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Christmas Traditions in the Hidden Corners of Europe

By Alice Isabella Sullivan

Animal sacrifice is a common holiday tradition among Eastern Europeans and part of the preparation leading up to the winter holidays. To this day, in Romania, pig slaughtering takes place on St. Ignatius Day – observed on December 20 – marking the beginning of the Christmas celebrations.

With roots in antiquity, traditions like this one have a long and sustained history among the Orthodox Christians living in the rural communities of the Carpathian Mountains. For example, the medieval region of Maramureș – extending today over part of northern Romania and western Ukraine – preserves such customs. The culture of the region is unique, and the winter celebration are centuries-old.

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During the Middle Ages, the region fell under the jurisdiction of various powers, including Kievan Rus’. From the eleventh century onward, Maramureș was part of the Hungarian Kingdom. The earliest extant textual mention is preserved in a document from 1199. The territory was politically organized into voivodates – an administrative structure that enabled the leader, the voivode, to serve as the military commander. The voivodates were common in regions of the Balkans and the Carpathians, including the Romanian principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania.

Map of Maramureș, showing how the region is now divided between Romania and Ukraine – Source: Wikimedia Commons

The charm and importance of Christmas among the locals of Maramureș reverberates in the much-anticipated preparations around this holiday. In Romania, Christmas is celebrated on December 25, whereas in Ukraine the festivities take place on January 7, according to the calendar of the Orthodox Church. But in both cases the main celebrations last for several weeks, with family and friend gatherings, traditional food, music, and dance – all part of local customs maintained for generations.

Traditional meat products and textiles from Maramures, Romania – photo by Mihai Lucîț / Wikimedia Commons

Among the Christmas traditions in Maramureș, the cutting of the pig, caroling, and biblical performances stand out. In the days leading up to Christmas, family and friends gather and share in the bounty of their harvest. The animal sacrifice usually takes place in the morning of St. Ignatius Day, and the rest of the day is spent preparing the customary dishes. The pork meat is used for a variety of recipes, including sausages, meatballs, stews, and a portion is also smoked, which better preserves it for the cold winter months ahead. In addition to the pork dishes, the festive Christmas meals also include baked goods, polenta with cheese, stuffed cabbage, piftie, and, of course, the local brandy. This strong drink, known as horincă, is a strong fruit spirit. In Maramureș, this alcoholic beverage is distilled twice so it can reach 65% alcohol by volume. In other parts of Romania, it goes by the name of țuică or palincă. Neighboring countries have similar home-made variants of this strong brandy, knowns generally as rakija, yet with other specific names based on the fruit used.

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The real celebrations begin on Christmas Eve, or the “Holy Evening.” The locals go caroling (colinda; koliadky) – a tradition through which people offer each other good wishes and holiday cheer. On Christmas Eve, earlier in the evening, it is the children who first go from house to house singing songs in praise of Christ’s birth. They often carry a star, symbolic of the star of Christmas or that of Bethlehem. Later in the night, the adults take a turn. Dressed in traditional garb, the carolers gather in groups and visit the homes that leave their lights on and gates open, as symbols of welcome. Following the performance, the carolers usually receive a token of appreciation either in the form of food and drink, or, in recent times, monetary gift. Those who carol and those who welcome the carolers do so in anticipation of a prosperous year ahead.

Similar wishes are spread through the so-called Dance of the Elders (“Jocul Moșilor”). Specific to the Maramureș region, this Christmas tradition follows the caroling. The locals mask up, and carrying bells and whips, walk through the village spreading good wishes for the holiday and the New Year. In fact, the winter celebrations of Maramureș extend beyond Christmas and into the New Year, with households resuming the festivities with gatherings, song, and dance.

In Maramureș, after the evening Mass, a performance unfolds that recreates the biblical story related to Christ’s birth. Called “Viflaimul” in the Romanian language, this theatrical piece takes place in the vicinity of the church and brings to life the story of Christ’s birth and the encounter of the shepherds and the Magi with the Christ Child – events at the core of the Christmas festivities.

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Continued for generations, the Christmas celebrations of Maramureș unfold against the backdrop of a picturesque landscape, in villages with distinct wooden architecture and colorful traditions. The region of Maramureș is renowned for its wooden architecture and textiles. The local craftsmen have refined the practices of building and carving in wood. Monumental wooden gates with intricate geometric and vegetal motifs rise at property entrances of properties, and wooden churches have become a distinguishing feature of local villages, peppered among the oak and fir forests of the Carpathians. Situated at the heart of each village, the churches are entirely constructed out of wood using techniques in use for hundreds of years. They usually contain a porch, a main rectangular nave, a polygonal apse for the altar, and a large steeple-like belltower above. The 14th century Bârsana Monastery is a prime example. Today, eight of the wooden churches from the Maramureș region are included on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites, serving also as popular tourist attractions.

In addition to woodwork, weaving became a staple craft among local communities. Handwoven garments and textiles are found in every household. These are the kinds of garments the locals don on Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, as well as on other feast days and celebratory events throughout the year.

If your future travels ever take you to Romania, be sure to visit the region of Maramureș. Especially around the holidays, the local villages have much to offer. In Sighetu Marmației, the Maramureș Village Museum, inaugurated in 1981, operates as an open-air museum with wooden buildings and architectural projects from across the region, past and present. The Ethnographic Museums in Sighetu Marmației and Baia Mare also keep exquisite local artefacts. Although remote, and maybe even distant to some of our imaginations, the Orthodox communities of Eastern Europe preserve rich Christmas traditions that await discovery.

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Alice Isabella Sullivan is an art historian specializing in the medieval history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the Byzantine-Slavic cultural spheres. She has authored award-winning publications, is co-editor of Byzantium in Eastern European Visual Culture in the Late Middle Ages, and co-founder of North of Byzantium. Follow her on Twitter @AliceISullivan

Attire characteristic of “Jocul Moșilor,” Maremures, Romania. Photo by Bratek51 / Wikimedia Commons

Click here to read more about Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages from Alice Sullivan

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