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To many, Romania is still a land of myth and legend. And considering the number of traditions that are still present in Romanians’ everyday lives, this may not be such a cliché. From rainmaking to leaving gifts by the window for the fate fairies, discover the most popular Romanian customs, a true gateway to the country’s culture.
Romanians love their traditions, which bring a touch of magic and pour color into everyday life. They are a way to connect with the rich folk culture that is handed down from generation to generation.
While some of the traditions and customs revolve around human life cycles and are designed to accompany those who perform them through events such as birth, weddings and death, others are connected to the succession of the seasons. With many going back to pre-Christian times, these ancient rites are performed either individually, or are designed as a event for the whole community to take part in.
On the night before the holiday of the Epiphany, or ‘Bobotează’ in Romanian, unmarried women are said to see their future husband in their dreams. All they need to do is put under a small branch of dried basil under their pillow (which they must receive from a priest). If nothing conclusive happens, they can always have another go later in the year, the ritual is also performed before the holiday of the Sânziene, the good fairies of summer.
Seen as the Romanian version of Valentine’s Day, Dragobete is celebrated on February 24th. Dragobete, personified as a young handsome man, is the protector of lovers in Romanian folk culture. Around that day, which represents the end of winter, it is believed that birds find their mate and start building nests together. Traditionally, young men and women would pick flowers together in the woods, and upon returning, women would allow the man they fancied to steal a kiss. That would mark the start of their relationship, and bygone times, that of their engagement.
Today, a common custom says that women should make sure that, by the day’s end, they’ve touched a man, should they want to be happy in love that year. Any man, of any age, even a stranger on the bus (although not recommended), will do.
Translated as ‘The Cuckoos’, this is a tradition the whole village takes part in. One of the most colorful Romanian customs, it precedes the start of the Lent and involves beautifully adorned masks and costumes. The main character, The Cuckoo, wears a mask shaped like a globe, embellished with hundreds of paper flowers and ribbons. The rest of the participants are men dressed as women, who wear their lovers’ clothes. They wear belts fixed with loud bells around their waists and carry a stick. They roam the village and touch, or even gently hit, those in the audience so they gain protection against diseases and misfortune in the coming year. This tradition takes places in the villages of Brănești, near Bucharest, as well as several villages near Călărași, the seaside city of Constanța in the Maramureș region, northern Romania.
On the 1st of March, to mark the arrival of spring, Romanian women receive, either from men, or from their girlfriends, a small jewel-like ornament tied with a red and white string with hanging tassels. Worn pinned to clothes, on the left, in front of one’s heart, it is usually handmade, but can also be made of out of gold or silver. Central to the age-old custom, is the combination of red and white in the same string, which represents the duality of life and death.
Traditionally at the end of march the martisor get get tied to a tree’s branches, but these days, especially in urban areas, they are simply kept in the jewelry box until next spring.
Mucenici is a Christian holiday celebrated on March 9th. It marks the feast of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. On this day, in the southern regions of Romania it is customary to eat a type of dessert consisting of dough that is boiled and seasoned with sugar, cinnamon and walnuts. The dough is shaped as the infinity sign, or the number 8.
Translated as “the old women”, this custom celebrates the beginning of spring. Men and women, pick any day, from the 1st to the 9th March, as the day that will reveal what the year ahead will bring. Depending on the day’s weather, the future will either be as bright and shiny as a sunny day, or less so, if the day is cloudy or rainy.
The legend behind the custom says that an old woman called Dochia, wanting to punish her only son, Dragobete, for marrying without her permission, set her daughter-in-law a hard test. Despite the very cold weather, she sent the young wife to the river with a black ball of thread, with the task to wash it in its icy waters until it becomes white. Despite her efforts, as the ball would not change color and she started to weep. Seeing her suffering, a young man (who in some versions is Jesus) offered her a red flower to wash the thread with. It worked and the thread became white, she returned home, and Dochia, amazed to hear that outside flowers are already blossoming, thinks that spring has arrived already. Hastily, she starts walking in the mountains and, under the hot sun rays, starts throwing, one by one, all of her nine woollen coats. But, as she reaches the top, she gets hit by a heavy blizzard and, with no coat left, freezes instantly. That is why, it is common to say, when commenting on the rapidly changing early March weather, that “Dochia must have thrown one of her coats!”
This ancient tradition takes place on the Huta Certeze hill in the Maramureș region. It marks the beginning of the transhumance, the movement of livestock from the place they spent the winter in to summer pastures. On the first Sunday of May, people gather to party and have picnics, while shepherds make the necessary deals and arrangements for the coming months. On this day, people of the region wear their best folk costumes, something unique in today’s Romania, where few regions still preserve the traditional wear.
Bearing similarities to the Swedish Midsummer holiday, Sânzienele are celebrated on June 24th and mark the summer solstice. In Romanian folk culture, Sânzienele are good fairies, and the holiday is held in their honor. This tradition involves young women, who dress in long white dresses and wear beautiful crowns made of wild flowers and wheat ears in their hair. The central point of the ritual is their dance, who usually takes place in the evening, around a bonfire. It is believed that on this special night, the skies open up and magic things can happen to anyone who believes in it. Love spells, in particular, are at their most powerful this night. Just like on Boboteaza, unmarried women can dream of their future husband if they put a few Lady bedstraw flowers under their pillow the night before.
Caloianul is a rainmaking ritual that is performed by children after Easter or Pentecost, or on any summer day after a prolonged drought. Most frequent in the rural areas in the south of Romania, this custom involves the baking of up to nine clay dolls, that are then buried in a mock ceremony, after being paraded through the fields by a group of children who sing old ceremonial songs. After three days, they are unearthed and carried back to the village, where are either thrown into a well, or placed on a wooden board and left to float on a river or a lake. Then, the girls participating gather and bake a traditional pie for everyone to share and commemorate the Caloian.
Romanians believe that when a child is born, he or she will be visited by the Fate fairies, or ‘Ursitoarele’ in Romanian, on the 3rd day, after sunset. That is why, it is customary to welcome the faires with a selection of gifts, such as flour, salt, coins, wine, flowers and even cakes. They are traditionally placed by the window by the child’s godmother.
On St. Andrew’s Day, November 30th, a popular custom is to take a handful of wheat and place it on a sunny spot in the house so that, watered regularly, can sprout and grow. If the wheat grows tall and healthy, it means the coming year will be a happy one. Also, as one would expect from the country that gave the world Count Dracula, common belief says that on this night evil spirits and creatures, such as werewolves and strigoi (a local type of zombie), get free reign and can enter people’s homes. The solution? Romanians eat as much garlic as possible during the day and smear all doors and window sills with the precious bulb.
The pig slaughter is still carried out in many households, around Christmas time. Not for the faint hearted, this is an activity traditionally involving the adult males, who kill the animal, which then gets cut into pieces. Later, the meat is processed and cooked by women. Customarily, the first thing eaten from the pig is a slice cut from the pig’s forehead. This enables those who eat it to stay ahead in the coming year. During this ritual, nothing is discarded. Even the pig’s blood is collected and used to prepare traditional dishes such as sângerete, or blood sausages. Traditionally, the pig’s hoofs were used to make buttons, while the hair was collected to make toothbrushes and brushes.