The celebration of Jesus’ birth is a moment of joy, warmth and love that gathers together the whole family on December 25 and 26. Yet, in Romania, the Christmas season starts long before that, with the Advent running from November 14 until Christmas Day. According to the Orthodox religion, during the Christmas Fast people should not eat meat or animal products, as part of a process of body purifying. Besides fasting, confession and the Holy Communion are part of a soul cleanse before Christmas.
On December 6, Romanians celebrate Saint Nicholas, a very popular character among children. The little ones wait for Moș Nicolae, hoping he will bring them some gifts. Their shoes are carefully cleaned and left near the window or the door on the evening of December 5. Next morning, the obedient ones will have their boots filled with sweets and fruits, while the naughty ones will receive a decorated wooden stick.
However, they get a second chance of receiving the presents they wished for. A few weeks before Christmas, each child sends Santa a letter, enumerating its wishes. The letter is left near the window, so Santa can take it and prepare the requested presents.
The next moment marking the Christmas celebrations is the Ignat, or Saint Ignatius Day, when the long-lasting Christmas tradition of the pig slaughter is carried out. The family’s pigs are sacrificed and their meat is used to prepare traditional specialities like tobă, caltaboș, piftie and homemade sausages. To thank the ones who helped with the pig slaughter, the host serves the pomana porcului, made from fried pieces of meat like liver and bacon. The plate is served outside, after the traces of the pork sacrifice have been cleaned. Never missing from the table is țuică, the traditional Romanian drink.
The Christmas celebration starts on Christmas Eve (Ajunul Crăciunului), December 24, when people decorate the Christmas tree using tingles, Christmas globes, candies, handmade decorations, and small coloured lights while singing Christmas carols. The houses are often decorated with mistletoe, a sign of good luck and wealth.
On Christmas Eve’s evening, cheerful groups of children and young people get out in the streets to sing Christmas carols, telling the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, accompanied by wishes of health, good luck and love. In the villages, they go from house to house and each family rewards them with homemade cakes, fruits, and sometimes money. A special song is the Star Carol, accompanied by a star made of coloured paper, decorated with silver foil, tinsel, bells, and in the middle a picture of baby Jesus or the nativity scene.
If carols might be popular in other countries as well, Romanians have other peculiar rituals. Young people perform the Capra or Ursul, a theatrical show, dressing up like goats or with multicoloured costumes or wearing a bear-like coat, singing and dancing in the streets. The customs are performed from Christmas till New Year’s Eve. The Capra and Ursul performers can be accompanied by a band of dubași, a drumming band of unmarried men.
On December 25 and 26, the whole family gathers to open Santa’s presents left under the tree and to celebrate together around the Christmas table. A whole feast, the multi-course meal includes the entries, mainly the tobă, caltaboș, piftie prepared after the pig slaughter, followed by a soup, a main course and a dessert. If there’s something never missing from a traditional feast that is sarmale, sauerkraut or cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and meat. For dessert, homemade prepared cakes are served, including the delicious Cozonac, a cake filled with cocoa, nuts, or Turkish delight, similar to the Italian panettone.
The celebrations continue until the New Year, when the Plugușorul is performed, part of the carolling tradition. While this time the lyrics are spoken and not sung, the aim is to wish the listeners a fruitful year. A similar ritual is the Sorcova, a tradition of reciting a poem wishing a long life to the hosts. The wish is accompanied by a twig from a fruit tree decorated with paper-made flowers, considered as a magic wand that transmits health, youth and fertility.