent of the Holy Spirit, followed by the week of Pentecost. This entire period that lasts for approximately a quarter of a year is marked by numerous cultural practices of a meaning that refers, on one hand, to the restart of the warm season, with the “opening” of the Earth, the growing of vegetation and the return of birds of passage, and on the other hand, to the Christian message of Resurrection. Therefore, Easter represents, at its peak, the Romanian “spirit” of celebration, it provides a moment of most intensely living the relation of man and transcendent, and a celebration of communion and hope. Mircea Eliade was not mistaken when he suggested that the folkloric religiousness of the East is basically mystical; besides any doctrine, the World is turning into a Liturgy.
Which are the most important Romanian Easter traditions and which of these are only encountered on the territory of our country?
Each region of our country has different Easter traditions, included in the Romanian Ethnographic Atlas and in other specialized works. The most essential tradition is dying eggs, that might be simple or decorated (“written”) with designs conceived in wax and ink, and harmonized with the spirit of Romanian folklore art. Some of these eggs are carried to the church in the night of Resurrection, accompanied by other food offerings. An Easter egg may only be consumed after being “clinked” to someone else’s egg, and the protagonists of this ritual competition also have an exchange of replies: “Christ is Risen!” “He truly is Risen!” It was believed that red eggs bring fertility to the household and health and beauty to householders. On Easter, Romanians in traditional rural communities put on new home-woven clothes. Especially teenage girls fit for marriage were careful to weave themselves with the loom beautiful shirts, embroidered in splendid patterns and wore them at the Village Dance on the day that followed Easter. Also, on Easter Monday, there was Valaritul: a group of young men (valarii) went yo the church, where the priest officiated the Liturgy and blessed them with myrrh and, afterwards, they went to the homes of maidens, where they were awaited with red or “written” eggs, Easter cake or regular cake. Then, the young men went to cradle the girls in a teeter that remained for several days in the village. Moreover, the Easter celebration involved a series of rituals of ancestors’ commemoration, which had the most pronounced local specificity. Thus, on Holy Thursday, fires were lighted in the graveyards and alms were shared for the souls of the people that had passed away. In Easter night, people who had someone who had died without a candle in their families donated a white rooster to the church, or, depending on the region, they paid for candles used by the priests of three churches for the Resurrection Ceremony. On the second day of Easter, Oltenia organized the “Dance of Alms”, a popular dance for the passed away; during this dance, alms were shared. On the Monday that followed the Sunday of St. Thomas, the Easter of Gentle People was celebrated and the series of examples may go on until the Feet Washing on the Monday of Pentecost.
“Bukovine is famous for written eggs”
Which is the usual ritual of the traditional Romanian during Easter?
According to traditions, Romanians keep the Lent, bring sacred willow branches from the church on Palm Sunday and fix it on their gates, on their door or even place it inside the house, at the icons, women clean the house, whiten the walls with lime-wash, dye eggs, prepare Easter cake, lamb tripe, ring biscuits and regular cake, and children announce the holiday by caroling with the “willow”, “Lazarel” or “Joimarica”, depending on local traditions. On Easter day, the family goes to the Resurrection Liturgy wearing new clothes and carrying food offerings from the dishes prepared for the festive lunch. After returning, all of them step on a furrow of grass placed by the father on the threshold of the house and wash their face and hands in a bowl of water that contains a red egg and a silver coin, for health and beauty. They clink eggs and they sit down at the table. The animals also receive red egg shells mixed in their food, to be shielded from diseases and to be fertile. The next day, there’s Valaritul we already talked about, the Village Dance and the fun with the teeter. Eggs may be died for Ascension as well, when Romanian villages also celebrate Heroes Day. Then, the Pentecost follows, preceded by Saturday of Souls, when clay bowls and jars are shared, filled with food that must include fruit of the season and rice with milk (earlier, it was a sort of rustic cake made out of corn flour). Obviously, this is merely a simplified sketch because, besides the traditions mentioned above, everyone respects their traditions with the precise versions and shades they have learnt at home, where they were born.
What do you recommend foreign tourists visiting our country this time of the year, as well as Romanians on a holiday, who wish to learn more about Easter celebrations? Are there some regions you advise them to visit?
Their first choice should be Bukovine, renowned for writing eggs, where fairs are organized in the days preceding Easter, such as the one in Ciocanesti, Suceava. Ciocanesti also hosts a Museum of written eggs, where tourists may also exercise this traditional habit. Other written eggs Museums in Bukovine are the ones in Vama and Moldovita, as well as the one in Oboga, Olt County, where young people are perfecting their skill of decorating eggs based on given patterns and on local pottery. In Bucharest, there are Easter fairs providing traditional products, at the “Dimitrie Gusti” National Village Museum and at the National Museum of the Romanian Peasant, and interested people may also visit the glass icon and naive painting exhibition “The Passions and Resurrection of Our Saviour in contemporary folklore creation”, annually organized by the National Centre for the Preservation and Promotion of Traditional Culture (presently included in the National Institute of Patrimony.
As an expert in this field and an observer of the phenomenon, do you think that traditional habits disappear with the succession of generations, or do you notice a renewal of the interest in them?
No tradition is petrified, because, as any other cultural fact, it changes along with people passing it over and it is permanently adapted to the actuality of their lives. Therefore, the habits of the Easter festive cycle cannot be preserved, precisely as they were registered a hundred years ago, because they belonged to a rural civilization that followed other economical and social norms than the ones of the present. In the contemporary village, no young girl wastes her Lent nights to weave at the loom, at the light of a gas lamp, embroidered shirts and ornate skirts. Under the pressure of consumerist culture, even dying eggs at one’s home has become optional. Nonetheless, folklore culture specialists observe, both in intellectual environments and at the level of local elites, an increasing interest for the preservation of identity by the revitalization of almost forgotten traditional habits. Although their primary functionality was lost, habits such as the village dance or writing eggs gained patrimonial value and, thus, the interest in them has also increased. It is important, though, that this process of recovery of cultural memory would be done with benevolence and not turn into an identity inflation – leading to an over-evaluation of each local element – or, on the contrary, to a globalization if tradition – so that various elements of various places would be overtaken arbitrarily, without any differences, and proposed as models.
“For the promotion of the traditional cultural patrimony, there needs to be a solidarity of Government structures with this objective”
The beauty and richness of Romanian folklore traditions represents a country brand we need to be proud of and, why not, even take advantage of. Do you think that there are enough efforts being made to promote them abroad? Can you mention a few solutions you would propose, based on your huge experience, for a more efficient promotion?
The promotion of our traditional legacy abroad is one of the objectives of the Ministry of Culture for the post-Revolution times, by the institutional tools it owns. The Romanian Cultural Institute periodically organizes events that emphasize representative aspects of Romanian folklore cultyre. Let us remember that there are four Romanian elements of the Intangible Cultural Heritage included on the representative UNESCO list: the “Calus” ritual dance, the Doina, the traditional craftsmanship of Horezu ceramics and the Men’s group Colindat – the latter file was submitted in partnership with the Republic of Moldova. The Department of Policies for Relations with Romanians Abroad, within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provided constant support to specialists to perform on-site researches with Romanian communities living abroad, researches that provided prestigious scientific results and image accomplishments as well. Besides, my colleagues working for academic institutes, universities, museums and cultural centres, most of them members of the Association of Ethnological Sciences in Romania, are developing valuable projects and putting them into practice implies a bonus of visibility abroad for Romanian traditions. On another plan, our folklore culture also represents a tourist attraction, and it is promoted in offers of itineraries for foreign tourists but, in modt cases, things presented as “authentically Romanian” are mostly surrogates for consumption than genuine elements of tradition. I think that, in order to grant more coherency to these actions destined to promote traditional cultural patrimony, under the circumstances of the terrible under-financing of culture, there is a need, most of all, for a solidarity of all Government structures with this objective. As a priority, the Ministry of Education is the one that needs to find a place for education on patrimony in schools that precede university, and it is a vital matter if we want to prepare future authors of cultural projects with an international visibility. It would be ideal if the National Authority for Tourism would have a corps of advisers on matters related to traditional culture, that could be heard and listened to, so that the elements promoted for tourism would indeed reflect the richness and the great orderliness of our heritage. In the lack of a strategic administration of resources – first of all human – available to us, any attempt to promote Romanian traditional culture may easily become ridiculous.”
Nonetheless, folklore culture specialists observe, both in intellectual environments and at the level of local elites, an increasing interest for the preservation of identity by the revitalization of almost forgotten traditional habits.