Holiday events stir Romania's Maramures, Moldavia regions


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 northeast.

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? The New Year's dance of the caiuti(horsemen) in the Romanian village of Vorona. 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 monasteries.

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 women in the Maramures region coax coarse wool into spindles. 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 front.

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 land.

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 sound.

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 Year's toast.

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.

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