Winter holidays and ancient paganism


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“Death and rebirth occur at midnight by interrupting time – switching off the lights – a gesture that recreates the chaos from which time arises, and with it the world around it. Then the lights come on, and the explosion of joy and noise means the critical moment was overcome, the sun wins and the day begins to grow.

Man takes an active part in this scenario by banishing evil forces through noise, spraying ritual water, consumption of ritual food, reconciliation and committing acts of tolerance, practicing greetings and ritual dances.”

– Paula Popoiu, head of Dimitrie Gusti Village Museum


__Before Christianity and other religions took over the world, people celebrated the winter solstice as a time of spiritual reverence connected to fertility. Pagan beliefs across Europe (and beyond) had the Sun worship at its epicenter – considered the spring of life, bringer of fertility and light. Fertility was connected to good harvest, good health and marriage for young unmarried people – all of whom ensure the overall perpetuation of life.

Pre-christian rituals in romanian village

Pre-christian rituals in romanian village

The process of Christianization combined certain pagan rituals with Christian meanings and the overall message switched to peace, joy and love, losing its agrarian aspect. Christianity taught obedience and concentrated on the individual’s moral values, breaking the pagan connection with the land and nature – which also helped the economic and social reforms of the empires that supported the rise of Christianity. Emperor Constantine of the eastern Roman (byzantine) empire proclaimed Christianity as the official religion in 313 AD, seeing this as a tool for unifying the empire. The church fell under the protection of the state since its inception in year 313 AD. Due to its strong connection with local communities, the church had the power to influence politics and social life, hence why it received great support from kings and queens in the form of land entitlement and exemption from taxes. Shortly, the church became the largest land/ real estate owner all over Europe. The revenue obtained was shared between the Christian church and the Holy land of Jerusalem. To read more on the birth of capitalism in the church, see

Christmas is celebrated on December 25th; the winter solstice takes place on December 21 when the shortest day of the year occurs. During the winter solstice, pagans celebrated “the birth of the sun” as it begins to move north bringing more heat and light with longer and warmer days. Christians celebrate the birth of Christ who is associated with the spiritual light. The term Sun-Christ stems from Jesus being considered the Sun of Righteousness, a clear blending of pagan and Christian concepts.

In Christian iconography, the Sun (and sometimes the Moon) is a common motif. The altar always faces east where the sun shines.


In paganism, the Sun is venerated and associated with fertility and light. Darkness is associated with the cold of winter, the short days and lack of sunlight, the diseases brought by the cold, the shortage of food. During certain winter rituals, fire is used as a symbol of the sun – to bring light, warmth and to purify.

The sun’s rays shine behind a cross or behind “the eye of God”, a pagan symbol which offers guidance and protection. The phenomenon of intertwining pagan customs with Christian traditions was known as Interpretatio Christiana.

All celebrations in both pre-Christian and Christian tradition last for 12 days. Pagan celebrations begin with winter solstice and Christian celebrations begin with Christmas Day. In paganism, the days symbolize the 12 months of the year symbolically reduced to 12 days.

Red is a color often found in Christian and Pagan traditions alike. In Pre-christian beliefs, red represents fire, the sun, passion and fertility. In Christianity it represents spiritual awakening and love. Next to the Sun, the water is also considered a sacred element that gives life and prosperity. Water is used to purify and help fertility in both Christian and Pagan rituals; on the last day of the 12 days of celebrations, the Christian Orthodox Ephipany takes place which combines pre-Christian and Christian elements that purify the water and bless all households with holy water.

The rich colorful pre-Christian ritual dances and celebrations inspired later Christian festivities such as the Carnival of Venice and the Rio de Janeiro Carnival, which were infused with Christian meanings making it easier to attract pagan believers into the new religion.


Pagan and Christian concepts

Although Christianity combined Pagan elements, pagans and christians have different concepts of life. Pagans see time as a cycle divided into cold and warm, fertile and infertile, where after death – life constantly renews itself and all living beings are part of this cycle. Christians see time in a linear manner where life ends with Heaven or Hell, reward or punishment for deeds done throughout life.

Both pagan and christian customs have the concept of reward but Christianity also brought the concept of punishment, which stems from the idea of punishing those who didn’t believe in what was considered “the true faith”. The concept of reward and punishment is a central concept of Judaism and its described throughout the Bible, which was constructed on the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament).

For instance, “Mos Nicolae” is a Christian holiday celebrating Saint Nicholas on December 6 in Romania. By renaming the saint “mos” (old man), the christian holiday was incorporated along pre-Christian concepts which associate the ending year with an old person whose time is ending. Good children receive gifts in their shoes while bad children receive a rod instead, which stems from Saint Nicholas punishing those who didn’t believe in “the true faith” – Christianity. In Western Europe, Saint Nicholas holiday was blended with pagan tradition Krampus.


Pre-christian rituals

The pre-christian customs practiced in rural areas shall not be confused with modern pagan revival called “neo-paganism”. As a note, neo-paganism is not present in Romania as pre-christian practices continued to be practiced in their old form until today. The rural areas are self-sufficient knit-tight communities where people live closely to each other.



___In Romania, many folk traditions are in fact pre-Christian traditions. Winter pre-Christian (pagan) traditions have survived the test of time in rural areas; according to the elders, they are inherited from “mosi-stramosi” (from old ancestors). In western Europe due to the avid anti-pagan propaganda of the Inquisition and the Reformation, only remote mountain villages and islands have kept the original pagan customs. Romanians refer to the customs as “pre-christian” since the term “pagan” is a pejorative term created outside their historical territory. Plugusorul, sorcova, jocul caprei, mersul cu ursul, steaua, malanca, vasilca (siva), mascatii, banda jienilor etc are pagan traditions played around Christmas and the new year in Romania. They are connected to fertility and the hope for a fruitful year. Colorful ribbons, which represent the rich colors of spring, are present in most costumes and dances.

Many of the characters involved in these rituals include old men (and women) who symbolize the aging time and the year that’s ending. The new year brings fresh revival, light and prosperity, announced by the young men of the village organized in “cete de feciori”.

Through their songs and dances, carolers play out a scenario of death and rebirth, celebrating the renewal of time and seasons and the perpetuation of life. Many pagan traditions are played alongside Christian traditions.
To name but a few:

The Bear Dance (mersul cu ursul) stems from the bear being venerated as the strong animal who managed to defeat winter and announce spring. People observed the behavior of the bear and the hibernation pattern in order to estimate the arrival of spring and when the sowing could begin. The bears, accompanied by drummers, dance in a circle and imitate their free life in nature. During the ritual, they die and come back to life, symbolizing the renewal of nature and the win over darkness during the arrival of spring.

The Bear Dance involves men covered in bear costumes made from straws or sheep leather, covered with sheep fur. Only in recent modern festivities organized in cities do dancers use real bear costumes offered by various sponsors, among them hunting associations. Villagers did not traditionally use real bear skin as the animal was respected and venerated. The old costumes that were made of straws were thrown in fire at the end, symbolizing purification and renewal.

The Bear Dance with traditional costumes in Stirbat village

“Ursarii” are gypsies who borrowed from the pre-Christian ritual and used real bears trained from infancy to entertain nobles or city dwellers in exchange for money. Some travelled to villages to supposedly heal people, knowing the bear was venerated in local culture. Their activities were forbidden by law in 1908; they resorted to playing out music. More on ursari here.

Mascatii (the masked men) use mask and make noise to scare away evil spirits. The scenario they play symbolizes the fight between good and evil, or between light and darkness which takes place during the solstice. By scaring away the darkness, they help the Sun win and receive a good year. In other villages, masked men dressed in costumes (weighting up to 30 kg) fight each other in symbolic manner to chase away the old year and the darkness and welcome the new year with light.


Plugusorul (little plow) is an agrarian carol song. Using bells and cracking whips, the carolers are purposely making noise to chase away the bad spirits. They make wishes of rich crops and at the end of the ritual, a few grains of wheat are sowed symbolically in each garden in order to bring good luck and fertility for the next year.

The Goat dance is a pastoral ritual dance; in certain regions, the goat is replaced by a stag or a heifer. During the dance, the goat dies and comes back to life, symbolizing the death and revival of nature that takes place during and after winter. The rich colors that cover the goat represent the rich colors of spring.


Dozens of other pre-Christian customs exist, differing from village to village in costumes or verses but respecting the same basic pattern.











Carolers dressed in traditional clothing. Photo from the interwar era.

During many winter rituals, fire is used as a symbol of the sun – to bring light, warmth and to purify during a season when the sun is lacking. In certain villages, young unmarried girls lit bonfires over which they jump in order to chase away bad spirits and to help them find a spouse in the new year – which all in all represents a fertility ritual. In southern Romania, on Christmas eve (the winter solstice in old times), all family members poke the fire while reciting a few verses to protect the household and bring a fruitful year.

In Bacau county, carolers use fire torches which helps purification into the new year



Epiphany(Boboteaza) – the Great Blessing of Waters



On January 6, Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany – the apparition of God and Jesus Christ in the world, when Jesus was immersed 3 times in the Jordan river by John the Baptist. The Epiphany (also known as Theophany in Orthodox Christianity), celebrated on the last day of the 12 days, closes the winter holidays.The feast is also known as the Great Blessing of Waters.

The cross is thrown in water and fires are lit in order to ward off evil spirits and purify the water. Then the priests baptize Christian homes by sprinkling holy water on houses, people and cattle; this practice chases away evil spirits in their underground places and brings health and fertility for the new year. In villages located near rivers, lakes or the sea, a wooden cross is thrown in the freezing water by the priest, which is then recovered by local young men. All the waters of the Earth are then considered sanctified.


According to Romanian tradition, people make good wishes, perform rituals for fertility for the new year and unmarried girls learn whether they’ll find a spouse.



Botezul cailor Baptism of horses


Another remnant of pre-Christian traditions is the baptism of horses (Botezul cailor), which takes place on Ephiphany (Boboteaza) day in southern Romania. In pre-Christian mythology, the Sun was pulled around the sky by a horse-drawn chariot, bringing light and warmth to all living things, which makes the horse a sacred animal. The horse is also a big part of local culture and life since ancient days; the cult of the Danubian horseman developed from the Thracian horseman around the Danube river (southern Romania) in ancient Moesia and Dacia.

Wearing bells (ward off bad spirits) and red tassels (fertility), the horses are ready to receive their baptism for the new year.


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“Candles lit up the night sky, Old men ring bells in the valley, Masks are caught in ancestral dances, And the carolers are coming… Lerui Ler”

(Anotimpurile Luncaviței – Petru Bruma)

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___Căluşarii are a traditional group of men who perform ritual dance called Căluş related to fertility that celebrates spring. The ritual is built around the Sun and the sacred horse, the name Căluş originating in Cal (horse in Romanian). In pre-Christian mythology, the Sun was pulled around the sky by a horse-drawn chariot, bringing light and warmth to all living things. The dance is practiced during the spring when the Sun returns after the long cold winters. The arrival of spring is celebrated and, through their dance, the Calusari chase away the bad spirits of winter, bringing good health, good harvest and fertility. Their sticks are used to chase away the evil spirits.

Though practiced mostly during spring in southern and eastern Romania, in Transylvania the Calus ritual is also practiced during the winter holidays.


Căluşari from Romos village, Transylvania with one of their hosts




At one point, Căluşarii dance in a circle which symbolizes the Sun.


Other than the ritual dances, carol songs are also sung by children or young men, who make good wishes for prosperity and health at each household. Many carol songs have been combined with Christian meanings, announcing instead the birth of Christ – like the Star carol song (Steaua) or Irozii. Christian carol wishes are centered around good health, joy and love, leaving aside the fertility wishes present in pre-Christian songs.

Caroling children with the Star (Steaua)

Traditional carol song Steaua interpreted by Psaltic and Missionary Choir in Bucharest


The carol songs are interpreted by groups of children (whose wishes are considered beneficial since they are pure at heart) or by groups of men (most of them unmarried) called “cete de feciori” or “cete de flacai”. While children sing generic carol songs that address everyone, the groups of young men (called cete de juni, cete de feciori) have personalized carol songs for each household. When they enter a household with unmarried girls, the young men dance with the girls.

Despite carol songs having deep Christian influence today, some caroles still make use of pre-Christian elements such as poking the fire when they enter a house (Banat county), or the use of a symbolic stag by “dubasii” carolers from Arad county (the stag is one of the sacred animals).




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A peak into more pre-Christian rituals still practiced throughout other parts of eastern Europe.


Traditional foods

When the solstice occurs, the shortest day ends and the day begins to grow, and the Sun gradually gains power as the days grow longer and spring comes closer. A pig is sacrificed on the day before the solstice on December 20, called “Ignatul porcilor”. On the place of sacrifice, a sun-like circle is marked around it called “magical circle”.

After the solstice, foods made of wheat are shared (cozonac, colaci, turte, covrigi) in the hope for a fertile agricultural new year. The colac, a twisted white bread in the form of a circle, symbolizes the sun. Carolers receive colac and wine, while children also receive fruits and sweets.

The traditional meal also includes various soups made with borsch (ciorba), salads, pickles, fruits, wine and other homemade drinks.

Traditional foods like sarmale, caltabosi, piftie, toba, carnati are made from the animal sacrificed during the solstice. In old beliefs, pig (or cattle) was sacrificed to feed the Sun and help it fight against the darkness. The sacrifice of animals was also made in order for people to receive strength for another two months of winter. Although associated with Christmas, traditional romanian foods served during the winter holidays originate in these pagan customs.


Western Europe

While in eastern Europe pgana traditions are more commonly found in rural areas, in western Europe similar pagan customs have survived in remote mountain villages or islands.

Western paganism follows the same concepts of sun worship, death, rebirth and renewal, fight between darkness and light and fertility. Monsters scare away the evil spirits of the cold using whips, bells and loud noises, and celebrate revival and light followed by a fruitful year. Rituals involve various creatures or animals dying and coming back to life in what represents renewal and fertility. Fire is also used to symbolize light and sun. Young unmarried people perform rituals in the hope of finding a spouse in the new year.

Carol songs have also switched from good wishes for a fertile year to Christian messages of love and joy.






Whip cracking to chase away evil spirits of winter and the old year.

Whip-cracking to chase away evil spirits of winter and the old year. This custom is practiced mostly during festivals today.













Strohbären werden am 13.02.2013 durch die Straßen von Heldra (Hessen) getrieben. Am Aschermittwoch wird in dem Dorf an der Werra traditionell der Winter mit den Strohbären ausgetrieben. Foto: Uwe Zucchi/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++


Saint Nicholas and pagan Krampus monsters

Saint Nicholas and pagan Krampus monsters


Pre-Christian customs in international context

Paganism, even when strictly agrarian, has been vilified by Christian authorities, especially the Catholic church. In the West, religious authorities in cooperation with state, classified it as witchcraft and “witch-hunts” went on for centuries. Western theology, in its support of Christianity, defined a pagan as “one who has little of no religion and delights in sensual pleasures and material goods; an irreligious or hedonistic person.”

Despite different regional names for gods, paganism incorporated universal beliefs that had the sun at its heart and was centered on fertility and the cycle of life. Fertility didn’t signify wealth or “delight in sensual pleasures and material goods” as defined by western theologists, but good health, marriage, good harvest and overall perpetuation of life. It was defined by reverence and respect for nature and life.

While rituals are still practiced today across the world, the agrarian customs are slowly losing their meaning in the context of today’s heavily urbanized societies. People’s livelihood depends on a modern economic system where man is disconnected from nature. The western market economy handles natural resources on the concept of profit, which puts strain on the finite natural resources.

In Europe and all around the world, urbanization has been encouraged for the last seven decades at the expense of rural communities. Without rural communities, ancient pagan customs are becoming something exotic, mystical and “backward”. Festivals and western carnivals that play out these traditions have a heavily commercial side through which the rituals lose their sense.


See Charles Freger’s extensive collection of pagan costumes from all over Europe. It includes both winter solstice and spring equinox celebrations from: Romania, Macedonia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Croatia, Portugal, Finland, Ireland, Slovenia, United Kingdom. .

The pre-christian customs still practiced in rural areas shall not be confused with modern pagan revival called “neo-paganism”. 



Baby bear orphanage – Romania


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Baby bear rescued in Romania – photo Andreea Tinu

Baby bear rescued in Romania – photo Andreea Tinu


Short history

The brown bear lives in the dense forests of mountains and valleys. In Europe, the brown bear lives in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, Estonia, Russia, the Balkans and Scandinavia. In Italy and Spain it lies on the verge of extinction. The brown bear is extinct in Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary, UK, Ireland. Romania is the country where nearly 40% of the European bear population lives in the Carpathian mountains, making it the second most populous country after Russia.

Brown bear distribution map in Europe

Brown bear distribution map in Europe

The bear is a strictly protected species registered in the EU Habitats Directive (Natura 2000), but the high value of bear trophies, between 4.000-15.000 Euro per bear, keep the population of brown bear in the official national censuses unrealistically high. In September 2016, the government renewed the new hunting quotas to 552 bears, 657 wolves and 482 Lynx and wild cats. The government was accused of using a system that counts and kills wild animals for profit (source).

Deforestation, a major threat for the brown bear, is the interest of large corporations in which local governments are silent accomplices: “Major Austrian timber firm accused of illegal logging in Romania”

Though Scandinavia’s territory is much larger, the bear population is lower due to less food availability in the typical cold environment. The harsher climate and the lower hunting quotas makes hunters lean towards Romania and the Balkans as hunting grounds.

After Romania’s admission into the European Union in 2007, the free market made itself felt in a negative way: logging by foreign companies increased, hunting became popular and a source of money for the government, and shepherds are being forced to give up their traditional way of life in the mountains to make room for “eco-parks” and middle-class residential resorts in mountain valleys. These projects fragment the ecosystem which cant support wildlife anymore.


Brown bear trophies in Romania – source

Hunting, an expensive privilege and hobby for Western upper-class hunters who flood Romanian and eastern European mountains in the hunt of species that can no longer be found in Western Europe. For a bear trophy, hunters pay 4.000-15.000 euro.

Every year, dozens of bear cubs are orphaned in the forests of Romania due to deforestation and hunting which go unpunished, despite the bear being protected by law.

“Romania has today the biggest population of European Brown Bear and absolutely without doubts the biggest trophies.” See more here –

“Why hunting in Romania? It’s very simple… Romania is one of the few countries in Europe where the habitat and game are unaltered by human civilization. Wolves, bear and lynx inhabit primeval forests”. See more here –

“With its alpine meadows and peaks and ancient pine forests, there is plenty to keep the hunter amused! Romania is truly one of the best European destination for the serious bear shot.” See more here –


Brown bear trophies in Romania – source


Historically, hunting in the Carpathians of Moldavia and Vallachia was not restricted solely to nobility and it consisted mostly of wild birds, rabbits, deer, boar and foxes. Hunting in the Transylvanian Carpathians was more organized; hunting reserves were first established in the XV century by the Hungarian and Austrian nobility who had exclusive rights over hunting. By the XIX century, the mountains of Transylvania were a hunting hot spot for European nobility and royalty due to its diverse fauna which was already dying away in the West. Hungarian nobility developed their own hunting dog called the Transylvanian Hound. In other parts of Europe, the bear meat was a delicacy for the aristocracy.

Following intensive hunting and logging for export in the last centuries, ten animal species became extinct in Romania, see list here


Today, more species are endangered including the European Brown Bear, the Grey Eolf and the Eurasian Lynx. In a silent concerted effort from governments and corporations, national parks are now being sold by piece to private businesses. Conservation Carpathia foundation lead by billionaire Hansjörg Wyss bought thousands of hectares from Piatra Craiului national park with funds from the European Economic Area grants and with prince Charles as its top promoter (see here).

National Park – protected areas administered by sovereign states which cannot be alienated.

Carpathia Conservation wants to buy over 50.000 hectares in Southern Carpathians, which has the largest bear population.

The foundation lead by billionaire Hansjörg Wyss intends on buying over 50.000 hectares in Southern Carpathians, which has the largest bear population. Over 3.000 hectares of hunting ground are already in its private property.

The foundation intends on buying 50.000 hectares in the southern Carpathians (the highest and most dense mountains in Romania) to turn them into the “Yellowstone of Europe”. Over 3.000 hectares of hunting territories were bought so far, where the largest bear populations can be found.

While the foundation manager assures the public that the park is solely for conservation, he also admits that a part of the park will be exploited (source). Activities such as logging, extraction of resources, hunting and organic agriculture in the very fertile soil are sure to turn the “European Yellowstone” into a diverse profitable business. Much like the beautiful national parks of South America and Africa where western mining, logging and agribusiness take place in protected areas, the conservation trend used as a cover up for private businesses is developing in Romania too.


While the old Romanian mountain villages and houses were scattered and man lived in harmony with nature without invading and scouting the environment day after day, modern tourist settlements and other residential projects (example) are large, crowded and invasive to the ecosystem. The projects fragment the ecosystem which cant support wildlife anymore.


Traditional Romanian mountain villages and houses were scattered, unlike modern residential projects and tourist resorts which are crowded and invasive to the ecosystem. In photo – villages in the Moldavian-Transylvanian mountains.

 In the last years, more and more green groups around the world are being accused of selling out to corporations (“WWF International accused of selling its soul to corporations” The Guardian, 2014).

The best chance for genuine conservation is to stop deforestation, stop sport hunting and “let nature be”, like the humble shepherds wisely did for centuries.


In Prahova valley – one of the most crowded areas where deforestation is intense and real estate projects spring up like mushrooms year after year – the bear is visibly affected. “Garbage bears” are a common sight for over two decades and even mothers with cubs, who normally are very wary, are seen sitting by the road or looking through garbage bins for food.


Bears are primarily vegetarian which is why forests, with the diversity of fruits, plants and insects are vital to them.


Bears are shy creatures who hide from humans at the slightest noise. Only in exceptional circumstances do they become aggressive – when they feel threat, especially the mothers with cubs.

Bear filmed in the Eastern Carpathians on Salard hunting ground


In attempts to justify the rise of hunting quotas, the government and media constantly refer to the bear as a dangerous intruder and use examples of “savage attacks on property” Romanian politician calls for the army to help control bear population (The Guardian, 2014). A hunter pays 4.000-15.000 Euro for a bear trophy.


Without any reference to the cause (deforestation and hunting), politicians and the media describe bears as savage dangerous creatures who need to be eliminated. In September 2016, the government renewed the new annual hunting quotas to 552 bears, 657 wolves and 482 Lynx and wild cats. The government was accused of using a system that counts and kills wild animals for profit (source) while their real numbers are lower than the official statistics.

The brown bear first disappeared in Great Britain ten centuries ago due to overhunting.


Transhumance in the Southern Carpathians. Due to their ancient pastoral lifestyle, Romanian shepherds have long lived alongside bears and other predators.

Due to their ancient pastoral lifestyle, Romanian, Balkan and other Carpathian shepherds have long lived alongside bears, wolves and other predators. During summers, shepherds lead their herds across the rich mountain pastures, accompanied only by a few helpers – the sheepdogs. Surrounded by meadows and forests, livestock is constantly a target of predators, though the latter will only attack when extremely hungry. If losses are registered, shepherds will not feel the need to kill off predators – but instead will see it as part of nature. Lately, it is modern man who causes more harm to the shepherd than the bear itself (see more here).

On the other hand, French and German shepherds, and even the Bavarian environment minister were openly relieved when the few bears reintroduced in forests were killed: 2009 – French Pyrenees: bad news bears, 2006 – 170 years on, wild bear returns in Germany – to a death sentence, 2013 – Switzerland’s only wild bear is shot.

The German bear was stuffed and placed in a museum

The German bear was stuffed and placed in a museum in Munich after being killed. Modern man considers the bear and other predators “wild savage beasts” who dont deserve a place in nature anymore, but only in museums, zoos and enclosed national parks.

The bear in Romanian mythology


    The Bear is deeply instilled in Romanian history and traditions. The bear is regarded as both a strong fierce animal, and a godly creature. The biggest and strongest bear is called Mos Martin, a mythical character in Romanian mythology.

The Bear dance is a pagan dance ritual practiced in Moldavia’s villages until today. Though part of the winter celebrations, it’s not related to Christianity; the dance is part of the many archaic traditions inherited “din moşi-strămoşi” (from distant ancestors) which use various animals as motifs, depending on the region (Moldavia, Transylvania, Vallachia). They’re practiced around New Year Eve as fertility rituals that celebrate the renewal of life during the winter solstice. During the dance, the animals die and come back to life. The bear dance stems from the bear being venerated as the strong animal who managed to defeat winter and announce spring.

These archaic rituals can be found in various shapes all across Europe from the Carpathians, to the Alps (see here) and the Scandinavian mountains (see here) as they represent a common folk inheritance from pre-Christian times.

The Winter Martinii (Martinii de iarna), celebrated between 1-3 February, the Day of the Bear (Ziua Ursului) celebrated on 2 February, the Bear’s Saturday (Sambata Ursului) and Macaveiul Ursului celebrated on 1,2 and 13 August – are archaic festivities dedicated to the bear.

The winter celebrations are connected to the bear ending hibernation; by following the bear’s behavior, farmers knew when the warm season was approaching. According to tradition, if the bear cannot see its shadow on the snow, the winter is nearing its end and bears end hibernation.

The summer celebration is connected to honey/ fruit harvest and the peak of the bear mating season – when bears move around more than usual and they may accidentally face humans. Which is why on these days, people don’t work. On August 13, a special celebration is held with honey pies and wine sweetened with honey, with the belief that it will protect domestic animals from bear attacks, and protect people from attacks during honey and the fruit/ berries harvest (since honey and fruits are part of the bear’s diet).


Bear orphanage in Harghita, Romania


        Ten years ago, Leonard Bereczky founded the Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre in the Hăşmaş mountains of Harghita County (Eastern Carpathians). The Centre has managed to save more than 100 baby bears, who were returned to the wilderness as adults. The basic principle of the orphanage is minimal interaction with humans, but continuous monitoring is performed by an expert.

Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by Leonardo Bereczky

Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by L. Bereczky


This year, the Bear Orphan Centre occupies 20 hectares and houses 10 orphaned bear cubs. “We expect for this number to double over the next 10 years,” says mister Bereczky. 


Bear Orphan Station Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by Leonardo Bereczky

Bear Orphan Station Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by L. Bereczky

Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by Leonardo Bereczky

Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by L. Bereczky

Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by Leonardo Berezovsky

Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by L. Berezovsky

“The bear is an exceptional animal. It is the animal that has managed to survive in the most severe conditions: from desert to arctic areas. Bear cubs are equipped with all the necessary for their survival: for example, the instinct to escape danger or to take refuge in trees when approaching danger; they know from birth what they can eat. All survival instincts are genetically encoded. Because of this, rehabilitation is possible  so we can take care of bear cubs without the presence of the mother and become genuine representatives of their species, “explains Leo Bereczky.

The bear cub sanctuary is located in Hășmaș mountains

The bear cub sanctuary is located in Hășmaș mountains, in Moldavian-Transylvanian Carpathians.

“We designed and developed our rehabilitation method which basically means copying a real natural environment. Once they leave the Centre, they are monitored in order to track their evolution as animals reintroduced into the wild.”



News report from 2012 – Seven bears released from Bear Orphanage Harghita

Read report here


Harghita Orphan Bear Rehabilitation Centre, photo by L. Bereczky


Baby bear saved from a ditch by train workers (amateur footage below). Story here



Junii Brasovului from Schei (Young men of Brasov)


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         “Junii Brasovului” are a group of horsemen from Schei – an old Romanian neighborhood located near the citadel, today a district of Brasov.

Every year during spring they hold a special feast which represents a complex of Christian Orthodox traditions and pre-Christian rituals inherited from distant ancestors. The spring ritual is related to the ancient cult of the Sun which was joined with the resurrection of Christ – both signifying the renewal of life.

The spring ritual was forbidden in 1949 through a decree signed by Ana Pauker but was reintroduced by Nicolae Ceausescu in 1967.


The Juni on a visit to Bucharest in front of the Romanian Atenaeum (dated 1971). The Juni ritual was forbidden in 1949 through a decree signed by Ana Pauker but was reintroduced by Nicolae Ceausescu in 1967.


The Juni on a visit to Bucharest in front of the Romanian Government (dated 1970). The Juni ritual was forbidden in 1949 through a decree signed by Ana Pauker but was reintroduced by Nicolae Ceausescu in 1967.





Brasov’s old citadel, located at the mouth of the mountain valley near Bârsa plains

Brasov citadel, situated on a commercial route at the border of Vallachia and Transylvania, was a flourishing trading center. The citadel was built at the mouth of a mountain valley. During the Saxon rule of the 13th to 17th century following the Unio Trium Nationum military pact, Romanians lost their civil rights while Saxon merchants and Hungarian nobility gained privileges. In Brasov they were forbidden from owning property inside the fortress. Called Vallachians at the time, they were living outside the wall in the neighborhood named Schei, also called Obere Vorstadt (Upper Suburb) or Wallachische Vorstadt (Vallachian Suburb) by Germans.

Aerial panorama of Brasov - the old citadel is located at the mouth of the valley, with Blumenau and Alstadt suburbs nearby. On the opposite side - Schei is located further down the valley between mountains.

Aerial panorama of Brasov – the old citadel is located at the mouth of the valley, with Blumenau and Altstadt suburbs nearby. On the opposite side – Schei is located further down the valley between mountains.


View from Tampa mountain over Brasov’s old citadel and its Saxon and Hungarian suburbs. Behind it is the Bârsa plain (Câmpia Bârsei).


View from Tampa mountain over Schei (right), Romanian suburb near Brasov’s main citadel. From Schei onward begins the long Carpathian mountain chain, visible in the background. Left of Tampa is a newly built district in a narrow valley.


Baedeker guide (year 1896) shows the old Brasov (Kronstadt) citadel with the suburbs of Schei (Obere Vorstadt), Blumenau and Alstadt

Old photo taken from Schei, with Brasov in the background

Old photo taken above Schei district, with Brasov in the far background

Schei is located in the south of the citadel, in between mountains. On the opposite side of the citadel, the Hungarian-Saxon populations were living in two neighborhoods: Blumenau (Blumana in Romanian) inhabited by Hungarians, Altstadt (inhabited by German farmers).


The Juni and pre-Christian paganism


“Juni” is an old word that means “young unmarried men”. Juni may also be called “feciori” which has the same meaning. In Brasov in particular, Juni applies to men of all ages, divided into married (old juni) or unmarried (young juni).

Although the Juni of Brasov have their specific ways of celebration, the Juni groups are found all throughout Romania. Up until recently, most Romanian villages had Juni groups but the forced urbanization, in addition with new EU laws which limited horse riding, has had a negative effect on these traditions.


Juni from Mandra in 1928


Fagaras Juni

Juni from Gura Raului

Juni from Gura Raului

The young men of a community reunite in a group called “ceata” (ceata de feciori, ceata de juni) during the winter solstice and spring when they perform pre-Christian songs and rituals; the purpose of these rituals is to help perpetuate fertility during winter, and to celebrate the return of the sun during spring. Only in recent times did the Christian element blend with the pagan traditions in such a manner that today they coincide with the main Christian holidays – Christmas and Easter.

Fagaras Juni (called Feciori in the region)


The pre-Christian rituals are still alive all across Romania and are often practiced alongside Christian holidays. German chronicler Julius Teutsch, who observed the Brasov Juni rituals, concluded that they were remnant of an “ancient pre-Christian era” and said these traditions can be seen everywhere across the mountain hills since Dacian times.


Archive photos of Juni ceremonies


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In Brasov, an old custom practiced by the Romanian community which is related to the ancient cult of the sun: on the day of Descent of the Holly Spirit (called Rusalii in Romanian) men, women and children of Schei left in the evening for Mount Postăvarul (a few km from the village) after men knocked from door to door, using a hammer designed as a serpent to knock on each gate. On the mountain they waited until morning when the sun appeared in order to throw what they had on hand towards the sun, lest the “werewolves” stole the sun.


Dacians believed that the life-giving sun was swollen by dragons during winter; the same motif can be found in the Thracian Horseman depiction where a man on a horse fights off a dragon (in pre-Christian mythology, the horse is associated with sun and summer, and the wolf/ werewolf associated with winter).

The presence of horses is not accidental; the animal always played a vital role in popular folk since time immemorial – the horse was believed to be pulling the Sun Chariot across the sky, bringing with it the life-giving sun and assuring fertility for the new year. The Dacians celebrated this cult in the spring, when the Brasov Juni also celebrate it in order to mark the renewal of nature and the beginning of new life, whose significance was intertwined with the revival of Christ. The horse is venerated in various ways across the country, such as Boboteaza Cailor (The christening of horses).





Although the meaning of “June” is “young unmarried son“, the Brasov ceremony reunites all men. The young unmarried men are picked up from their family homes by organized groups of men of all ages, and for the following days they play out a series of rituals and traditions.


Traditional "Surla" which announces the arrival of spring. A leading man with surla stands in front of the Juni ceremonial walk

Traditional “Surla” which announces the arrival of spring. A leading man with surla stands in front of the Juni ceremonial walk

The ceremony begins Monday early morning and ends one week later on the first Sunday after the Orthodox Easter (Duminica Tomii). On day one, the young men visit the homes of young unmarried girls. On the last day, they have the ceremonial walk on horseback through the city, which ends at Solomon’s Rocks, located 2 km from Schei.




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The men are divided in 7 traditional groups, number based on the religious belief that God made the world in 7 days. Every group has its own costumes and the leader of each group carries a scepter with a traditional flag and a tricolor ribbon (colors of the Romanian flag), which signify dignity and bravery.

The leading group is wearing the traditional costume of Romanians (“Vallachians”) of Brasov. Their hat is tailored after the model of Michael the Brave’s hat (Vallachian prince who first united the 3 principalities in 1600) and is worn by 4 of the 7 groups of men.


The hat is tailored after the model of Vallachian prince Michael the Brave’s hat and is worn by 4 of the 7 groups of men.






One of the Juni rituals, which takes place on Thursday, includes “aruncatul in țol” where the young men are thrown in the air 3 times.



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On the last day, the Juni have the ceremonial walk on horseback through the city which ends at Solomon’s Rocks, located 2 km from Schei.


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Historic mentions of the “Vallachians”


In 1842, Georg Gottlieb Schnell published a series of costume litographies that included the Romanians of Schei, Brasov. Referred to as Vallachians at the time –  “Vallachian from the neighborhood of Brasov” – the neighborhood being Schei, located outside the city walls at the time.


“Vallachian from the neighborhood of Brasov” 1842 by Georg Gottlieb Schnell. The Vallachian is wearing a traditional Romanian Suman coat over the costume

Romanians were refereed to as Vallachians (Wallach) by Saxons and other foreigners (“Wallach” was a Germanic word used by foreigners to define Latin speaking populations of Eastern Europe – found in Vallachia, Moldavia, Transylvania).

Antonio Possevino described the main commercial settlements of Transylvania in his 1584 manuscript “Transilvania”: when mentioning Brasov (called Corona in latin), he mentions the main fortified citadel inhabited by Saxon merchants, surrounded by 3 suburbs with Hungarians, Romanians and Saxon farmers. He calls Brasov small but flourishing due to its strategic location, with commercial ties with just about everyone.

Ludwig Binder’s book “Johannes Hunterus. Schriften, Briefe, Zeugnisse” (chapter 16) contains a medieval century letter from Johannes Honter (Saxon humanist who lived and died in Brasov) who described Brasov and three main communities living near it: Romanians in Schei, Hungarians, Saxon farmers (the inner fortress allowed only Saxon merchants and the upper class).


St. Nicholas church of Schei

In the book “Das Alt und Neu Teutsche Dacia” published in 1666, Saxon historian Johannes Tröster described the Romanians (Rumunyi) of then-Transylvania as an oppressed people with no rights, whose settlements are located in the mountains or near Hungarian/ Saxon towns. He acknowledged the surprising latinity of these “simple uneducated peasants”. He went on to transcribe from hearing a few Vallachian phrases in order to prove the latin substratum, phrases which are perfectly intelligible with modern Romanian. He also described their religion as identical to that of “Russians and Moscovites” (Christian-Orthodox).




Schei suburb in Brasov


The old Brasov was divided into Kronstandt or Corona (the main citadel) and 3 neighboring suburbs: Altstadt (Brasovechi in Romanian) inhabited by Saxons, Bulemnau (Blumana in Romanian) inhabited by Hungarians, and Schei (the Vallachian Upper Suburb – Wallachische or Obere Vorstadt). After the Saxons and Hungarians were converted from Catholic to Lutheran church, the Evangelical Blumenau Church was built on the place of a Catholic church to serve them.


Sf. Nicolae orthodox church in Schei, first dated in 1292.





The Christian Orthodox church Sf. Nicolae (St. Nicholas) from Schei served the Romanian community for centuries. First dated as a church settlement in 1292, its one of the oldest Orthodox churches in Transylvania. The first stone church was built in 1495 by then-prince of Vallachia.

From 1556 the first Romanian books were printed here. Next to the church is the first Romanian school, started in 1583.




The Romanians from Schei could only enter Brasov citadel at certain hours and had to pay a toll at the gate for selling their produce inside the citadel; they entered on horseback through Ecaterina Gate (closed in 1820), also called Porta Vallace or Vallah’s Gate, as it was the only entrance for the “Vallachians”. Another gate was built for them in 1820, called Poarta Târgul Cailor (Horse Fair Gate).  Still too small, the larger Schei Gate (Poarta Schei) was built in 1827 to fit the growing needs of the Schei population.

Schei Gate is still being used by Juni during their ceremonial walk when they come down from Schei towards the main city.


Ecaterina gate, the first gate used by Schei people to enter the citadel. A bigger gate was built but still too small, it was replaced by a third gate simply called Schei Gate.


Poarta Târgul Cailor (Horse Fair Gate), the second gate built for Schei people. Dismantled a few years later.


Schei Gate and Ecaterina Gate, the later less visible today from this angle due to the trees.


Schei Gate today – with view towards the old Brasov citadel


View of Schei from Tampa mountain

View of Schei from Tampa mountain


St. Nicholas church of Schei, the epicenter of the Romanian community



In the XIX century, a second Orthodox church was built in Schei, called Biserica Sf. Treime

In the XIX century a second Christian Orthodox church was built in Schei, called Biserica Sf. Treime



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Schei village is located in a long deep mountain valley, crossed by multiple rivers and creeks. Because of this, the village numbered over 20 water mills in the XIX century which spread all the way to Solomon’s Rocks. The street that lead to Solomon’s Rocks was called the Valley of the Water Mills (Valea Morilor).

One of the 20 plus water mills from Schei

One of the 20 plus water mills from Schei


“Capul satului” (the end of the village), when the settlement spread along Solomon river all the way up to Solomon’s Keys.

Back to when the village spread to Somonon's Rocks

Houses near Solomon’s Rocks in the early XXth century



Up until early the XXth century tourism developed, the old Schei village used to spread along Solomon river up to Solomon’s Rocks. The old houses of Schei have traditional Romanian wooden gates, some dating back to the XVII century; they are sculpted with astronomical motifs that are believed to protect the house. Some of the deteriorated wooden gates were replaced with metal gates.


The traditional Romanian wooden gates


Solar motifs stemming from ancient pre-Christian belief in the cult of the sun, much like the pre-Christian traditions still practiced today by the Juni.



Old Schei streets with traditional Romanian wooden gates


Old Schei suburb during winter, with St. Nicholas church in the background


Orchards of Schei up on the hills

Orchards of Schei today

Orchards of Schei today

Gradina lui Timan in Schei, where families used to gather

Gradina lui Timan in Schei – where families and groups of Juni gather for generations




Unlike the men of Schei who kept the traditional Romanian costume pieces, the Schei women’s clothing had a strong urban influence which reflected the community’s proximity to a flourishing commercial center.


The white blouse and veil are made of Borangic (natural Romanian silk)


View of Schei from Tampa mountain

View of Schei from Tampa mountain