Are you planning to visit Romania during Christmas or around 25-26 December? Then practice saying Craciun fericit! (meaning "Merry Christmas!") and get ready for a magical Christmas in Romania!
In today's article I want to tell you how Romanians celebrate Christmas, probably the most important public holiday in our country. And how you can blend in: where to go and things to do on your holiday, as well as some do’s and don’ts that will make your experience even better.
Beware: before entering any Romanian’s house starting from Christmas Eve (December 24th) until after New Year’s Eve you’ll have to:
- (at least) hum Romanian Christmas carols or join a group of local carol singers (and give them a small tip) or play one from youtube!
- get ready for a food triathlon in the form of a multi-course meal with traditional dishes and drinks in home you visit
- come with gifts for children (at least sweats) and/or a bottle of wine, and place them underneath the Christmas tree
- receive A LOT of hospitality and prepare a range of variations for “no, thank you, I’m full!”
- blend in with the laughter, joy and festive atmosphere of a typical Romanian Christmas dinner
For all Romanian families, Christmas time is not just a public holiday for which they get time off to be with their families and travel. And, yes, in Orthodox Christianity (85% of Romanians) the birth of Jesus is an important religious holiday.
There’s something else that explains the crazy, over-the-top festive mood during this time of the year...
You see, more than 30 years ago in communist Romania, Christmas celebrations were
banned. Winters in Romania were bleak, very cold, with few gifts to share and food was scarce.
Now, fast-forward to today's large family gatherings with abundance of food, gifts and joy! Sure, the Western, Coke-drinking Santa Claus is now present in big cities and shopping malls with its typical consumerist culture, discounts, Christmas decorations and events.
But the original Christmas spirit is still present, especially in rural areas and in traditional regions such as Maramures and Bukovina. When you visit Romania for the first time, it’s good to know some basics about our country, which our article will help you with.
But in this one we’re going to take a deep dive into what Christmas in Romania looks like and what’s the best way you can experience it.
1. When is Christmas in Romania celebrated
Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th. You may hear old-fashioned Julian calendar Christmas celebrations which have a 13-day delay thus placing Christmas on January 7th. This is the case in Russia, Ukraine or our neighbors, the republic of Moldova.
Romania switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1924 so locals are eagerly awaiting the good news of the birth baby Jesus on the same date as the Western world.
The whole winter in Romania is magical - but the month of December is special. Leading up to Christmas, there's a series of that make December an all-around celebration month.
- holidays in December
It all starts with the combined public holiday of St. Andrew's Day on November 30th and Romanian National Day on December 1st. These are a public holiday so many people have time off and tourist attractions are
The magic of Christmas starts to seep in around December 6th on St. Nicholas Day when Old Man Nicholas (or Moș Nicolae in Romanian) is known to make house calls and put small gifts in the boots of Romanian children but they behaved!
Not even one week apart, we get two important and common name days, and everybody knows somebody they need to congratulate!
Then, on December 20th there is a special holiday called St. Ignat Day where people gather to sacrifice the pig they will eat on Christmas Day. This ritual is important and well-kept especially in rural areas. It's common that Romanians from big cities or small towns travel to their relatives or friends in the countryside for this.
Typically the head of the household makes the ritual gesture. Then the whole family takes part in preparing the meat they will enjoy during the Christmas meals (sausages, cured ham, lard and more, nothing gets wasted!).
Start from: Bucharest
Finally, in the days leading up to Christmas Eve (December 24th) locals go into a
frenzy with last minute shopping for food, gifts and Christmas decorations. In the big cities, everyone is in a hurry, shopping malls are full and traffic is heavy!
The Christmas tree is decorated a couple of days before, just in time for Santa Clause to pass by during the night to place gifts for everyone underneath. Carol singers roam through the streets and some people go to church for the evening mass.
Then, in the morning of Christmas Day (December 25th) everybody sees what they got and the Christmas celebrations begin. The first day of Christmas is reserved for family visits, exchanging of gifts, heavy meals and long walks in the city towards the local Christmas Market.
Listen to some traditional Romanian Christmas carols
Although many Orthodox holidays coincide with Catholic holidays around this time, there might be slight differences.
For example, in some western countries, on January 6th The Feast of Epiphany is celebrated and is closely linked to the birth of Jesus (the arrival of the Three Wise Men with gifts on the scene of the Nativity).
This holiday is known as Little Christmas. In Romania, January 6th is also an important holiday but it represents the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.
2. How Romanians Celebrate Christmas
While our grandparents and older generations still remember the times when Christmas celebrations could not be expressed, younger generations dive headfirst into the festivities this time of the year brings.
All the major big cities are brightly decorated with Christmas lights. There’s a huge Christmas tree in the main public square and a Christmas market around it. You’ll find the most beautiful Christmas markets in Bucharest, Sibiu, Brasov, Cluj-Napoca and Timisoara.
Some people will still have at home some rare, hand-made glass Christmas decorations that has been passed down from generation to generation. Wood, ceramic, and handcrafted items are also beautiful to see. You can even find some in a Christmas market.
If you travel in the countryside you will notice big differences in how people celebrate Christmas in big cities compared to Romanian villages.
Local tip:with the Carpathian Mountains occupying 55% of our country's territory, if you're a fan of winter sports you might want to read more about the ski resorts in Romania
The Christmas holiday in rural areas tends to be more toned-down and closely follows the traditions of this important religious celebration.
Romanians in the countryside are very religious people and Christmas in Romania cannot be separated from the notion of the birth of baby Jesus. For some, celebrations do not start until Christmas morning, after church mass, when they can end their nativity fast.
Gift-giving is still a thing, but mostly among family members and close friends. Secret Santa is slowly gaining ground in urban areas, where it is practiced in companies and schools, along with other Western-world Christmas traditions, like kissing under the mistletoe and listening to well-known carols. Santa Claus comes to Romanian children, too. However, waiting till morning is not necessarily part of the traditions.
During the Romanian communist regime, Santa Claus, or Moș Crăciun (Old Man Christmas), seen as an American tradition, was replaced by a Soviet version of Father Christmas, called Mos Gerila (Old Man Frost), who was stern and brought few presents. A political adaptation...
Urban or rural, Christmas Day is dedicated to family members. But traveling here lets you become part of a Romanian family for the celebration and the following year since you will be more than welcome to join. Guesthouses put together special programs to present Romanian local customs, especially in the Northern areas of Maramures and Bucovina where you can even have Christmas dinner dressed in traditional clothes.
3. Christmas traditions in Romania
Decorating the Christmas tree is one of the most beloved traditions. It used to be done on Christmas Eve, but with so many stores and other venues propping up trees everywhere, it’s harder for most to hold on until the 24th to decorate the one at home.
The more traditional-looking trees have decorations made with natural materials and apples, a throwback to the Middle Ages when, on December 24th, people celebrated Adam and Eve Day by decorating a tree with apples.
Depending on which parts of Romania you visit for Christmas, you will witness various Romanian Christmas traditions. As with most peoples converted to Christianity, the new religious traditions and celebrations were placed on top of existing pagan holidays so locals would have an easier time integrating them.
Since Christmas is in the middle of winter, in Romania, it was placed over celebrations meant to scare away evil spirits said to take advantage of the longer winter nights and lurk in the shadows. Therefore, if you come across a Christmas parade or spend time in rural areas where the community spirit is still alive, you will see people wearing hideous masks and making a lot of noise.
Some of the most impressive traditions to ward off evil spirits can be experienced in the region of Maramures where young people wear traditional clothes under sheep skins and bell necklaces adorned with grotesque masks.
The same type of celebrations can be observed around New Year's, when various animals, like the Bear and the Goat, join the procession against evil to chase it away from the hopeful new year.
In Cluj County, for example, one of the most popular Christmas traditions revolves around caroling and spreading the good news. Unmarried young men in the village of Marisel will dance and sing carols in front of the Church and are allowed to ask unmarried young women to dance.
Start from: Cluj-Napoca or Sibiu
In most parts of the country, caroling is a very serious business. Large groups of young men come up to the houses of the wealthiest members of the communities and sing traditional carols. To be visited by such a group means that the community sees you as a worthy and hard-working individual. In return, the host must receive all carolers (groups can be of more than ten people) and offer traditional food and beverages.
This will be a great opportunity for you to experience an authentic holiday season if the host of the accommodation you chose is situated in a prosperous rural area. They can also plan sleigh rides and prepare a warm place for guests by the fire outside to take part in the preparation of some of the festivities.
And to contribute to the season's magic, the most popular Christmas traditions revolve around carol singers. Traditionally, carolers, made up of groups of children, unmarried men, or married people, go from door to door on Christmas Eve (Ajunul Craciunului) to spread the news of the birth of Jesus and the arrival of the three wise men.
The "star carol" is the most famous traditional Romanian carol, the first that children in Romania learn. It's very popular in Transylvania where you can hear it in German and Hungarian too, a reflection of the region's cultural richness.
In the true tradition of Orthodox Christians, there is a clear distinction between Romanian Christmas carols, telling the story as inspired by religious texts, and Christmas songs, which have gained more popularity thanks to the ‘Western way’ of celebrating the winter holidays.
4. Traditional dishes and drinks for the Christmas Meal
Some people travel with their hearts, some with their minds, while others love to experience the culinary delights of each corner of the world. And you don't have to fall into this category to enjoy Christmas in Romania entirely.
The Romanian Christmas dinner is constructed around the pork meat from the pig sacrificed on St. Ignat Day. People prepare:
- pork steak and sarmale (seasoned meat and rice stuffed in cabbage leaves that go great with sour cream)
- toba (looks like a giant sausage made from pork meat suspended in aspic, served as an appetizer),
- caltabos (a special type of boiled sausage mixed with garlic and herbs)
- piftie (aspic made from chicken, pork or turkey)
- boeuf salad (beef or chicken meat, potatoes, carrots, pickles, mixed with mayo)
- a variety of pickled vegetables
- the star of the Christmas meal, cozonaci (a type of sweet bread with poppy seed, nuts or turkish delight filling)
Start from: University Square
Start from: Cluj-Napoca
Traditionally, the main focus is on pork-based foods, so desserts were to complete the menu. Apart from cozonaci, every family completes the menu with whatever they view as traditional cakes. It all goes down great with the help of mulled wine and tuica the traditional Romanian spirit.
The last one is a highly alcoholic beverage. Take care when having a small glass. Shots have nothing on Balkanic beverages.
These will be on the menu wherever you go to celebrate Christmas in Romania. It is safe to say that this is a meat lovers' paradise.
And in case you’re wondering how can Romanians handle such high-calorie, heavy meals over the course of 2-3 days?
Well, it's more about the joy of having people over and serving them till they drop. Once again, a memory of the hard years of poverty endured under the communist regime, but one that created a dynamic of its own even if younger generations did not experience those times.
Oh, and pills to ease your digestion. Ask your Romanian host for one, they surely have a collection :)
5. Where are the best Romanian Christmas Markets
After so much sitting and eating, city dwellers love to go out for a walk. All the big cities in Romania boast having the most beautiful Christmas markets among the rest.
Indeed, each city will have one filled with small houses selling handmade crafts like tree ornaments made of dried oranges and cinnamon, knitted toys, leather products, and traditional food producers with cured meat, cheese, and sweets like gingerbread, cozonaci (a sort of traditional cakes in the form of a loaf with cocoa and walnut filling, with raisins and Turkish delight), and homemade chocolate.
The Sibiu Christmas Market followed by the ones in Bucharest and Oradea, are said to be the best. The ones from Brasov, Iasi and Timisoara are runner ups.
As all these markets tend to become very crowded, you may want to check our article with safety tips when visiting Romania to ease your concerns if any.
Being an all-year tourist destination preferred by locals and foreigners alike, the market in Sibiu has an ice-skating rink, a giant Ferris wheel (the main attraction for those looking to snap the perfect picture, although there is quite a long queue before you manage to get on), neatly organized producer stalls, and much more.
In the evening, an MC is coordinating the event, and Mos Craciun usually appears and talks to the children. Professional singers perform Romanian Christmas carols or international Christmas songs. It's impossible not to get in the Christmas spirit when you’re visiting Romania during this time of the year!
The Balea Ice Hotel at the top of Transfagarasan Road
The winter holidays are the brightest and happiest of the year for Romanians. They get time off to prepare for the Christmas celebrations and ensure their table will be filled with all the excellent traditional dishes. They enjoy receiving carol singers who spread the news of the birth of Jesus, the coming of the three wise men, and even the evil acts of King Herod.
We encourage you to visit Romania and experience a different Christmas season than you ever did before. December is a great time of year to visit Romanian tourist attractions.
Come, enjoy, and tell us which was, according to you, the very popular part of Christmas you fell in love with.
Your Romanian Friend,