Winter Customs

Few people in today’s world maintain and cherish their age-old customs, as do the villagers of Romania. Hardly a week goes by without a religious or secular festival somewhere in Romania. Some of the best, however, take place between Christmas and New Year’s.

For the grandest winter spectacle, head to Romania’s northwestern corner by December 27 when the “Festivalul Datinilor de Iarna” (Winter Customs Festival) takes place in the town of Sighetu Marmatiei.

When a group reaches the reviewing stand, they earn a few minutes in the spotlight for a carol, a folk dance or a tune on old instruments such as the “trambita,” an extremely long horn, or the “buhai,” a small barrel through which horsehairs are pulled. Some young men ride beautiful horses with evergreen and ribbons braided into the mane and tails and red tassels hanging from the bridle. Gorgeous handmade saddle cloths are ablaze with patterns of colorful flowers. Signaling the end, a horse-drawn sleigh filled with white-jacketed youths, musicians and of course, Santa Claus passes by the crowd. Throughout the afternoon, folk musicians, singers and dancers perform from a stage set up by city hall.

In many villages, especially in the northeastern province of Moldavia, December 31 is the big day — not eve, mind you, but morning. The tradition-packed outdoor event I observed in Verona, a 45-minute drive from the city of Suceava, is typical. The weather may have been chilly but neither participants nor onlookers seemed to notice. First, a choir of schoolgirls sang old carols. Animal skin winter jackets failed to completely hide their embroidered blouses, flowered belts and long striped skirts from which the lacy edge of white under-skirts peeked. Colorful hand-woven shoulder bags and black head scarves completed the costumes which are unique to the area.

Soon, this idyllic scene gave way to the whistles and shouts of young men who galloped out for a spirited dance of the “caiuti,” or horses. With amazingly fast foot movements, punctuated by high kicks and boot-slaps, they maneuvered themselves and white cloth horse heads, attached to their waists and adorned with embroidery, tassels and a multitude of colored pom poms, around the small space. find a domain In olden days, white horses were believed to be messengers bringing life and luck and this dance symbolizes the bond between farmers and the animals that pull their wagons and aid in working the land.

A clack, clack, clack signaled that the “capra” (goat) was coming. A guaranteed crowd pleaser, the carved wooden head is attached to a long pole which the bearer manipulates to noisily open and close the mouth as he dances around. Any resemblance to a real-life animal has been disguised with long ribbons, a towering headdress and whatever other adornments flash into the creator’s mind. This dance once foretold an increase in shepherds’ flocks along with abundant crops in the new year. Today’s antics are lighthearted, with many a satirical reference to the manners and morals of the villagers. Another festival staple is the dance of the bears (the two-legged costumed variety). Accompanied by their Gypsy trainer and a youth beating a tambourine-type instrument, the animals crawl through the crowd. Reaching the centre, they perform a dance until eventually, the bears fall dead on the ground. After their hearts are taken by the trainer, they return to life, theoretically, a more gentle one. Even today, more bears exist in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains than any other place in Europe and this ancient rite suggests the power of man to tame nature. Throughout the festival, masked figures ran about, banging anything that made noise, to frighten away any stray bad spirits that might have invaded the merrymaking. This is another reference to pre-modern days when people believed that spirits of the deceased wandered the Earth between Christmas Eve and January 6. After young orators offered rhyming chants of welcome and good wishes for the new year, the mayor presented round braided loaves of bread, symbolizing abundance and rich harvests, to each participant as well as to a Senator or two, who, true to the nature of politicians worldwide, knew the wisdom of appearing at public events.

Following the spectacle, in a scene repeated in villages and cities throughout Moldavia, groups of children, dressed as bears, horsemen or Gypsies, made the rounds of their neighborhoods. Announcing themselves with a jangling bell, they touched the homeowners with a flower-adorned stick while chanting a verse invoking them to be “strong as stone, quick as an arrow, strong as iron and steel.” In return, they received fruit, candy, a pastry or some coins.