by Marcu Beza Lecturer at King's College London University
J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London and Toronto, 1928

I TURN my mind back a few years, and I fancy myself walking in the streets of Bucharest at the approach of Christmas. All is covered in white; the glittering flakes of snow fall incessantly. Every now and then sledges pass with a merry tinkling. In front of the shop windows people gather, wondering at the many beautiful things displayed there. Conspicuous among the crowds by their dress are the newly arrived peasants, come to make their purchases. There is everywhere a hasty, unusual bustle, which gradually diminishes as the night draws near, though it is kept up and prolonged a good while after nightfall in the cafes. Now the snow flashes here and there under the lights—steady street-lights and wandering lights of the sleighs. Detached tunes of gipsy music linger in the air. At the quieter corners one catches, as in sleep, a subdued little dissyllabic cry; and on looking round, there is the chestnut-roaster with his lamp and his purple-red fire, which conveys such a pleasant, warm feeling.


Apart from some local touches, as one might judge, the scene is here similar to that of any great city in England. Nor is there much difference in the practice attending the festival. The interchange of greetings and presents is customary here, too, as is the charmingly starlit Christmas-tree with some of the more refined classes.


In the very early morning, about three o'clock, the birth of the Divine Child is heralded by the bells. Bucharest possesses numerous churches, and they all contribute to the beauty of the town as seen from a distance.


"The metal plates which cover the domes of the two hundred churches," writes J. W. Ozanne in his book, Three Years in Roumania, "reflecting the dazzling rays of the brilliant sun, produce an effect which may be described as splendid." From all these churches, then, great and little bells begin ringing at once on Christmas morn—not with the grand harmony, overpowering to the extent of being somewhat oppressive, of the Russian bells; neither have they, as in England, that distant, veiled sound which gives one the impression of coming from far beyond realities. Here in the cold, yet very often bright, atmosphere, they ring so cheerfully and clear, these many, many bells.


But in order to see the real Roumanian Christmas one has to get into the country. A sledge takes one there easily. As soon as it is out of town, swifter and swifter it glides on amidst the snow rapt plains, where from time to time silhouettes of wells appear with their long beams pointing towards the sky like fantastic birds. The villages are hardly seen—they are rather guessed at by the smoke rising from them. One enters them usually through rows of trees, all white with frost and icicles, standing by rivulets smitten into silence. And in silence, too, save for the cawing of the rooks, lie the scattered huts; nay, those of the more secluded parts seem quite lost under the snows. Having little or no intercourse with the outside, friends and neighbours assemble here to do work together on many of the winter nights. Then, around the warm hearth, whilst their hands are usefully engaged, what laughter and fun and story-telling! As in one of the most popular of their folk-tales the pearls miraculously string themselves, so the stories grow and link with each other—a whole pageant of wondrous creatures. At times a pause ensues of a sudden. They start and listen. Strange knocks are heard on the window; now the wind roars with something of evil foreboding. And there comes a dread, mainly of those malignant, dark spirits who, during the time before Epiphany, haunt every place.


The larger villages are filled with the mixed noises of the markets. A picturesque sight these! On little wooden stalls pitched without order, in Oriental fashion, are exhibited for sale any objects one might require. Prices are cried out. Men and women come, bargain loudly, ramble about, mingle together, people of all conditions—the toiler of the land, the mountain shepherd in his sheepskin cloak, and the ever-tramping gipsy. Everyone is getting ready. Not only for Christmas. They follow so close upon it, all the other winter festivals: New Year's Day, on which St. Basil is also celebrated, and Epiphany, and St. John the Baptist. Besides, people have fasted now for six whole weeks, and naturally these great days are made the occasion for a jolly good feasting—feasting mainly on pork and turkey.


And among the boys, in their own busy world, how many preparations! They join together in small bands, and on Christmas Eve they go from house to house singing carols. These bear a special name of colinde. Composed largely in blank verse, they are of much interest, not only for their peculiar blending of Pagan and Christian ideas, but likewise for allusions they contain to the life and circum­stances of yore. The most familiar is the one beginning:

"To-night, great night,

     White flowers!

The great night of Christmas,

     White flowers!"

Or that given by V. Alexandri in his Folk-Poems:

"Arise, great boyars, arise,

White flowers! . . ."

Their singing ends up with a loud, hearty greeting by the whole band:


"Good-morning to the old Christmas!" Upon which they ask, and are given, besides fruit or money, a kind of home-made cake.


The custom differs somewhat in Macedonia amongst the Roumanians as well as amongst the Greeks and Slays, for here the boys are provided with sticks or clubs, and they knock hard at the doors, shouting: "Colinde, colinde!" to which they add a few simple verses. I give those used in the village of Clisura:

"Colinde, colinde,

Christ was born

In the stable of oxen

For fear of the Jews.

The horse uncovered Him,

The ox did cover Him."

The last words allude to the relation of the Virgin Mary with the two animals. It is told by the people that, after the Child's birth in the stable, Mary covered Him with hay. Both the ox and the horse then stirred from their place, and Mary bade them be still. The ox obeyed, breathed even to keep the Child warm, whereupon Mary blessed him that he should be always content and quiet ; whilst the horse not only disregarded Mary's request, but stamped on the ground, neighed and pulled the hay from over the Babe, so that Mary cursed him never to find rest and satisfaction.


This is but an episode in the eventful journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. If one examines the Christmas carols carefully, one finds many other points of interest. Thus one of them tells how, when on the road, Mary was seized with pains, and lay down under a poplar tree, which did not withhold its rustling, and Mary cursed it that it should shake and tremble for ever, be it calm or windy weather. Mary then rose and walked until she found her most needed rest under the evergreen and ever-blessed fir tree. Later on Mary came to Bethlehem, and knocked everywhere for shelter, but no one would accept her. At last she chanced upon the palace of one Crăciun, where she was allowed to enter the stables. As a matter of fact, Crăciun—a word of doubtful origin—means Christmas, and we thus have a simple personification of a cruel power adverse to the holy Babe's birth. An idea seems to cling here that is reminiscent of the opposition between the old spirit of decay and the new fertilising spirit. This pagan background is also emphasised by a number of carols. I shall refer especially to one of the many variants.


The Lady Mary, wearing the black robes of a nun, wanders through the world in search of her Son. She arrives at the waters of Jordan, where she addresses the godfather of Jesus:

"Listen, John,

St. John!

Hast thou seen

Or hast thou heard

Of my Son,

The Lord of Heaven

And of earth?"

St. John tells her what he himself has heard with his ears concerning the Crucifixion, and advises her to go to the fountain of Pilat, if she wishes to get a glimpse of her Son. Mary goes thither sobbing and crying; and when at last she reaches that place and sees her Son "like a luminous morning star," she asks Him:

"O, thou flower of basilic,

Why hast Thou allowed Thyself

To fall into the hands of strangers,

In the land of the heathen!"

Jesus then explains that He has done it for the sake of the world, and gives a glowing picture of the benefits to arise :

"The fields will be seen

Green with grass,

And the fountains with cold water,

And whoever dies

Will belong to God!"1

Now, in the image of Mary here does one not recognise that of the ancient Mother Goddess in search of her beloved Osiris or Adonis or Dionysos, whose death and resurrection bring about the revival of nature? We know that the mysteries of the latter included certain rituals such as dances in the shape of animals, sounding of drums and cymbals, and mimetic thunder. This was produced by a bull-roarer—the Greek ρόμβος—a piece of wood with a string through it. A similar device with all its magical significance enters into today's practices in Roumania, when wandering about the houses is taken up again on St. Basil's Day. It consists of a little bucket provided with a well-stretched skin, through which one or more horse-hairs are inserted. The pulling of the hairs produces a deep sound like the lowing of a bullock; hence its name after that of the animal itself—buhaiu. Add to this the cracking of lashes and the continuous ringing of sheepbells. In the absence of one of the instruments, any other object, such as a broken scythe or a pork-bladder filled with grains, would answer the purpose. Of course, there are kind people who seem to enjoy, if not the music, at least the fun and good cheer of its producers. But some object to this kind of thing, do not like to be annoyed at a time when, as they would say, the chickens have already gone to sleep. Ion Creangă, a well-known Roumanian writer, tells us, in his Recollections from Childhood, that, entering a house with the whole band on a New Year's Eve, their first accents caught the ears of the householder just at the moment she was raking the fire of the kiln to put the cakes in, and out she rushed after them with the burning poker and not less burning language.


To the combined music of the aforesaid paraphernalia—that is, the buhaiu, the cracking of whips and ringing of bells—are sung or recited or even shouted different poems bearing on the prosperous harvest to come, a vivid symbol of which is also sometimes displayed in the shape of a decorated plough driven by oxen.


This fertility ceremony is further enhanced by the fact that some of the boys hold in their right hands rods decked with paper flowers called sorcova; they approach and tap one with the greeting:

"May you live

And flourish

Like an apple tree

Or a pear tree

In time of spring;

Like a stem of rose,

Strong as iron,

Gleaming as steel,

Swift as the arrow."2

Sorcova is probably derived from soorva, the Slavonic for boughs, and in some parts of Macedonia is replaced by a real green bough from an olive tree. With regard to the animal disguises mentioned above as an element of the Dionysian ritual, it is to be noted that nowadays in Roumania the carol-singers are sometimes accompanied by bogeys known as brezaia, capra or turca—that is, men with the head of a goat or bull and a long beak which claps now and again, when pulled by a string. They go from house to house, and dance and recite verses, mostly of a satirical turn.


On Christmas Eve and the following days until Epiphany, one would also meet in the streets groups of boys carrying a huge star, and singing:

"Who receives the star,

The bright, beautiful star?"

It is made of coloured paper, illuminated from within, and representing scenes connected with the birth of Christ. In company with the star, a mumming play is very often produced. The essential characters who take part in it are those well known in St. Matthew's Gospel: Herod the King, with one or two officials, the three Magi, and a heavenly messenger.3 I remember that when at school I impersonated this last character, attired as an angel with white thin tights, two large wings, a wooden sword, and a good many little bells. I can-not understand to the present day the significance of those bells. I was supposed to arrive, or rather to emerge, suddenly; yet such a lot of tinkling-tinkling went round before my appearance. And there I was—a very poor angel, indeed! As few people invited us indoors, my lips trembled with cold till I became speechless, with no thought save to return quickly to the protection of my coat.


Long afterwards, these performances were the subject of much laughter and parody amongst us in school. We made great fun, I recollect, of one of the players—a simple fellow, who took himself very seriously, with a long, dark robe, and a hand on his yarn-beard, used to say, in a deeply conscious voice: "I remember, too, the words of the Prophet Balaam. . . ."


No doubt, both the star and the mumming are of a mediæval date. Various later influences entered also in all the other customs; but their true origin and meaning could be traced far back. The great Roman festivals of Saturnalia and Opalia were celebrated in a very similar way. And there is a sense of pleasure, touched with a certain melancholy, to look in Latin authors for such revealing passages on the subject, and see how the same old conceptions underlie these customs, in spite of the tremendous gulf of time which separates us from them.


In Martial, for instance, one finds an epigram about the usual eating of pork on Christmas: "This pig, fed on acorns among foaming wild boars, will make you a merry Saturnalia." Macrobius says that some people used to send each other placentas. These are but the special Christmas cakes of our days, to which the carol-singers allude, thinking on how they are going to be received :

"With a cake of pure flour,

On the cake the jug of wine,

To have the feast complete!"

Once a big cake of the sort, nicely adorned, was laid with a kind of ceremony upon the table, and left there for many days, as is still done by a section of the Vlachs in Macedonia—the whole proceeding being reminiscent of Ovid's description in the Fasti: "Something of the ancient use had come down to our years; a pure platter bears the food offered to Vesta. . . ."


Even the manner in which these cakes are made presents a striking resemblance to what Ovid further points out: "In old days the peasant baked only the grain in ovens—the goddess of kilns having, too, her own rites. The hearth itself used to bake the bread, covered over with ashes, and the potsherd laid upon the hot ground."


Could ever the author of these lines have thought that, long after him, a new people would arise to keep on the customs and traditions, and even the tongue of his own people, in a remote land, where he himself had voiced the sorrows of an exile in the full cadences of his Tristia and Epistulæ ex Ponta?


1 See Folk-Lore, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, 1923, Dr. M. Gaster's article, " Roumanian Popular Legends of the Lady Mary."


2 Given also in Princess Bibescu's Isvor, p. 204, London.


3 An interesting play of the kind is given in Graiul si Folklorul Maramuresului, by Tache Papahagi, pp. 183-201, Bucureşti, 1925.


The Star

Angels and Shepherds
Scene from a Nativity Play