Wednesday, 24 December 2014 00:00

Szaloncukor and sarmale: Christmas traditions in Hungary and Romania

Written by Ana Maria Ducuta


hungary christmas.jpg
Photo: Danielle Harms; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Old ladies singing carols at Budapest's Christmas market 


In the run-up to the winter holidays, E&M's little series about Christmas traditions in Europe continues. This time around, Ana Maria Ducuta takes us inside traditions in Hungary and her mother country Romania, where the Christmas period actually starts in mid-November.  


Christmas. The magical word that brings so much profit to merchandisers and supermarkets, making people so eager to buy and spend their money on useless things who somehow compensate for all the bad things that happened throughout the year. The new consumerist dimension of Christmas has basically drowned out its magical meaning and emotional attachment, making it a celebration of irrational spending. But for centuries, Christmas traditions were not only a way of carrying and conveying a message through generations, but also a moment of introspection and the chance to step into an alternative universe, where we find our identity in the customs and traditions of our ancestors. After all, it's all about understanding people's souls. And that is what traditions do: they carry a little piece of soul and identity across time. Christmas traditions are different across Eastern Europe, but they all carry a very important meaning that should remind us that each Christmas could be a re-birth and a new beginning, if only we’d take the chance to search for and find ourselves. In the former Eastern bloc, Christmas was not celebrated during the communist period which lasted until early 1990s (1989-1992) but after democracy was restored restored, Christmas traditions regained their place and importance.  Let's take a look at what happens in Romania and Hungary. 



Christmas is a magical time everywhere in the world and Hungary is no exception. Hungarian Christmas starts with the celebration of Advent, which starts four Sundays before Christmas. Meanwhile, front yards and tables are decorated with advent wreaths with four candles. Every Sunday before Christmas, one more candle is lit until the last one, which is lit on Christmas Eve, the most important evening in Hungarian Christmas traditions.

Traditional Hungarian Christmas dinner consists of carp fish soup, fried fish, turkey, stuffed cabbage and beigli (a traditional winter pastry stuffed with poppy seeds or chestnut filling). Another typical Hungarian Christmas sweet is Szaloncukor: with strings or small metal hooks, it can be used as a decoration for the Christmas tree, traditionally adorned on Holy Night (24 December). Every type of Christmas food has a certain symbolic meaning: honey makes life sweet, nuts and garlic bring health, apple means unity of the family and love while seeds brought good harvest. In the past (but still nowadays too) Christmas tablecloths represent health and prosperity.


Children are taught that it is Baby Jesus (Jeszuska) who brings the decorated tree and gifts for all on Christmas Eve and not Santa Claus. At midnight, most religious families attend the Holy Night mass to religiously celebrate the arrival of baby Jesus with classical Christmas carols and the traditional Christmas service.



bucharest christmas.jpg
Photo: Ting Chen; Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0
Bucharest's Christmas markets in 2013




The Christmas fast begins on 14 November and ends on 24 December. According to the Orthodox religion, during these forty days preceding Christmas, no one is allowed to eat meat, eggs and milk. But that's also a period of preparations for Christmas dinner.


Pig slaughter (Taierea porcului) is not a tradition we are all proud of, but it's one of the most important ones, practised widely in the Romanian countryside: each year on Saint Ignatius' Day (20 December) Romanian families, mostly those living in rural areas, sacrifice their pig, the animal they've been showing affection and even given a name to, in order to eat him for Christmas dinner. However, as barbaric as it sounds, the pork meat is very carefully prepared and tastes very good. This horrible slaughtering yields smoked ham, bacon and sausages and other goodies. On Christmas Eve, sarmale (meat and rice rolls wrapped in cabbage, served with polenta) but also cozonaci (a cake similar to Italian panettone but more solid, with chocolate and nuts) are served.


Christmas Romania sarmale
Photo: Alex Curpas; Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0
Sarmale, one of the traditional Romanian Christmas dishes, served with polenta 


Christmas carols and carolling are a very strong aspect of Romanian traditions. The tradition of carolling through the village, or from house to house is perpetuated by children. The most famous carols are Steaua (The Star), Trei pastori (The Three Shepherds), Trei Crai de la Rasarit (Three Wise Men coming from the East) and Mos Craciun (Santa Claus). Another traditional Romanian carol is the Star Carol, the lyrics of which are "The star has appeared on high / Like a big secret in the sky / The star is bright / May all your wishes turn out right". On the first day of Christmas, many carollers walk along the streets of towns and villages holding a star made of cardboard and paper on which are depicted various scenes from the Bible. A large wooden star is wrapped up with metal foil and adorned with bells and coloured ribbons: an image of the Nativity is pasted on its centre and the whole thing is attached to the end of a broom or stout pole. In return for such performances, carollers receive apples, nuts, traditional cakes and in many cases also money, as lately the spirit of carolling has been transformed into a business to raise funds for the next smartphone. In many parts of Romania, it's also a tradition that someone dresses up as a goat, with a multicoloured mask and goes round with the carol singers. In Transylvania, tables are laid, waiting for the carol singers who start at dawn and end carolling at dusk: after they sing two or three carols in the courtyard, the carollers are invited inside to be welcomed and offered traditional dishes.


Another Romanian Christmas tradition is related to spinning and weaving wool. It is a custom that women are not only proud of but which was also very helpful for Romanian girls, to get them married


In addition to singing carols, at Christmas time there are traditional games such as The Goat's Dance and the Vifleim. The carollers go firstly to the priest's house, then to each member of the group: they play Vifleim, a satirical piece of theatre and an ode to Christ’s birth, that takes place on an appropriate scene in front of the holy church with the priest as a guest of honour and actors dressed according to the role they are playing.


But further traditions are taking place in the country. In some parts of the country, for example, there is the custom of carraying the icon which symbolises the birth of Jesus Christ. In the north of Moldavia, Christmas Eve is a time for fasting and no one is allowed to uncover the table until the priest comes through the door, takes the first bite and blesses the meal.


Another Romanian Christmas tradition is related to spinning and weaving wool. It is a custom that women are not only proud of but which was also very helpful for Romanian girls to get them married as well as to provide the required amount of "wealth" to the family of their future husbands. Women would usually meet in one house to chat and to discuss the fate of the girls that were ready to get married. Elderly women were the ones giving advice on housekeeping and wool spinning, as well as on how to be a good wife and to have a rich household.






Ana Maria Ducuta comes from Romania and is 24 years old. She is a PhD candidate in History, she loves writing, reading and drinking tea. She has recently published her first e-book of absurd theatre and she is interested in travelling and spirituality.  


Last modified on Wednesday, 24 December 2014 18:42

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