SIGHETUL MARMATIEI, Romania -- While centuries-old customs can be
observed at festivals and in the day-to-day life of villages around
this country, nowhere are they more vibrant than in the regions of
Maramures and Moldavia, situated, respectively, in the northwest
And no time is better to experience traditional Romanian culture
than between Christmas and New Year's, since this is the period
during which festivals are the most widespread.
What can winter visitors expect to see?
First, a landscape many consider to be the country's most
beautiful, made even more magical with snow highlighting mountains
thick with fir trees; the carved wood of Maramures' homes and
churches, and the exterior frescoes of Moldavia's painted
Horses and oxen pull wooden sleighs instead of the usual wagons
and carts. While the main cargo remains logs or supplies, most
drivers are happy enough to have a tourist hop aboard.
To brave the cold, when flori de gheata (ice flowers) form
patterns on windows, villagers don thick woolen jackets, typically
white trimmed in black, high boots and peaked hats of curly black
wool. On somewhat milder days, traditional vests will do -- richly
embroidered and fur-trimmed in Moldavia, heavily embroidered or
tasseled in Maramures. Thick socks reach halfway up legs, but some
older women refuse to exchange their opinci (a sort of pointy
leather ballet slipper with yarn crisscrossing over the socks) for
more weather-protective boots.
Weeks before Christmas, children painstakingly clean their boots
in hopes that Mos Craciun (the Romanian Santa Claus) will fill them
with small gifts on Dec. 6, St. Nicolas Day.
St. Ignatius Day, Dec. 20, heralds in a series of feasts when
already heavily laden Romanian tables are weighed down even
further. Moldavians say a man is not a good peasant unless he
slaughters a pig and fills barrels with wine for the holidays.
For several days before Christmas, groups of children, carrying
tall crepe-paper stars, carol through the streets, in cafes and
even the Bucharest metro.
On Dec. 24, carolers go house to house, where they are rewarded
with money, fruit, pastries and knot-shaped bread. The latter
symbolizes abundance and rich harvests.
Romanian hospitality being what it is, joining a family on this day
is far from a rare event for visitors. As a client on a Craft World
Tours' trip to Maramures put it, "Everywhere we wandered, we were
pulled off the street by people who insisted we join them in
whatever they had -- usually soup, bread, sausages and many toasts
of homemade brandy."
The annual spectacle that I attended on New Year's Day in the
Moldavian village of Vorona, a 45-minute drive from the city of
Suceava, is typical. By midmorning, locals gathered in front of the
town hall. The few tourists were invariably coaxed to the
First, a choir of schoolgirls sang old carols. Winter jackets
did not completely hide their embroidered blouses, flowered belts,
colorful hand-woven bags and long skirts, unique to the region.
Red-cheeked faces were framed by head scarves.
This rather idyllic scene gave way to whistles and shouts as
young men took over for a spirited dance of the caiuti (horses).
White-cloth horse heads, colorfully decorated, were attached to the
dancers' waists for this snappy, boot-slapping number. In older
days, white horses were thought to be messengers bringing life and
luck. The horse dance signifies the continuing bond between farmers
and the animals that pull their wagons and aid in working the
Another New Year's staple in Vorona and other towns in the
region is the capra (goat) performance, though the animal
represented is hardly identifiable due to the ribbons, towering
headdress and other adornments almost obscuring the wooden head. A
long pole attached to the base can be manipulated to open and close
the capra's mouth, delighting the crowd with its clacking
The goat dance once foretold an increase in shepherds' flocks
plus abundant crops in the coming year. Today's antics are
lighthearted, with satirical references to the manners and morals
of the villagers.
Another crowd-pleaser is the dance of the bears (the two-legged
costumed variety), performed to the beat of a tambourine-type drum.
Indeed, bears do still inhabit sections of Romania's Carpathian
Mountains, and this ancient rite symbolizes the power of people to
tame nature. After the bear lies dead on the ground, a Gypsy woman
(often portrayed by a man) dances around the beast, bringing it
back to a gentler life.
From time to time, masked figures run about, banging anything
that makes noise, to frighten away any bad spirits that might have
slipped in, another reference to premodern times when people
believed that spirits of the deceased wandered the Earth between
Christmas Eve and Jan. 6.
After youthful orators offered rhyming chants of welcome and
wishes for the coming year, the mayor of Vorona presented round,
braided loaves of bread to participants.
Conspicuous as a foreigner, I, too, was offered a loaf, after
which my friends and I were ushered to the mayor's office for a New
Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, groups of
children, disguised as bears, horsemen or Gypsies, made the rounds
of neighborhoods. Announcing themselves with a jangling bell, they
touched all adults with a flower-adorned stick while chanting a
verse invoking them to be "strong as stone, quick as an arrow,
strong as iron and steel."
Travelers can find more glamorous ways to ring in the New Year,
but the Romanian village celebrations' joining of past and present
makes them a wonderful tribute to the next millennium.