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Christmas traditions in Romania

Updated on December 8, 2011
courtesy of
courtesy of

A pig's last scream happens in the month of December, around Christmas time. Men with dirty jackets break in its little pen, grab it from its legs and neck, dragging it out, ground it and kill it with a stab in the jugular. Outside, a big fire is burning. Women with red, icy faces are watching. Little kids are hiding inside, covering their ears. If they pity the pig, the animal will suffer and the adults reserved it a dignified death. The scent of blood lurks over the village, sneaks high into the sky, through the snow flakes and clouds. The pig was sacrificed.

When I was a kid, every family in the village had a pig for Christmas. The few ones that didn't were very, very poor and could not afford to buy and raise a pig. The animal was usually bought in spring, at a very young age, and fed with greens, corn and kitchen waste. In the summer time, every pig was vaccinated and the ones raised for meat would have a vasectomy too.

In late October and early November, the pig would be evaluated and forced feed if too small or too skinny. The size of the animal was a reason of pride for the master of the house. On December 20Th, St. Ignatius Teofor Day (Ignat) the pig was to be sacrificed, cooked, and eaten on Christmas day.

There isn't any clear explanation how come Romanians got to kill a pig in this particular day and proclaim it a christian tradition. There is a mix of pagan rituals and beliefs(including the fertility and abundance ones, imported from Greeks or Romans), indigenous stories (about a man named Ignat who, by mistake, killed his father trying to kill the pig), and christian components (like Sf. Ignatius, an early christian and disciple of St. John the Evangelist). This tradition is very old and had been enriched during centuries. It also had been carried on until few years ago.

In 2007, Romania had to adhere to European Union legislation. One of the laws prohibits cruelty against animals, in other words the pigs need to be given an anesthetic before sacrifice. I cannot see a romanian peasant fallowing EU's rules, and, to be honest, I don't think he's even aware of them. He's mainly concerned about the Christmas dinner as you will see.

The day the pig is slaughtered, the master of the house awakes very early in the morning. He gathers some of his best neighbours and friends at his home. The wives are starting the fire, in the backyard. A large wooden table is set. They bring kitchen utensils, knives, pots. The men kill the animal. They burn it over the fire to remove its hair. Then they portion it and leave to do the same job for another family. Then the women take over. Withe huge pots of hot water, they clean the entire animal. Sometime they collect the blood, to make a special sausage. They clean the intestines, the stomach, the liver and other organs. The preparation takes all day.

There are 4 more days till Christmas and there's many other things to be done. Now, with a very large amount of pork, the family have to preserve the meat to last over the winter. With the arrival of the electric freezer, this job has become an easy task.

Still, there are some families who like to prepare the meat according with the old methods. Some of the pork parts will be smoked, some salted. Parts of the bacon will be melt in big pots over slow heat and transformed in fat, used in cooking. My grandma used to pour the fat in a huge bucket. While still warm and liquid, she'd drop in some roasted pork. The fat will solidify and this way preserve the roasted portion inside. The intestines, stomach and organs are used to make all kind of tasty sausages. From feet and ears they make jellied pork.

homemade sausages and beacon
homemade sausages and beacon
sarmale and polenta
sarmale and polenta

The cooking starts on Christmas Eve day. A traditional Christmas dinner includes pork roast, sarmale (cabbage rolls), piftie(jellied pork), at least three kinds of sausages, pork soup, lots of pickles and pickled vegetables (like cabbage, tomatoes, cauliflower, red paper), sweet bread and polenta. They also make a traditional holly bread, named "colaci", which is a raised dough shaped as a cross. This bread will be taken at the church and shared with the entire community.

The women cook and bake until late in the night. They have to have everything ready by 5 am in Christmas Day. The cooks have to trust their cooking skills without testing the food. Nobody will be allowed to eat any meat yet, not even eggs or milk. According with the rules of orthodox church, everybody have fast for 40 days. Not many people are fasting today anymore but some of us try to limit the consumption of meat before Christmas. When I was a kid I was always allowed to taste some of the goodies made for Christmas and if not, I used to sneak in the kitchen and serve myself.

Early morning in Christmas Day people go to church. They have not eaten anything yet. All that yummy food is still at home, sometimes right on the dinner table. But everybody brings samples of their dishes and display them on a huge table set at church. After the liturgy everybody shares the goods.

Later on, women will comment on each other's cooking skills, usually finding something to criticize about the neighbours' food. Only now, when the priest had blessed their meals, people can eat meat. Eating and drinking is the word of the day. Outside, the pig's pen is empty. Clouds are gathering over the empty sky. It may snow and the whiteness would cover the blood.



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