While much of the civilized world celebrate ancient Christmas traditions, it wasn’t always so in Romania, a country once shackled to the now-defunct Soviet Union. Prior to the country’s break from the communist-led Soviet bloc, Romanian residents were forced to abandon – or at least submerge – many of their Christmas traditions.
It has been 15 years since Romania regained its independence, and its citizens are once again filling the Christmas season with joyous celebrations. Young adults are now experiencing the Yuletide traditions they previously heard their parents and grandparents discuss. Christmas – called “Craciun” in Romania – is once again alive and well.
Unlike many Americans, Romanians do not open gifts on Christmas morning. Instead, gift exchanges take place on Christmas Eve. Therefore, Romanian children do not leave milk and cookies out for Santa Claus – “Mos Craciun” – to consume on the night of December 24. And while children in the U.S. typically ask for video games and electronics, those in Romania live with a harsher economic reality.
Romania is a tale of two classes. The urban population is typically much more affluent than the rural population. In the cities, some children will receive expensive gifts and money. In the villages, however, kids often receive sweets, fruit, nuts, and pastries as Christmas gifts. A common and popular gift is knot-shaped bread, which, in Romania, symbolizes an abundant harvest.
The sacrifice of a family’s pig is customary in rural villages. Often grown to around 300 pounds, the pig’s throat is cut in the back yard and the pork’s hair is burned. After this, a small portion of meat is immediately fried. That meat is then shared with friends and neighbors, along with plum brandy. This ceremony may seem barbaric in the U.S., but it is performed to ensure the soul of the pig – which will provide the family with nourishment – receives ample gratitude.
All the women in a family cook for three days leading up to Craciun. On Christmas Eve fir trees are decorated. Groups go door-to-door singing carols and churches present concerts. Carolers are abundant. School children make large stars out of glossy paper and light them from within. They carry the illuminated star with them from house to house, singing carols such as Steaua (“The Star”), Trei Pastori (“The Three Shepherds”) and Mos Craciun (“Santa Claus”). Young children begin the singing, then the caroling is taken over by adolescents and then, finally (often after midnight), the adults join in. At each house, carolers are given apples, nuts, traditional cakes (“cozonaci”) and sometimes even money as a reward for their efforts.
Christmas dinner is a rich, multi-course meal. Several types of pork sausages are tabled, and plum brandy, along with home made pickles, are requisite. “Sarmale” then follows. This dish consists of pickled cabbage leaves stuffed with a combination of pork and beef, along with rice, pepper, thyme and other spices. It is boiled slowly for hours and is paired with polenta. That dish is followed by roasted pork and turkey with red wine. The wine is consumed to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The meal ends with cozonaci, which is a cake with nuts and raisins. The entire extended family – children, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins – gather around the table to enjoy the feast together.
Though Romanian Craciun differs from a traditional American Christmas, it’s easy to see the similarities as well: it’s a magical time filled with celebrations, family and generosity.