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Global Correspondent Report

 

 

 Cristian Mocanu

Report from Romania

14 December, 2006

Winter In Deva

As I stroll on the streets of Deva, the town where I was born and raised, I wonder on how to write about Romanian winter in a nutshell. It’s just too complicated…It’s just too little known to the outside world to keep it short. 

Also: am I the qualified person to do it? A disabled person who never descended Dealul Paiului (Straw Hill) in a luge to see how it feels, and was never involved in a snow fight? A Latin rite Catholic immersed in an Orthodox environment and whose Advent and Christmas seasons are somewhat differently rhythmed?

Still, upon approaching the Magna Curia (the palace from which Transylvania was ruled for much of the 17th century, and whence its Protestant prince went off to sign the peace of Westphalia to end the 30 year war) I meet the carolers. They sing with all their might:

“O how wonderful news
is shown to us from Bethlehem…”

to remind me we still have many things in common (those carols for instance) and that I must give it a try…

Winter in Deva can be harsh, sometimes, but more often than not, the mountains all around us keep us safe from extreme heat and extreme cold. Still I would find winter rather hard to bear if it weren’t for the holidays.

Commonly, the starting point of those holidays is St. Nicholas’ Day (Dec.6th ). St. Nicholas, here, is not disguised as “Santa Claus” to come on Christmas Eve, he leaves that to Father Christmas: as for himself, he comes on his calendar day leaving gifts so small as to fit in the shoes children leave on the window—sill. He also sometimes leaves a little rod for naughty kids as a warning; they’ll have to improve their attitude till Christmas when Father Christmas will have more space (under the tree) even for a toy train, if the child behaves and the family budget can afford it.

In the City Park, another group of carolers sings, rather incongruously, to a small public:

“Will you, or won’t you give us,
some bacon or some sausage”

Romanian carolers never trick but always ask for treats. Fail to comply and you’ll be “ostracised” for the rest of the year as the local equivalent of Mr. Scrooge. Although the treat is mostly none of the above, but fruit or brezels. But that reminds me:

The actual Christmas kick—off is traditionally Dec.21st , when the Orthodox remember St. Ignatius of Antioch, the 2nd century martyr. This is the day pigs are slaughtered. Pork is a staple food and all those who possibly can keep pigs even in urban areas. (15 years of more or less normal market economy have done nothing to dispel the fear Romanians have of starving at some point in time; keeping pigs can be reassuring). Slaughtering pigs is a kind of ritual involving family and friends and if you’re looking for masters of fresh—made charcuterie Romanian peasants would give any French chef a run for his money.

The carolers have reverted to something less materialistic:

“Three shepherds met and advised each other thus
Come, brothers, let us go and pick flowers
Make a wreath and bring it to Christ”.

Christmas tends to be more spiritual here than in places farther west, although symptoms of shopping craze have appeared. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the carols. Some of them have a very profound theology, so much so, you find it difficult to believe they have been composed by ordinary peasants. But they were…

My Mum and myself would try not to skip Midnight Mass in our parish and then take a look at the crib. Most of the Catholics in my part of the country are Hungarians. We are Romanians. I understand Hungarian, Mum doesn’t. She’s never had a Christmas Midnight Mass in her language and fondly remembers the times when she used to sing in the church choir and Latin was bridging all divides. I tried to make her come with me and spend Christmas with some Catholic friends in Bucharest, to have Midnight Mass in Romanian for once but she would have none of it. On Christmas, one should be at home.

We had a rough time this Christmas Eve, actually. A Hungarian satellite TV channel chose to broadcast everything live from our church, and all access was blocked by trucks, vans, cables and what not. I don’t know who actually got to be inside the church.

We ended up calling a taxi and riding across town to the other parish. I’m glad we did.

The snow fell quietly and fluffier than ever. Inside, there was a concert. The children’s choir. The women’s choir. The mixed choir. Some French girls working here played the violin and cello. People were nice, stress-free, accommodating. We had Mass. Mum went to confession (in Romanian). All in all, a night to remember.

I keep on walking. Near the Prefecture (county administration), a place known as “at the frogs” because of the stone frogs decorating a fountain is a favoured location for open air concerts. Sure enough, there are carolers here as well. Their costumes tell me they are from our own county but from some villages in the highlands. They are called “Pãdureni” (forest people). Their carols are peculiar. I recognize a carol for an “unmarried young man” sort of telling him what to do to find a soul mate. They also have a carol for the “unmarried girl “, the “widow”, the “expectant mother”. Their villages are small. Everybody knows everybody. When nearing a house, they know what to sing. Because carols are about hope. And everything—for them at least—somehow has to do with this Christian God who chose to be born as a frail child…

New Year is also about hope, of course. There are various ways for groups of children and young adults to wish others a Happy New Year. There’s the goat dance and the bear dance…Shepherds sometimes come with a lamb for you to touch, thus making sure you’re blessed in the year to come. But all of this is not too common. The most common ways are Sorcova and Plugu
şorul. Both are rhymed poems. Sorcova is actually a stick adorned with paper flowers. Children wave it above your head chanting something along the lines of:

Sorcova, the merry one,
May you live and grow old,
Like an apple tree or pear tree,
Or like a rose.
Like apple trees or pear trees
In midsummer.
Hard like a stone,
Swift like an arrow,
Hard like iron,
Swift like steel.
In this year and many years to come.

Pluguşorul (little plough) is a more elaborate poem. Teenagers or young adults chant it accompanied by whips and devices which let the wind blow through, so as to make a sound similar to the “moo” of oxen; all reminiscent of the ancient way of ploughing. This because prosperity is seen mainly as linked to what the fields will yield. The poem itself is quite long and in it Romanians recall their Roman origin and Emperor Trajan who, the poem says, went to plough himself and then went to the fields again, gathered the wheat in his storehouse, then ground it himself into the finest flour.

Then there’s also the Epiphany. The Orthodox tend to focus on Jesus’ baptism, that’s why all the rivers, fountains, springs, and the sea itself, are blessed on this day. Catholics of course, think more of the Three Wise Men. Be it as it may: this is the end of the holidays. Both Catholic and Orthodox priests come to bless the homes of their parishioners around this day. Tradition requires—at least in our part of the country—that you dispose of your Christmas tree as soon as the priest has left your house: it’s a sign that one has already stockpiled as much joy, good will, hope and good wishes as needed, and should be ready to tackle whatever comes one’s way in the new year. And it’s back to dull, everyday life again.

But for now, I’m just trying to gaze into the future. I haven’t touched any lamb yet, it’s doubtful if I will and I just make an inventory of my hopes. They are—I think—modest enough to be fulfilled. Anyway, that kind of fulfillment is what I wish everyone reading those lines…

Cristian Mocanu
 

 

 


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