Romanian winter traditions

Christmas fair in Sibiu, Romania

Romanian winter traditions

It starts looking a lot like Christmas right around December 6th in Romania. On the night before St Nicholas’ Day, all the children polish their boots in the hopes that St Nicholas will visit them and drop some candy and sometimes toys too in the boots.

St Nicholas morning (December 6th)

Kids who clean their boots on the night before St Nicholas will get sweets and toys.

Except for the sweets on St Nicholas Day, Romanian people are observing the Christmas lent which usually lasts from mid November until Christmas Eve. That means they give up meat, dairy, and eggs. Unlike Easter Lent, Romanians are significantly less strict about the lent in the days immediately before Christmas.

The next important day for the winter traditions is St Ignatius on December 20th. Ignat is a black day for pigs. Romanians love to eat pork during the winter holidays and they have a whole tradition around the slaughtering of the pig at Ignat. If the lambs sacrifice at Easter is utterly useless and cruel, the pig sacrifice has some sort of utility. Romanians rely on their own resources to prepare for the winter. For instance they chose to pickle, cook fruit preserves, store vegetable and meat in the fridge or basement over buying all that stuff from the market. It’s the same thing with pork meat. They raise and feed the pig for an entire year and sacrifice the poor guy at Ignat. After they slaughter the pig with a swift knife cut of the jugular, they start preparing the meat for storage. If I am to choose between pork meat from factory farms and the one coming from Ignat, I’d chose the lesser evil. Another thing to notice is that this a tradition that happens in the country side only and for the most part people try to minimize the pain and panic of the pig. Unfortunately this is not a regulated practice so there are some bad apples out there who taunt the pig before slaughter. If you feel brave watch this video of a traditional Ignat pig slaughter:

The week before Christmas women prepare the home for the holidays. They clean the house throughly and they make tons of food and sweets. The Christmas feast is the most decadent feast conceived by Romanian people. If you decide to visit a Romanian family during Christmas make sure you have loose pants and extra holes in the belt.

Traditional dishes include sarmale (pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with pork meat and a little bit or rice), salata boeuf (a mix of boiled carrots, boiled celery root, boiled parsnip, potatoes boiled in skin and peeled, pickled cucumbers, pickled bell peppers, boiled chicken breast, lots of mayo and creative decorations made of hard boiled eggs, olives, and parsley leaves), ciorba de perisoare (meatballs soup), a myriad pork sausage specialties, meatballs, varza calita (cooked pickled cabbage, racituri (pork jelly), pork roast, tochitura (mix of pork meat, eggs, cheese served with polenta), deviled eggs, etc.

Christmas feast in Romania

Christmas feast in Romania

Then there are the sweets with chief among them cozonac (sponge cake), chec (marble cake and it’s pronounced keck), turta de julfa (vegan layered cake made with hemp seeds and walnuts), and a wide variaty of cakes, cookies, and pastries that prove Romanian’s cooks creativity. Oranges are a staple of Christmas and I have to admit that everytime I smell oranges I think of Christmas. The explanation is that back in communist times the poor people (the vast majority of the population and me among them) were enjoying oranges only at Chrismas.

Last, but not the least, the drinks. Tuica, palinca, rachiu, unaged wine, aged wine, and all the western drinks such as whiskey are served. It is mainly the guys who drink. Traditionally women don’t drink, but with the new generation, that traditions disappears slowly but surely. Here’s this funny article that describes perfectly the drinking habits of Romanians.



Tuica and palinca made of fermented plums

On Christmas Eve there’s the tree decorating. Kids enthusiastically anticipate the tree decoration and they love taking their time to create the prettiest trees ever. Parents stand close by to assist if needed. Unlike other countries, most Romanians don’t decorate the tree before Christmas Eve. It goes without saying that the kids try to stay awake until the wee hours of the morning to catch a glimpse of Father Christmas.

On Christmas morning kids run to the tree to see what gifts they’ve got. Sadly with the poor economy in Romania, less and less kids get Christmas gifts.

The Little Match Girl

The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen tends to be popular around Christmas

There are also a lot of jokes around Mos Craciun (Father Christmas or Santa Claus) versus Mos Gerila (Father Frost). Before 1989 when the country was still under communist regime, people were not allowed to observe any religion, however it was impossible to make people forget about Christmas, so they invented Father Frost to replace Father Christmas.

On Christmas there’s caroling. Kids are going from door to door and sing carols. If they sing you carols you’re supposed to give them money or sweets.

Romanian carolers

Romanian carolers in the country side

Between Christmas and new year’s (and especially on new year’s eve day), kids and adults alike go from door to door and sing “Plugusorul” (The Little Plow), dance “Capra” and “Ursul” (“The Goat” and “The Bear”) and wish the host a prosperous new year. The host is supposed to treat them with wine, food and of course money. When you were done singing plugusorul for everybody, you were very happy from all that wine. The tradition requires for the young people to visit their god parents and older relatives to wish them prosperity, good health and happiness.

Nowadays very few people go from door to door.
However people from every village surrounding Bacau gather and go to the city and basically there is an impromptu street performance (similar to the carnival in Brazil, but very, very different) of all these singers and dancers.
The way they sing, perform and dress reminds me of my childhood when I was spending almost every Christmas and New Year with my cousins.

I don’t know if this sort of street performance happens in every city in Romania, but in Bacau it sort of became a tradition every New Year.

On the morning of January 1st, all the kids go to every house to sing Sorcova. Every kid decorates a “sorcova” and uses it to bless the host. Imagine the adults hung over after partying all night trying to understand the words of “Sorcova”. Now’s the time for kids to get paid very well for singing sorcova. Here’s a little girl singing Sorcova.

Last, but not the least, there’s “Boboteaza” on January 6th. People again prepare glorious meals and go to church to get blessed for the new year. Orthodox priests go door to door to hallow people’s houses and apartments. If you are a proper orthodox you welcome the priest in your house, treat him to the best food, kiss his hand, and give him a tip (the more consistent the tip, the better standing you will have in the community). The word Boboteaza is derived from “botez”, meaning “baptizing”. This is the day when Jesus Christ was baptized according to the orthodox religion. The superstition goes that maidens will dream about their chosen one. On this day the Christmas tree comes down and everything gets back to the boring normal way of life.

Orthodox priest blessing a home at Boboteaza

Orthodox priest blessing a home at Boboteaza. If all the priests would use this occasion to urge people to show more compassion toward animals, Romania would be a much better place. Alas, their main preoccupation is to get more money.

Daniela Popescu