Saturday, 7 December 2013

Saint Nicholas

As in every other beginning of winter, on the night of 5 of December, Saint Nicholas comes bringing with him the first snow.

In the evening, children take out their best shoes or boots. Every piece of dirt is removed and the leather is shined to the lustre of the mirror. There is laughter, but also, in the cold winter night, there is a slight nervousness in the air, because Saint Nicholas, unlike his older brother Santa Claus, rewards as much as he punishes.

As a child, when you display your shined boots in a neat line close to the door, for Saint Nicholas does not like to be seen and needs quick access to leave the gists, you wonder. Have I beed good enough, kids enough to get a gift? Or have I beed naughty and mean, with the result of getting a stick instead of a present? Did the adults around me gave a good report to Saint Nicholas? And if the old man Nicholas is displeased with me, will he later go to Santa and tell him I deserve no gifts?

You sit there, nervously looking at your boots, and your mind flies over the previous year. You remember the times you have been good and kids, and you also remember those times when you spoke in anger or did not listen to your parents, and in your little head, you try to put it all on the balance. You finally go to bed and make a little quiet promise that next year you will be a better person, a better sibling and friend, you will listen more and help more.

And early in the morning, as the first light appears, you run with excitement to your boots. Sometimes the first thing you see is a straight, long stick and your heart freezes. And yet you go closer, and in your boots are sweets and games, or maybe something you wished for, and you smile. The stick is a quiet reminder of the times when you have not been as good as you could, the presents a joyful recognition of your good deeds.

In the Romanian tradition, Saint Nicholas is Santa Claus younger brother. Unlike Santa's joyful laughter and roundness, Saint Nicholas is skinny and moody, happy to reward as much as he is to punish. He does not like to be seen and promises of change do not sway him. And yet, children love him equally as much as they fear him.

Older boys, on the verge of maturity, on this night start practicing the carols that will be sung on Christmas and New Year, while young unmarried girls will eat a piece of bread with lots of salt so in the night, when the thirst becomes unbearable they can dream of a man that gives them water, indicating he is the one that they will marry.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sangiorz or a Holiday of Spring

Sangiorz or St. George is one of the biggest holidays in today's Romania. And yet, beyond it's Christian overtone, the holiday maintains its ancestral, pagan character.

Like many other Romanian holidays, Sangiorz starts the previous night, on 22nd of April. The popular tradition says that in this night, witches and female ghosts, naked and with their hair falling free down their back, meet on the borders of the villages in groups of thirteen. The borders between villages become metaphorical borders between countries and the groups of witches start to battle. The winners receive the rain, which will fall over the fields, bringing with it abundance and joy. The unfortunate losers take with them the draught. 

It is said that those who can not sleep in this night, can still hear the female ghosts singing at the crossroads and the men are absolutely forbidden to leave their houses without covering their hair. If they don't wear a hat, the female ghosts will put reins around their heads, making the men into their horses. Without a choice, pulled by his hair, the man has to run wherever the ghost orders.

In this fantastic night, the ghosts are scared of loud noises. This is why, the young men of the village play the alphorn and the pipe, while the children hit copper pots and scream, trying to banish the ghosts.
To banish the witches that fly freely in this night, the peasants sprinkle new or chanted water all over their possessions after which they sprinkle one another.  The windows and the doors are oiled with garlic and herbs are put in big pots, filed with water and left outside overnight. In the morning, the herbs are chopped and fed to the cows with salt and oats.

The tradition says that whoever walks in the grass in the morning, before the sun rises, when the dew is at its richest, will be blessed with beauty and good health due to the fact that the skies open to allow the trees to bloom.

Still yet on this eve, the young, unmarried men of the village, light the life fire by rubbing a pieces of soft dry wood into a pieces of hard wood. While the purpose of the life fire is to bring blessings and good luck to the entire village, the young man that crates the first spark is considered blessed more then any other. Chanting magical formulas, person by person jumps over the fire. The ashes of this life fire are mixed with plants and herbs by the old wise women, in order to create medicines for skin problems.

The legend says that in this night, fires can be seen over the places where ancestral treasures are buried.

In the morning, in order to earn blessings of health, young and old alike would wash in a river or a spring. Young girls hold basil and wheat grains in their mouths to be blessed with growing tall and willowy.

The rubbish collected durring the Sangiorz day is put at the roots of fruit trees.

From a group of unmarried men, one man is chosen to play th role of the god. The birth of the spring od, Sangiorz, is symbolised by dressing the chosen young man in plants and small branches of trees. A cap is made out of the bark of a wild cherry and a wood rod, decorated with young tree branches is given to the young god to wear. The other young men carry with then pipes and alphorns. In the morning, the young men and the chosen god start walking through the streets of the village, singing and playing their instruments. In the yards, the Sangiorz god dances and tries to hug the women, while hitting the man with fresh nettles and protecting himself from being hit with water. If a man manages to wet the Sangiorz god, it is a bad omen of poor harvests for that person. The entire group of young men receives as gifts eggs, wine and meat. Once the Sangiorz god had dances in every yard of the village, the man is undressed from his clothes made out of plants and branches and is thrown in a river or a spring, suggesting the passage of time and the god getting old and passing from this world. The "clothes" are ritualistically buried. The entire ritual has positive magical valences. Blessings are rained over the village, the harvests are assured to be plentiful, good luck and health are given to everyone.