December 31 Festival
In many villages, especially in the northeastern province of Moldavia, December 31 is the big day not eve, but morning. Tradition-packed outdoor events are taking place in all the bigger villages in the province, despite the low temperatures and clouded skies.
First, a choir of school girls sing old carols. Animal skin winter jackets fail to completely hide their embroidered blouses, flowered belts and long striped skirts from which the lacy edge of white under-skirts peeks. Colorful hand-woven shoulder bags and black head scarves complete the costumes which are unique to the area.
Soon, this idyllic scene gives way to the whistles and shouts of young men who gallop out for a spirited dance of the “caiuti,” or horses. With amazingly fast foot movements, punctuated by high kicks and boot-slaps, they maneuver themselves and white cloth horse heads, attached to their waists and adorned with embroidery, tassels and a multitude of colored pom poms. In olden days, white horses were believed to be messengers bringing life and luck and this dance symbolizes the bond between farmers and the animals that pull their wagons and aid in working the land.
A clack, clack, clack signals the arrival of the “capra” (goat). A guaranteed crowd pleaser, the carved wooden head is attached to a long pole which the bearer manipulates to noisily open and close the mouth as he dances around. Any resemblance to a real-life animal has been disguised with long ribbons, a towering headdress and other adornments that flashed into the creator’s mind. This dance once foretold an increase in shepherds’ flocks along with abundant crops in the new year. Today’s antics are lighthearted, with many a satirical reference to the manners and morals of the villagers.
Another festival staple is the dance of the bears — the two-legged costumed variety. Accompanied by their Gypsy trainer and a youth beating a tambourine-type instrument, the animals crawl through the crowd. Reaching the center, they perform a dance until eventually, the bears fall dead on the ground. After their hearts are taken by the trainer, they return to life, theoretically, a more gentle one. Even today, more bears exist in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains than any other place in Europe and this ancient rite suggests the power of man to tame nature.
Throughout the festival, masked figures run about, banging anything that makes noise, to frighten away any stray bad spirits that might have invaded the merrymaking. This is another reference to pre-modern days when people believed that spirits of the deceased wandered the Earth between Christmas Eve and January 6. After young orators offer rhyming chants of welcome and good wishes for the new year, the mayor presents round braided loaves of bread — symbolizing abundance and rich harvests — to each participant.
Following the spectacle — in a scene repeated in villages and cities throughout Moldavia — groups of children, dressed as bears, horsemen or Gypsies, make the rounds of their neighborhoods. Announcing themselves with a jangling bell, they touch the homeowners with a flower-adorned stick while chanting a verse invoking them to be “strong as stone, quick as an arrow, strong as iron and steel.” In return, they receive fruit, candy, a pastry or some coins.
Georgiana also told me the following:
I saw the winter celebration festivities in Moldova; my father is born in a bigger village in Moldova and I remember going to my grandparents for Christmas and seeing them. Again, these are also popular tourist destinations and they are well preserved also because of this reason.
Although the festival attracts many tourists, the locals do not stop having fun. It seems that everyone takes part in the festival. The festival has many activities and separate traditions which are incorporated into one end of the year celebration. Georgiana mentioned that she greatly enjoyed attending the festival. I feel this is an attraction well-liked by both tourists and locals.