Last Updated 05/07/2021.
I miss it so much, our village in the far north of Romania. We spent 3 wonderful Christmases there surrounded by winter and Christmas festivities and traditions. We were tourists or expats, barely able to speak the language and with no grasp at all of Romanian Christmas traditions, but we were there to take photos and to show you what life in Romania was like in the depth of winter. Of all the countries we’ve visited, Romania is the one that touched us most and it’s still where we want to be.
I can’t speak for Romanian Christmas traditions throughout the country, I doubt many people will be dancing in bells and bearskin on the streets of Bucharest, but this is what Christmas looked like for us, every year, in the village where time stood still.
Apologies if I get anything wrong, this post is based on our observations and what we saw of life in Romania at Christmas time and the deepest of winter. It is not aiming to be a factual guide but I did fact check a few things with my friend in Romania, so those bits are correct. I had too many questions to bug her with all of them.
Also, there are a lot of photos in this post, all are for you to save to Pinterest, please be patient if loading is slow. I hope you enjoy this, I put this together for me, to take a walk down memory lane. The more I wrote, the more photos I looked at, the more I wanted to be back in Romania this Christmas. Maybe next year.
Christmas in Romania
Our video contains pictures and video from our experiences of Romanian Christmas traditions, and spending Christmas in Romania for several years.
The bearskins of Romania are in decline. These skins are family heirlooms but over the years many have been sold and the tradition lost. Bear dancers and mass gatherings of bearskin-wearing people are pretty normal in Romania and one of the more famous Romanian Christmas traditions.
I only ever saw one or two around our local villages in Maramures, but if you’re looking for bearskins en masse, Moldova in the east of Romania is famous for this. The tradition is to chase away evil spirits. The video below isn’t mine, but I thought you’d be interested. for the new year. Unfortunately the owner of the video removed it from YouTube, sorry about that!
There are still plenty of European brown bears in Romania, they were there on the mountain behind us, along with wolves. The Romanian sheepdogs, huge shaggy beasts, would wear spiked tin collars to help defend themselves should they have to see off a bear or wolf from their flocks. If you want to see bears in Romania you have a slim chance of seeing wild ones if you know where to go.
Around Brasov, they’re known to come down to the town’s bins. There is also the Libearty bear sanctuary near Brasov which homes bears rescued from captivity. Our only near bear encounter was in eastern Transylvania, walking in the woods. Our bear story is here.
The Romanian Christmas Tradition of People Wearing Cow Bells
You will find, all over Maramures in traditional areas, a bunch of guys absolutely covered in cowbells, the bigger the better, jumping up and down and running around the streets or village lanes making an unholy racket. It’s wonderful but loud.
Again, I had to fact-check this with a Romanian friend (thanks Iulia!) and it seems that this tradition goes back to the days of Vlad Tepes and the Turkish invaders (Vlad being Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Impaler – see our post on Dracula in Romania here). The villagers didn’t have weapons, although I imagine they’d do some damage with scythes and pitchforks, so they made as much noise as possible to scare the invading Turks away. And that is why, at Christmas in Romania, the bells don’t so much jingle as clang.
I have loads more photos of the bell dudes and their outfits. If you wait for our post on the Marmatia, I’ll put them in there.
Whip Cracking and Crackers
To continue the theme of making lots of noise, there would also be an outbreak of whip cracking and crackers or bangers around the village. Young men in winter costumes wandering around, just having fun I guess, traditional fun. Or maybe, keeping a tradition alive that IS fun. It will be in in the video for this post when D ( my teen) returns from his volunteer work to make it, he’s in charge of video on our travel blog.
The Capra, the goat, The Capra made rounds of the village around Christmas time visiting houses. The man being the goat had a fiendish-looking goat head on a pole, its jaw hanging loose. He was covered in sheepskins and ribbons and jumped and danced his way from house to house with an entourage. I’ve heard that The Capra is a tradition found throughout Romania and that the Capra could visit on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve.
This is very similar to a tradition we have in Wales, Mari Lwyd, which involves a horses skull. I wonder if they share origins?
The Priest’s Visit
Like the Capra, the Priest will also do his rounds at Christmas. He comes to bless homes and receive a donation to the church complete with swinging incense and priestly standards.
The Christmas Play – Viflaim
The traditional Romanian Christmas play mostly found in Maramures remains a mystery to me. Viflaim means Bethlehem and it is a retelling of the Christmas story, but with some pre-Christian touches. It seems to feature Mary ( played by a boy dressed as a female villager), a carpenter, an Orthodox priest, what could be the 3 wise men, a policeman, a soldier and then there are some sheep/demon/angel/ devil characters that totally bewildered me. I’ve watched it several times and we have video to share – it’s a fantastic nativity with extra Romania bells and whistles – literally.
Romanian Christmas Markets
Yes, Romania has Christmas markets and those that we saw were very similar to those you’ll find throughout Europe. Expect chimney cake, mulled wine, mici ( Romanian skinless sausages, serve with bread and gallons of mustard), and plenty more food and drink offerings along with local crafts, particularly wood crafts and embroidery. It will be cold, wrap up warm! We visited Christmas markets in Sighetu Marmatei, Baia Mare and Cluj Napoca during our time in Romania.
There were a couple of small outdoor ice rinks nearby of the sort you see in most European cities in winter. There was one at the Baia Mare Christmas market last time we visited, so all the usual Christmas treats my kids enjoyed, still happened for us up in Maramures.
Yay for skiing! We skied throughout the Christmas period with the slopes getting super busy on weekends and during school holidays. Most of our traditional villagers didn’t ski, but people would come from nearby towns to enjoy the ski slopes at Cavnic. just 15 minutes from our village. The boys had private lessons a few times and are both now proficient skiers.
I could write about this all day, it was just spectacular, bizarre, fun and fascinating. The Marmatia was a Christmas festival held just a day or two after Christmas in Sighetu Marmatei, our nearest town. I still don’t really understand what it was all about but it seemed to be a festival of Christmas or Winter traditions, with teams from local villages and regions parading and singing in various costumes and showcasing a diversity of Romanian traditional goings-on that a non-Romanian like me could never understand. But we loved it. This needs its own post, I have so many photographs each one more interesting than the next.
The carol singers in the village came every night for weeks. Parties of children from tots to teens, each wanting a 1 Lei note for their troubles. In our part of Romania they tend not to knock on doors so quite often we’d suddenly find our warm kitchen invaded by a party of carolers. It was lovely. They sang in Romanian of course and we didn’t know any of the songs, but we were so glad they came. Sometimes they’d bring us gifts of cakes and sometimes we’d give the kids sweets, I think we did it right. We most certainly know how to say happy Christmas in Romanian.
How to Say Happy Christmas in Romanian?
Criacun Fericit! With various punctuation marks, but I don’t know how to do them on my keyboard.
Christmas Foods in Romania
All of the foods in the village are very traditional and very home produced and at Christmas that doesn’t change much. Mandarins and fruit jelly sweets would be massively popular at Christmas time, the supermarkets would be overflowing with them. Then there was Russian salad made with bottled peas – bottled peas and my secret vice I love them. Our landlords would always give us very sweet, very light cakes with thick frosting at Christmas. I don’t think these were homemade but I could be wrong. It’s very unusual to see foods that aren’t homemade around the village. I’ve had to check with a Romanian friend to be able to tell you that the local Christmas meal usually consists of soup ( sup), sarmale ( pork-filled cabbage rolls- they are absolutely delicious) homemade bread, salads and cold meats and it is eaten on Christmas Eve at midnight as a family.
For weeks before Christmas, the pigs would be dispatched. It wasn’t done all on one day, as I’ve read elsewhere, but strung out over weeks, a few every day. The piglets that had been raised in barns and paddocks were ready to feed their families. I don’t think it’s extra cruel, I don’t think it’s wrong. One pig to feed a family, with every scrap used is way different to plastic-wrapped, commercially reared factory animals bred in vast numbers to be consumed in excess. I cried when my friend Happy Pig took a knife to the throat. I could see and hear everything from my kitchen window, but this is the way of sustainable farming and I saw Happy Pig smiling and kicking up his heels every evening of his short life in the paddock opposite. He’d had a better life than any factory animal and the old lady cared for him well.
Do you need the details? It’s back yard butchery, we watched it done many times. I have photos of the whole procedure, but I doubt you’ll want to see them. We had a post with all the graphic details on our old site – Simple Life Romania – if you want to see it I can republish on this site for you. Give me a yes please in the comments. The pig above was at the farmer’s market in spring. It’s skillful and they waste nothing. The skin and fat is stripped in one piece for ” bacon” – slanina , in Romania, it’s actually pig fat. The whole family would join in and get the animal dealt with fast. My kids have watched too, they still it meat sometimes, I have vegan tendencies.
Church – Midnight Mass
The whole village, it seemed, would struggle down the steep hills of the village where ice lay thick for months, to welcome Christ into the world. The young women would do it in extraordinarily high heels, they’re super skilled at this. But when?
They were certainly out in force on Christmas morning. Timings varied, we were told they’d go for midnight mass but we went and nobody was there.
Our village was heavily Orthodox with a few Catholics. Checking with my Romanian friend, she tells me that families celebrate their Christmas meal at midnight, so no wonder nobody was at church.
At Easter we attended the Orthodox Easter midnight mass, which is when the photo above was taken. We foreigners could stand on the balcony overlooking the gold and headscarves of the church below and we were always welcomed and invited to attend by our local friends and neighbours in the village. Quite a thing to see with everyone in traditional winter finery.
Surviving the Cold
In winter we and many families in traditional homes would more or less live in one room. In our house we had a wood stove in the kitchen which we tried to keep burning around the clock. On Christmas day we’d also light the stove in the bedroom, but that was rare, it was smokey and inefficient.
All four of us shared that second big room for sleeping, it got down to around zero at night but we weren’t cold tucked under duvets and blankets. Always wear a wooly hat in bed, that’s my top tip for sleeping in cold climates and it stood us in good stead for Everest Base Camp.
Many of the old people had their winter cooking stove in their bedrooms for winter. Insulation in those wood and mud houses is pretty good, they even had rustic double glazing, but trying to keep an inside toilet and shower from freezing was hard work and pipes inevitably froze in early January.
Salt in the cistern and toilet pan helped hold the ice back for a while. Our outside toilet served us well throughout winter and it’s a much more sensible thing to have in such a cold climate. Washing ourselves didn’t happen much, showers, not at all, but I managed to keep my washing machine from freezing right through winter and it worked when the water flowed.
After the worst of the big freeze passed we needed to crank up every heater we had and use cauldrons of boiled water from the stove to get the shower room warm enough for bathing. We could always boil ice or snow in very cold times. We broke a hole in the ice on the stream once to get water for flushing.
Winter Clothing in Romania
Winter clothing in our corner of Romania is some of the most fascinating you will ever see. It’s hugely regional, with different villages having trademark outfits and sometimes you can see influences from India or Rome.
The gypsies came from India, possibly Rajasthan, the Romans ruled here long ago. The Romanians have hot-blooded Italian ancestry and you’ll see a statue of Romulus and Remus in each town. Once you know, you’ll see the Indian influences in the gypsy women’s clothing. But the winter clothes around the village revolved around sheep, they would never have survived without wool and skins.
New Year’s Eve Parties and Fireworks
We would see in the New Year normally around a campfire at The Village Hotel Breb. There would be a pot of goulash bubbling over the flames, free-flowing alcohol and the village band playing for a while.
Georghe from the shop would be hitting his percussion instruments with a screwdriver as always and we’d have at least one fiddler playing. People would dance traditional folk dances and take shots of tuica to keep out the cold. The band was busy doing the rounds on that night so they couldn’t stay long.
It always seemed that New Year’s Eve was the coldest night of the year, touching -20C and we’d be wrapped up in ski gear with thick snow on the ground. We never had fireworks. Fireworks were pretty much illegal locally but the gypsies could get them. The police would remove them from the gypsies and they’d find their way into circulation somehow. As the champagne corks popped at midnight we’d always hear a few fireworks in the distance as we sipped our bubbly slushies.
How Did We Spend Christmas in Romania?
We had a traditional British Christmas in Romania, as expats often do, we kept our own winter traditions. For us, that meant presents under the tree and Santa magically calling, eager children unwrapping gifts as we fed the fire before dawn.
We had a happy day of roasting a turkey and all the trimmings in the woodstove while pots bubbled and simmered on top for hours. We’d have Christmas lunch, enjoy our new gifts, walk in the snow and hopefully see friends.
Then we’d be back to the serious business of skiing and tobogganing. These are our best Christmases ever. White Christmases, real, non-commercial, in touch with each other and filled with snow, wonder and twinkling lights. Great memories.
How about you, what are your best Christmas memories or favourite traditions? They vary enormously around the world. Would you like to experience these rich Romanian Christmas traditions? This week we’re travelling again, keep an eye on Facebook or Instagram for updates from my dream destination in Asia.