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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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)
___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.
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.
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).
A peak into more pre-Christian rituals still practiced throughout other parts of eastern Europe.
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.
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.
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. . www.charlesfreger.com/portfolio/wilder-mann
The pre-christian customs still practiced in rural areas shall not be confused with modern pagan revival called “neo-paganism”.