The world in which the Romanian peasant lives has always been rich in customs, which seem like picturesque folk exhibitions for the untrained eye of an outsider.
For those who understand their significance, these have a profound meaning regarding interpersonal relationships and human relation with nature. Through such exhibitions and manifestations, people from a certain environment have tried to give meaning to certain moments and events in their life.
Romanian traditional customs have as means of expression: music, choreography, gesture and mimic. These are complex cultural actions, meant above all to organize their life, to mark important moments of their transition through the world, and to shape their behavior and attitude.
There are two essential categories of customs:
The first one marks different moments during the year (religious holidays, customs connected to agricultural labor or environmental factors), noting that these customs were aimed at the community life of the village, and were public and recurrent in nature.
The latter refers to those customs which attest different important moments in the man’s life, their unfolding being linked to well-defined moments, which are not recurrent.
The yearly customs were generally directly connected to the unfolding of time and to the calendar. Another connection is that of the collective agricultural labor, of the shepherds finishing their work according to tradition which was in the interest of the community to help and contribute to their fulfillment. Regarding the customs connected to important life events, the fulfillment of the custom was, above all, in the interest of the man and his household.
THE CUSTOMS WHICH MARK IMPORTANT EVENTS IN MAN’S LIFE are aimed at the essential human events: birth, marriage and death. Nowadays folklorists name the traditional customs concerning birth, initiation, marriage and death as rites of passage.
In general, it was the wedding that through its ample unfolding and its merry and festive features drew the greatest and most active participation of the community.
Birth related customs regard the grown-ups: besides parents, there are the midwife and the godparents. When the baby suffered from an illness or faced danger, the custom was to change the baby’s name into “The Bear” (Ursu) or “The Wolf” (Lupu), in hope of avoiding the risk of being “recognized” again by that danger in future. This custom also implies the idea of the baby’s “death and resurrection”.
After the birth customs, following the course of life, the most important rites are those marking the transition towards the status of a lad or lass suitable for marriage.
At a certain moment established by traditional custom, the child was taken out of his social environment in which he lived in with his family and childhood friends, and was placed in a new environment, according not only to age but to profession as well. Thereby he acquired a series of rights and privileges: he could go to the fair, horas, the ball, at the pub; he could be a part of the minstrel’s troupe, he could take girls to dance, he could grow a beard.
Within the rite of passage, where the traditional ways of unfolding were preserved, the young man had to pass a series of tests of power and manhood. Those who got the new status sometimes wore distinguishing marks, especially the girls. The girls would go to the hora with the head uncovered, with their hair braided or even wearing a wreath of flowers.
The next important event marked by particular folkloric exhibitions is the wedding. Wedding related customs exceeded, due to the amplitude and variety of the folkloric exhibitions, those of birth and transition to the status of lad and lass suitable for marriage.
This shows that since time immemorial the people regarded marriage with great importance. This interest was directly linked to the economic life of folk communities.
The new economic unity (the family) established through wedding was meant to contribute to the biological and social perpetuation of the kind and was the center of interest of the entire traditional community. The wedding had to be consecrated through a series of rituals and ceremonies, meant for safekeeping it against dangers and the forces of darkness, and to bring fecundity, prosperity and a happy life.
The entire unfolding of the wedding related customs comprises three main points: the betrothal, the wedding and the customs after the wedding. If we take a good look at the wedding customs, we notice that a breach, a conflict occurred in the social balance, a clash of interests and feelings owing to the departure of the young ones from their peers and family, especially the departure of the bride from the parental home.
Everything that was done during the vivid and ample ceremonials was meant to solve conflicts. The conflict was solved through the admission of the young in the grown-ups’ category, the integration of the bride into the groom’s family, the creation of a new social cell and the establishment of new ties between the in-laws.
The invitation to the wedding, “The Calling”, would be made on Saturday by one or more lads, relatives or friends of the groom, all wearing their festive garments. “The Callers” would have a flask of wine or brandy and raise glasses with the guests. They would stroll the streets accompanied by a group of fiddlers (lautari) playing “The Song of Calling”. They would enter the houses of those they wanted to invite; they honored them and made the worthy invitation.
One of the most important moments in the actual wedding ceremony was the arrival of the groom’s convoy at the bride’s house. They were expected with different “hostilities” or tests, which the groom had to pass in order to get to the bride.
The lad wearing a necklace would look for the bride and take her, according to certain villages’ tradition, in front of a mirror. He would try to deceive her three times, and then he would put the necklace around her neck. The bride would give him a handkerchief. Everyone would then sit at the table and dine, listening to the fiddlers’ songs.
Following the meal was the departure of the bride from the parental home and the recital of forgiveness. In a clean room a carpet was laid on the floor with a pillow on top. The grooms would kneel on the pillow headed towards east. On the way to the groom’s house, he would be hindered by different obstacles, in order to prove that he is capable of taking care of the new family.
Until recently, these obstacles were real: damaged bridges, pits covered with leaves, briars on the pathway or even fights. Later on, and nowadays increasingly often, these obstacles are symbolic and humorously viewed.
The traditional decorum required the bride to cry.
The welcoming of the bride in the new family was a solemn act, accompanied by a series of rites. On the arrival at the groom’s courtyard, the young would wash their hands and they would make a hora before entering the house. In other places, the guests were greeted with bread and salt, or with wheat or rice grains, which were thrown at them as a symbol of wealth. The house was sprinkled with water on all four corners to protect the wedding against evil forces.
Death related customs – In our folklore, death related customs have preserved, more than the other customs, ancient beliefs and practices prior to Christianity.
There are three main stages regarding death related customs inherent to every rite of passage: the separation from the living category, the preparation for the transition into the afterlife and the integration and restoration of the social balance which was disturbed by the departure of the dead one.
The death was announced not only to the relatives and neighbors, but to the entire community: the bells were tolled in a certain way, in the mountain regions an alphorn was used, in other places a black kerchief was put at the gate of the dead one’s house or the men in the dead person’s family would have their head uncovered as a sign of mourning.
The dead one would then be laid on a bench or a table in an open coffin so that the others could come and say goodbye to him.
The separation of the dead one from the family and the household would constitute the essential part and would usually take three days. All the practices meant to restore the social balance, broken through death, took a lot more than those three days of the actual burying ceremonial. They were done, and they still are done, for forty days or six weeks. Only then would the family members resume their lives.
The Wake usually takes two nights and its purpose is not to leave the dead alone. In traditional folkloric environments there is the belief that the dead one must be guarded, for if an animal (dog, cat, chicken etc.) goes in front, under or over him, he would turn into a poltergeist (strigoi).
When the wake is conducted in a traditional manner, the guardians would dance, play masks games, fun games, and card games, would play the whistle, tell fairytales, eat, drink and discuss current issues of the community. They would also party, not only to keep awake, but to mark the moment of separation from the dead person during the rite of passage. It is the last party of the living men together with the dead one.
The transformation of the rural society into a consumer society similar to the urban one, and the demographic changes has lead to the loss of the customs’ practice. Many of the Romanian traditional customs can now be observed only in shows and festivals. The present rural population is undergoing an emancipation process that is on the border between identity loss and Romanian traditional heritage.
Considerable efforts are made by dedicated people to preserve the costumes, the dances, the architecture and everything related to the Romanian folk tradition.