Paganism is widely used to describe ancient polytheistic religious traditions as well as archaic folk customs. After adopting Christianity, many nations adopted the old traditions to the new ones but, no nation gave up for good to their ancestral cultural heritage. Romanian ancestors, the Dacians, were among the few European people to worship a single God, Zamolxe. So, Christianity was easily understood and embraced by them. But even so, the Dacians also believed in different divine creatures seen as protectors of nature and, in their honor, people created several rituals according to the position of the Sun and other stars. In time, these rituals became intimately related to Orthodox holidays, adding more color and symbolism to them.
Winter holidays are probably the richest in such pagan customs which are even now very well preserved and respected. Without exaggerations, it can be said that Romanians are quite a mystical nation. Ignat Day from December 20, when the pork is sacrificed in order to prepare the meat for Christmas traditional dishes, originates from a Dacian ritual. According to that, the pork was sacrificed because it was considered the symbol of the forces of darkness which faded the sunlight, making also reference to the winter solstice.
Decorating the Christmas tree is also one of the many pagan customs. Romanians prefer to decorate fir trees and twigs as only this coniferous is considered sacred. Dacians had a very strong cult for fir, and this tree was used both in wedding and funeral rituals. Even now, in the southern part of Romania, during traditional weddings, a fir is decorated with fruits, homemade pretzels, nuts, and colorful paper, symbolizing the future happy life of the future wife. The fir is also decorated at funerals, symbolizing the “wedding” of the deceased person with death.
But probably the most amazing and interesting customs are those related to the New Year’s Eve. Rich in symbols and full of vitality, these pagan customs remind about the time when Romanian forefathers had a predominantly agrarian life. Plugusorul (the little plow) is the most common custom and consists of a poem which wishes the host rich crops and good luck for the year to come. The poem is sung in groups, accompanied by bells and sometimes shouts.
However, the mask dances are, by far, the most attractive and original customs. The dances of the Bear, the Stag or the Goat are just breathtaking, truly live shows full of color. These magical ceremonials are like theatre plays where the main character – one of the magical animals – dies and revives, symbolizing the end of the present year and the beginning of the new one. The ritual is mainly based on the eternal fight between good and evil or life and death and makes use of amazing masks, truly authentic folk creations.
The scenes are performed in groups, each person playing a different role: the doctor, the policeman, ordinary peasants, the priest while others play the drums and other traditional musical instruments. These pagan customs are almost chaotic, noisy but certainly captivating, making the Romanian winter holidays an experience never to forget.
All these are just a part of the multitude winter traditions and customs as each region has its own particularities and specific rituals. We only can hope to discover all of them and to encourage the youths to maintain them for years to come.