Winter Holidays Traditions in Transylvania
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
If you are like most people who are considering visiting Transylvania, you are probably Count 🧛-ing (pun intended) the days until Christmas and/or the winter holidays, now that Halloween has passed. And so are we! As we approach the most magical time of the year, we thought it would be nice to explore together with you some of the most exciting and unusual Christmas and winter traditions in Transylvania. A brief intro about the general atmosphere is needed before we begin.
As most Romanians are Greek-Orthodox, one must not be surprised to see that all pagan Halloween-related traditions are pretty much condemned by the older folks in the Transylvanian countryside. People simply don’t get why one would dress as a zombie, magician, corpse, even V-v-v-vampire, or as any other devilish creature. On the other hand, just look at us dressing up for Christmas.
Let’s dig into some Transylvanian winter traditions, some of which are more fantastic than others.
1. Polishing Our Boots for St. Nicholas
One of the oldest traditions that are still kept by everyone in Transylvania (and especially by children) is cleaning and polishing our best pair of boots on the evening of December 5th, right before St. Nicholas Day, and placing them in front of our doorstep.
St. Nicholas is a different figure from Father Christmas in Romanian culture, and he is the first one to bring gifts on the morning of December 6th, when he rewards each boot-owner according to how good they were in the past year. He does so by filling our boots with fruit (typically oranges or apples), sweets, and a decorated stick. This stick is probably the most important one, as the rule is that the naughtier you were, the longer the stick St. Nicholas's stick for you will be. In some areas, young women start baking pies on St. Nicholas day and bake them every day until Christmas Eve.
2. St. Ignatius Pig Sacrifice
This bloody and cruel event takes place usually on December 20th, while most Transylvanians are on a strict fasting diet. The victim, the poor pig, which has been very well fed during the entire year, so that it gets as fat as possible, gets slaughtered (stabbed) on St. Ignatius day, covered in straw, and then roasted. Afterward, the meat is used to prepare lots of pork-based recipes, especially for Christmas and for the following months.
This whole ceremony is starting to lose its popularity, especially due to animal rights concerns and EU regulations, which ask for Romanians to perform the ritual in a way that is kinder to the animal. Traditionally, however, the ceremony itself is reason for celebration, with family, friends and acquaintances gathering to participate at this event, while eating and drinking tuica (or palinca, our local moonshine) together.
3. Christmas Eve Preparations
Every home must be made tidy and all dishes need to be cooked before Christmas day, as any kind of labour on the holy day of Christmas is forbidden, and the day must be welcomed in a purified state. Additionally, here are some of the (unusual) things Transylvanian people do as they prepare for Christmas:
Elders say that placing a horseshoe in a bucket of water on the day before Christmas will bring luck to the home of the people drinking it. The first to drink from it is the head of the family, followed by the family, and then by the cattle. This special water supposedly makes anyone drinking it “strong as iron”. Another thing you can do as a Transylvanian is wash your face with fresh water from a pot in which there was a silver coin placed before.
Shepherds place a big lump of salt under their doorstep, which they later grind and mix with the bran (btw, Bran is also the name for Dracula’s castle) they then use to feed the sheep.
Chimneys get cleaned and the resulting soot is poured at the roots of trees to make them more fruitful in the following year.
Would you be surprised to learn there is a garlic related winter tradition in Transylvania? Well, meet garlic greasing. Stables are greased with garlic on Christmas Eve to chase the “strigoi” and other mean creatures. Some people even grease their cattle with garlic, and it is said if the cattle fall asleep on their left side, this is a sign that the winter will be a long and cold one.
Going beyond Christmas Eve, as a single lady, between Christmas and New Year’s Eve you can find the man you are meant to be with by adding some food to a pot, circling your house with the food pot nine times, and then looking out the window, where you will be seeing your soulmate.
4. Star Carolling
Traditionally, in villages, almost everyone sings carols to everyone else during the winter holidays. The first ones to start their journey singing carols (also in some cities, still) from door to door on Christmas Eve are the children, who usually wear a special kind of cross-body knit bag, called “traista”. Their simple and joyful songs announce the great upcoming event of Christ being born, and in exchange for their carols they are rewarded with apples, nuts, pretzels, and, more recently, money - which are all safely put in the special bag, the “traista”. The tradition asks for the group of carol singers to carry a cardboard or wooden star on a stick, representing the Star of Bethleem, which they start making a few days before Christmas. To be successful, the star must be as shiny and overdressed as possible, with ribbons, glitter etc.
After the children, it’s time for the young people to start carolling and they get rewarded with the same goodies, plus tuica (palinca) which is our traditional moonshine. The last ones to go singing carols are the elders.
Carolling is still a big thing in Romania and Transylvania, in particular. Even in the most modern cities, friends and families still visit each during the winter holidays with the pretext of singing carols so as to bring luck and love in the home of their host. All the singing takes place around the Christmas tree, or at the doorstep. The tradition says that one can knock on another’s door to sing carols, even if they are complete strangers. You must first ask for permission to sing, which implicitly means the host agrees to rewarding you (in cake, fruit or money).
5. The Great Christmas Feast (After the Great Fasting)
Christmas Day in Transylvania is for family and maybe close friends, period. Unlike cities in the US, UK, France or other countries in Western Europe, almost all restaurants and bars are closed on Christmas Day and on the second day of Christmas, so it’s virtually impossible to have an actual Christmas dinner somewhere downtown, unless you are staying in a hotel, pension or B&B, in which case you must expect to get literally stuffed with Romanian Christmas dishes, in what is probably the coziest atmosphere you have ever experienced. This day is all about singing carols around the Christmas tree, eating, drinking, spending time together, going to church, and unwrapping presents brought by Santa Clause.
Most Romanians choose to fast before Christmas, which means that they commit to a mainly vegan diet (with no alcohol either) for a few weeks, starting November 15. You can clearly envision the hit one’s body receives on Christmas day, when all restrictions are removed, especially since pork is a really big deal in Transylvania (remember, we have a whole ritual built around sacrificing the pig)! No wonder some people overdo it.
A typical Romanian Christmas dinner contains: salata de vinete (aubergine salad), zacusca (vegetable spread), jumari (greaves), slanina (smoked lard), carnati afumati (smoked sausages), racituri (pig’s trotters), sarmale (cabbage and meat rolls), mamaliga (polenta), and other specialties from pomana porcului (pork alms), salata de boeuf (beef salad), oua umplute (stuffed boiled eggs) cozonac (sponge cake) or papanasi (cheese dumplings with jam).
6. Minstrel Shows and Mask Rituals
One of the oldest Romanian folklore theatre plays has a total of 20-30 characters and it is called “Irozii” (the plural from “Herod” - the biblical figure). The play is centered on Herod the Great and the Massacre of the Innocents, which is an episode also mentioned in the Holy Bible. This ministrel show is put together in villages (and in cities, still - in schools for example). During the Christmas holiday you can see people dressed colourfully as nativity figures such as Mary-Mother, Joseph, Herod, the Angel, the Shepherds, the Wise Men, but also as Death, the Devil, soldiers etc. Depending on the size of the group, anyone can find their role in this minstrel play, and the show is put on repeatedly during the season.
Going back to the somewhat terrifying masks some Romanians, including Transylvanians, wear for the winter mask rituals, they are generally made out of wood and leather, and they are used in dances and pagan customs which are thousands of years old. The characters in these ancient rituals represent either powerful animal spirits (the Bear, the Horse, the Goat etc.) or the spirits of long-gone ancestors, as they visit us to bless the next season with fertility and youth. The mask rituals, containing costumes, wild dancing, verses, singing and screaming , can also be seen as a way to achieve purification, while allowing the person under the mask to be anonymous and relieve any inner tension through play. Another purpose is to mark the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new one, through rebirth or cosmic transformation.
7. New Year and New Year’s Eve: Sorcova and the Goat Dance
New Year’s Eve is a reason for great celebration and for organising a feast similar to the one on Christmas. This time, in families the meal is more simplistic, and Transylvanian cities are in line with other European cities, with lots of parties going on, as there isn’t much religious connection to the day.
However, a nice tradition some people still keep in their homes is to place on the table 12 plates hiding various objects, with young men and women taking turns in flipping over the plates to see what their future will look like. For example, finding a mirror means that you will be proud, finding a lump of bread means that you will be rich, finding a pencil means that you will be respected etc.
Speaking of customs specific to these days, the first ones to come to mind are Capra (the Goat dance) and Sorcova.
Capra (The Goat Dance) is a centuries-old dance groups of young people engage in on New Year’s day. Essentially, a young man gets dressed as a goat, wearing a goat mask (which allows for making rhythmic sounds by clapping the goat’s jaw) and a colourful sheepskin coat. He is accompanied by others who sing and play various loud (sometimes improvised) instruments the Goat dances to. The goal for the assembly is to go door to door and bless all the families, while being rewarded with money and goodies. This tradition is still preserved, even in the big cities in Transylvania.
Sorcova is an ancient custom reserved for children on the first day in January. Children use the “sorcova”, which is a colourfully decorated stick acting as a magic wand, to bless their families and acquaintances while wishing them the best of luck in the new year. There is a special rhythmic text that need to be uttered while the special wand is oriented towards the receiver of the blessing. The verses are especially powerful, resembling a spell:
Sorcova, the merry,
(You plural)To live, (you plural)to grow old
Like a pear(tree), like an apple(tree),
Like a rose,
Hard like the rock,
Fast like the arrow,
Stiff like iron,
Strong like steel,
Happy new year!
We hope you enjoyed this journey through our Transylvanian winter traditions.