From South Africa we head back to Europe, this time to Eastern Europe. I'm always interested to hear stories from this part of the world -- especially from people my age and older -- because memories of a time when it was illegal to celebrate the birth of Christ are not too distant. My Romanian friends tell me Christmas has come back in full force after the fall of communism and the demise of President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose atheist regime forbade any open celebration. It is only recently that most people can afford to buy gifts for each other; in times past, if there were any gifts, they were for the children. Even today, children are widely regarded as Romania's most valuable resource, and they are often the focus of celebrations.
As in many other European countries, December 6 is St. Nicholas Day, or Sfantul Nicolae, in Romania. The night before, children clean their shoes and leave them next to the door in hopes that they will be full of small presents in the morning. Tradition has it that, if it snows on Dec. 6, Mos Nicolae (Old Man Nicholas) has shaken his beard and winter can now begin.
December 20 in Romania is designated St. Ignatius Day, at which time, if there is one to be had, a pig is slaughtered and serves as the basis of the Christmas feast. Because life has been so difficult in Romania for so long, Christmas is seen as a time to feast more than any other period of the year. If you're going to spend money on fine food or drink, it will be at Christmas and New Year's. Practically all parts of the pig are eaten in various forms, including steaks, ribs sausages, even rind, ear, and tail. Stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes, meatball soup can also be seen on the table, along with a cake called cozonac which my friend Lily calls a "caloric bomb."
A treasured tradition that has seen a resurgence in the last twenty years is Colinda, where groups of people go caroling from house to house singing carols and wishing others well. Many powers that be have tried to abolish Colinda over the centuries, including the church, claiming it was a devilish practice. Traditions that bring so much joy die hard, however, and Colinda lives on. These groups are sometimes all male, sometimes mixed, and sometimes rehearse weeks ahead of time. They are usually compensated with gifts of fruit, walnuts, and cakes. Children also go caroling on Christmas Eve. One popular Romanian carol is called "Christmas Star," where a decorated paper star is put on a pole and carried by one of the carolers.
Here's to a merry Christmas to all our Romanian friends, and to many more joyful and prosperous Christmases in this endearing land.