Christmas traditions in Romania take about three weeks and start before Christmas. We have many holidays during December, such as saints days and other religious days. Then, Romanians also celebrate the New Years and Christmas, which lasts for 3 days. That’s why, we don’t say ‘Merry Christmas!’, except for the Christmas days. We mostly say ‘Happy Holidays!” and we roll with it for the entire month.
To give you a bit of context, I want to share the meaning of the special days we consider to be important for the Christmas traditions in Romania. I’m talking about fasting, carols, food and family. These are the core components of the Christmas tradition in Romania and the ones I’ll focus on in this blog.
The Romanian Christmas traditions start 40 days before Christmas, on the 14th of November. That’s when the Christmas Fasting starts, what we call ‘Post’ and most religious people start their fast. What does fasting mean? It means you are changing your diet and for 40 days you will not eat any animal products, such as meat, milk, eggs or cheese (which are so present in the Romanian cuisine) and cleanse the body.
All Orthodox cultures have this tradition before great religious holidays and they are basically eating vegan. During these times, most traditional restaurants come up with a special, temporary menu, besides the normal one, to satisfy all customers, even those who are fasting. All you have to do is to look or ask for the Fasting Menu (Meniu de Post).
Saint Nicolas Day
While this day is no considered to be part of the Christmas holidays in Romania, it is worth mentioning.
Saint Nicholas (Sfantul Nicolae or Mos Nicolae) is celebrated on the 6th of December. This December holiday is especially for children, who clean their boots the night before and wait for the morning of the 6th to see if St Nicholas filled their boots with candy and sweets.
The tradition says that the good kids get sweets and the nasty ones get a whip, as a sign of bad behaviour.
Ignat Day (Ziua de Ignat)
As I said before, most Romanian traditions are closely related to food and that’s why there is a special day on which Romanians that preparing the Christmas meal. It’s not just for Christmas, but for the entire winter and for as long as it lasts.
This is by far my least favourite tradition or even my least favourite day of the year. Ignat day is when the pig is sacrificed.
When talking about Romanian Christmas food we can’t ignore that most of the meals are made using pork meat. That’s Romanian’s most traditional meat.
The tradition goes way back to the actual day of sacrifice. Each family, especially in the countryside, buys a piglet months before and try to get it fat and ready to be slaughtered to make sure they have a rich meal for Christmas.
The pig is killed early in the morning, by the head of the family, and the rest of the day is spent cutting and cooking the meat.
That same day, the ones present to the event share Pork’s Charity (Pomana Porcului), which is also considered a Romanian Christmas tradition. The dish consists of cooked pork bits and it is served with polenta, another staple food of the Romanian cuisine.
Christmas Eve (Decorating the Christmas tree)
Christmas Ever, which is on the 24th of December, is when the Christmas tree is being decorated.
Nowadays, we are flooded by the consumerism lifestyle and most shops and families start decorating for Christmas a few weeks earlier. But the original Romanian Christmas tradition left the decoration of the tree for the Christmas Eve (Ajunul Craciunului) when the entire family would come together and do this activity.
Another long-lived Christmas tradition in Romania is carol singing. On Christmas Eve, children go around their neighbourhood, to sing carols from house to house. They also used to dance, but I rarely see that anymore. As a sign of gratitude for their performance, they receive sweets, fruits, and money from the hosts. Adults also go out to carol singing on Christmas Day.
Romania has a few specific Christmas Carols we all learnt in school and which are still performed by children and adults. Romanian Christmas carols are different depending on their region of origin. While we have some carols focusing on the birth of Jesus, we also have plenty of Christmas carols that sound more like blessings for the hosts of the carols singers and their families. Most of these Christmas carols wish them health, good luck and love for the new year to come. There are some carols which focus on Mother Nature, because Christmas is not only about people, but also the nature and everything else God created.
Nevertheless, the most famous Romanian Christmas carols are those which talk about the birth of Jesus, which get pretty emotion when the poor condition of Virgin Mary is described.
The carol singers go knocking from door to door, from gate to gate to wish the hosts all the best and to announce the great news. The tradition says that it brings good luck to welcome the carol singers, while not welcoming them could lead to misfortune in the future.
The way I see it, Romanian carols all tell the same story of how baby Jesus was born, but they all show a different perspective of the event. The origins of these carols are unknown but some historians have traced them back to the Roman Empire in the 4th century.
Here’s a list of the most popular Romanian Carols (Colinde)
- La Steaua (The star) – The carol is sung by children mostly and it refers to the start which guides the three magi to baby Jesus.
- O, Ce Veste Minunata! – One of the most sung Christmas carol in Romania. It describes the moment of Jesus’ birth.
- O, brad frumos! – This carol focuses on the Christmas tree, which is the same as the German carol O Tannenbaum, with Romanian lyrics.
- Trei pastori – A carol dedicated to the three shepherds who followed the star and discovered Jesus.
- Iată vin colindătorii – It’s a carol that announces the carols singers.
- La Betleem colo-n jos – A full of emotion carol describing the moment of Jesus’s birth.
- Moș Crăciun cu plete dalbe – A Christmas carol about Santa Claus bringing gifts to little boys and girls. It’s mostly considered a children’s song.
- Domn, Domn să-nălțăm – Another carol which talks about the carol singers who have left home to perform.
- Sus, la poarta raiului (Up at the gate of heaven)
- Deschide usa, crestine (Open the door, Christian as in Christian believer)
Other Carols for the New Years
After Christmas, Romanians still go out, on the last day of the year, to sing some special carols and wish their hosts’ good luck in the year to come. Bear in mind that most of these traditions made more sense in the rural parts of Romania, where nature and weather played an important part of people’s life and good luck also refers to a good crop next year.
- Plugușorul – The Little Plow is another carol which is a blessing for the next year’s crops. It’s an old blessing and the boys who go in their village singing it, usually have a smaller plow with them, although the tradition involved a real plow pulled by two bulls.
- Sorcova – Sorcova is actually a stick decorated with colored flowers, to symbolize the revival of nature. The poem children say for their host, while touching their head with the Sorcova, is a short blessing, which children tell to their elders in their neighbourhood, to wish them health and good luck in the new year.
Each region has some specific traditions and carols in Romania. In some parts of Romania, there are groups of young boys who dress up as different animals and go round with the singers (The Goat – Capra; the Bear – young men dress up as bears. This is mainly a tradition kept in Moldova region of Romania.)
Christmas Food in Romania
The Christmas meals are some of the most awaited and definitely most famous of them all. As with many other cultures around the world, the Romanians have a dear and strong connections with their traditional foods. Most holidays have specific foods that housewives cook for their families. And Christmas is one of the major traditional holidays in Romania.
Bear in mind that Christmas traditions in Romania officially start on the Ignat day, the day the pig get slaughtered and turned into all sorts of dishes for the upcoming holidays.
So what are the most famous Christmas traditional foods in Romania, for which mostRomanians feast for 40 days before eating? Take a look at this list and you will, too, understand why an internal cleansing is needed before devouring all these foods.
It all starts with the day the pig is slaughtered, so you can imagine that most traditional Christmas food in Romania contains a lot of pork meat.
The most iconic traditional Romanian food, that most Romanians eat for any holiday, or any type of celebration, are Sarmale.
Sarmale are made of minced meat rolled into pickled cabbage leaves. They are usually served with polenta and some even add sour cream and a hot pepper.
While most Romanians consider sarmale to be a traditional Romanian food (which it is), it is not a dish found only in Romania. Most probably the dish was imported many centuries ago from the land we call today Turkey. And there are many other dishes which Romanian and its neighbours got from the Turks.
Back in the days, Romania was mostly a rural country and their bread was actually polenta. Most traditional restaurants serve it with most of the traditional meals, and lots of Romanians eat it on a daily basis.
Polenta is corn bread. And it’s very easy to make. All you need is corn flour, water and salt. You boil the water, add some salt, and then pour in the corn flour slowly while stirring, until you get the right consistency.
While most European countries have some sort of sweet bread they all cook for holidays, there’s no other country to have Cozonac as a traditional food for Christmas, like we do in Romania.
It’s a fairly long process to go through to get a good Cozonac, and not everyone gets it right. People order it from pastry shops and wait in queues to buy it. It’s so popular that you can now buy Cozonac from the local grocery all year long, but the packed one is not as good as the homemade one.
Cozonac is a sweet bread with a cocoa and nuts filling, that needs to be kneaded and then left to rise just enough, made with the best ingredients, and baked in a good oven so that it doesn’t burn too much on the bottom. For foreigners, it might not sound like much, and some aren’t impressed. But Romanians are still nostalgic about the Cozonac their grandmother used to make in the countryside. And no city-made cozonac will ever compare to that one.
You can read more about the Romanian tradition in this blog I wrote about what to expect when travelling to Romania.
Other Traditional Romanian foods for Christmas
Everything made out of pork meat:
- Piftie (pork meat in gelatin),
- Salata de Boeuf (Boeuf Salad is a salad of chopped boiled vegetables and meat with mayonnaise)
- Pork Chops,
- Ciorba (sour soup e.g. Ciorba de perisoare is a sour vegetable soup with pork meatballs) and
- Gogosi (the Romanian version of doughnuts).
Of course, the traditional Romanian drink for any holiday is Tuica, a spirit (40-65% alcohol) made of plums. But Romanians also love their homemade wine, which we have plenty of.
Traditional families in Romania do all the cooking for the Christmas meal one or two days before Christmas.
In Romania, Christmas lasts for three days. The most important day is the first Christmas day. On the 25th December, children open the gifts they received from Santa. Also, the religious ones go to the Church in the morning for the Christmas service.
While the first day is spent with your family, the second and the third Christmas days are usually for visiting your extended family.
One of the most valuable moments of the Christmas traditions on Romania (besides the food) is getting together with your family.
It doesn’t matter where you currently live and what you do for a living, as long as you make the effort to come home for Christmas and visit your parents. Family reunions are deeply embedded in Romania’s culture.
How to say ‘Merry Christmas’ in Romanian?
The most important thing about Christmas traditions in Romania is to wish the people you meet or talk to a Merry Christmas on the Christmas day.
Tell them ‘Craciun Fericit!’.