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Romanian Easter 2020: how the pandemic situation revived meaning and memories

Romanian-Easter-2010

Recently, Romania seethed with argumentative bursts over Easter under pandemic circumstances. The Romanian Orthodox Church opposed social distancing measures from the very beginning. Officials also failed to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, and thus encouraged confusion and conflict. What resulted was a lot of upset, anger and distrust, but also one of the most meaningful and intense Easter many Romanians have ever experienced.

Christian Orthodox Churches celebrated Easter on April 19th, 2020.

To give you a little bit of context, Romania and the other Eastern Orthodox countries celebrate Easter at a different date to Roman Catholics and Protestants. Old ritual following orthodox churches stick to the Julian calendar, instead of the Gregorian calendar. Thus, this one Christian holiday tends to be celebrated in the East a week later than in the West.

What the Romanian Orthodox Church did amidst coronavirus concerns

In 2020, the Romanian Orthodox Church and the attitude of its practising members have been under scrutiny. Church representatives caused concern and anger by failing to promote and respect necessary social distancing precautions. They encouraged the faithful to keep practicing even high-risk rituals, such as kissing the priest’s hand. Romania Orthodox Christians do so in sing of respect at certain points during Mass or at confession.

The day after Romania entered lockdown, priests gave Communion with shared spoons to a big number of people standing in line at Mass. This occurrence made international news.

Initially, mid-March again, the Romanian Orthodox Church spokesperson declared the Holy Communion could not infest people. In an interview published by Free Europe in Romanian, they stated that taking Communion did not present a health risk.

Many Romanians were not happy that they couldn’t attend religious services. I’ve seen educated, intellectually oriented people demanding that churches should stay open. Some compared this police and military enforced lockdown to communist times imprisonment. With everybody affected by pandemic tensions, I’m not surprised the debate heated up around Romanian Easter. Spiritual people questioned the impact of the prohibition on the mental well-being of the faithful. Some pleaded that the government should find solutions which would allow people to fulfil their spiritual needs. Finally, officials came up with something which worked.

Accompanied by police teams, priests and volunteers took candles which have been lit in church to people’s homes. This central ritualistic gesture opens Easter Midnight Mass in Romania. The priest lights his candle while chanting, then the faithful get their candles alight from his. The ritual is called “taking light” – a lua lumina. Priests also bless bread drizzled with wine for the faithful to take.

Romanian-Easter-2010

I was holding two candles here, one for the person who took the photo, back in 2010 at Easter Midnight Mass.

Together in spirit on Easter

For 34 years, the entirety of my life in my home country, I never missed Christmas and Easter Mass. I grew up in a priest’s family, but I always decided on my own spirituality, without external impositions. My father is a priest in our Orthodox Church, as were his father and his paternal grandfather. I studied Theology as a major for my BA degree and taught religion for five years to High School students, and this was my choice too. However, I’ve never been a very dogmatic Christian. It just felt great to teach children about the culture stemming from religion and the humanist values I always held so dear.

This year, more than ever, my Facebook feed ignited memories of Easter the way I’ve known it. Rituals shone from the past like beacons of community spirit, identity and belonging. Despite the tensions, the arguing, the upset, so many people talked in their posts about how Christian holidays are meant to bring us together in spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many posts about shared tranquillity over simple joys at Easter.

Partly, the coronavirus lockdown created the context. On one hand, I’m spending my time these days between gardening, writing, learning new software at home. While on my laptop, my hyperactive mind tends to sway between writing and browsing social media. It’s the way my brain has always worked and, paradoxical as it might seem, I focus better this way. On the other hand, many people are posting more on their social media accounts these days, for obvious reasons.

To wrap up, the whole context of 2020 Easter in Romania created headspace for reflection, memory and meaning. Now I’d love to share with you those luminous fragments of the past which shone through the fabric of recent days.

First Easter childhood memories

Romanian-Easter-toaca

My earliest memory of anything Easter related won’t surprise you. It is probably a different version of what most people today remember first. We used to get these home-made Easter chocolate bunnies. I visualise them in my head as I’m writing this – thin dark chocolate layer covering vanilla cream filling.

What makes me so sure that I remember them correctly as being home-made? Communist Romania didn’t celebrate Easter. To the official ideology, religious holidays were just unhealthy superstitions. So many of the rituals I enjoyed later were not followed in my childhood. Still, Easter Mass happened at midnight and the faithful circled the church building three times while chanting about the resurrection of Christ. I will talk about this in more detail later.

Religious traditions, together with the associated culinary delights, relied on people keeping these things alive in their homes.

Of course, the Easter bunny’s nest played such a central role in the way children celebrated. Most people probably realise this is a pagan remnant. Hares or rabbits symbolise fertility, rebirth, abundance, family and joy in many ancient cultures. Thus, it transferred naturally into the new Christian holiday.

On Saturday, one day before Easter, we picked grass for the bunny’s nest. Children adorned the same basket with flowers, to make it appeasing for the magical creature. Or they used a box or even a corner of the room where the beloved character was enticed to leave some presents for them.

On this holiday, we usually got less expensive gifts, such as chocolate, colouring pencils, maybe books and small toys. I guess they matched the size of the bringer. A bunny can carry a lot less than the big, potbellied Santa Claus.

But Romanian Easter week provided so many opportunities for fun, spiritual celebration and community gatherings.

A Romanian Easter playground, a realm of chants

Romanian Easter week celebration started on Wednesday in the countryside. Children were already on their holiday, if I’m right (or I stand corrected otherwise). The sexton hanged out, between two trees, the wood board – toaca – for children to drum the call to prayer on it. As my family, with dad as a priest, lived right next to our church, that sound filled our days.

I found this video, of a young nun at Timiseni-Sag monastery, close to my parents’ village. At monasteries they
tend to drum this call to prayer regularly. When I listened to it, I broke into sobbing for the entirety of the video. 

Children were gathering in the morning, with their handmade wooden hammers, to practice, chat, play a game or two. Our church yard turned into a children’s wonderland, deserted only for lunchtime.  We played there even after dark, when the evening service carried on. When we got too noisy, the sexton or one of the singers came outside to tell us off. Sometimes they herded and ushered us back inside the church, where we sat listening for a while, then escaped again.

Most of us usually spent some time listening to the chants. Springtime evening air, sometimes quite chilly, sent us back to warmth. In the evening, lights were kept dimmer, as to increase that element of mystery and intimacy. There was a certain type of magic floating about.

In my preteen years, one of the older choir singers offered to teach a few children how to give the responses to the priest at Midnight Mass. I decided to join in, and we rehearsed in the afternoons. That was the first Easter when I sat, together with the other children now in the choir, next to the altar. Lights on the iconostasis shone like little stars which decided to keep us company for the night. The air warmed up with the candles burning and the number of people gathered closely together. It felt velvety heavy with the scent of burning incense. Time stood still as we chanted: “trampling down death by death”.

Listen to two versions of our main Easter chant, in Romanian, below.

Traditions revived, Easter grew in importance

In the 90s, my teen years, Romania saw a great resurgence of faith. The Romanian Orthodox Church could again play a public role, as communism fell. Anti-communist street protests and marches, aimed at the new leading party, often started with a prayer. At 13-14, I participated, together with my dad, in such marches. I knelt together with hundreds of people in Victory Square and said “Our Father” before chanting “Out with the old communists!” and “Who shot our people after December 22nd?”. On that date, Ceausescu fled, yet more people fell to gunshots on the streets of Bucharest.

I wrote this short intermezzo to give you an idea of Romanians’ thirst, in the last decade of the last century, for faith and spirituality. It didn’t come as a surprise. After decades of imposed worship of the dictator and the party, people embraced spirituality again.

With this, older rituals returned to our churches and became central to they way we celebrated. Easter Midnight Mass in our village now started outdoors, at the cross commemorating those fallen in the two World Wars. Then the procession followed a predetermined route through the village. People lit candles in windows and small fires by the roadside to welcome the faithful walking and chanting. Each year, my father chose carefully as to give people on different streets the chance to have the procession march by their house too.

So many people participated that they could not fit inside the church for Mass. The building itself was the same as decades ago. Around Easter, many visited their elderly parents and grandparents in the countryside and accompanied them. Many participants were young, and a few of them moved to the local pub right after the march ended.

Easter feasts and how we shared it

We always went to Easter Midnight Mass, not because our father made us, but because we wanted to. Sometimes mum stayed behind to keep an eye on the traditional minced lamb dish, called drob. I recommend it, if you ever happen to be in Romania around this holiday. Ours tended to be fatty, juicy, made with good meat and organs mixed together, and covered with a sheet of stomach fat layer from the lamb’s belly. The herbs added to the mixture make it a heavenly mince dish.

Mum always set ours to slow cook in the oven right before Midnight Mass. When the service ended, we gathered in the kitchen and ate the first serving, still steaming. Sometimes we also cracked coloured hard boiled eggs, a custom much beloved and practised in Romania.

Romanian-Easter-eggs

You might think that eating at 3 am is a bad idea. Maybe it is. We used to observe the lent though, at least for the duration of Easter week. This was meant to mark the joy of the feast to come. And a feast it was.

Romanians eat lamb for this holiday. Most prepare drob, which I mentioned before, but this is more of a starter. The main dish consists of big chunks of roast lamb – legs and back, essentially – accompanied by vegetables.  We also serve soup with any big meal in my home country, and on this occasion, it was made with the same type of meat and lots of vegetables, again. For dessert, we had various types of cakes.

Just like Christmas, traditionally Easter was meant as a holiday which brought people together. In my region, the young people visited other family members in the community. They took with them a small package of cake, homemade Easter roll, boiled coloured eggs. In each relative’s house, they sat down for a chat and something to drink. Then they took a similar package from the host to bring it back to their house.

A family anecdote

A second cousin of my dad’s tended to be very mischievous, inventive and funny. One Easter, as his nana gave him a beautifully put together desserts package, he left for the closest relative’s house. His poor grandmother fretted throughout the afternoon as the boy didn’t return until 5 pm.

“Where have you been, boy? Do you know what time it is? How are you going to go to all our other relatives now? Such embarrassment, they must have been waiting for you all day long.”

“Nana, don’t fret, it’s all done.”

“What do you mean it’s all done?”, poor lady must have gapped at him.

“I went to all of them.”

The realisation probably made nana fall of her feet. According to the custom, each family needs to share part of their own feast, their own homemade dishes, with their closest relatives. To get one package from one family side and just take it to the other was unconceivable. It was highly embarrassing. As everybody visited everybody, they would have noticed somebody cheated – two identical packages, from two different sides of the family!

This anecdote always amuses me.

Expensive flights to Romania

I haven’t celebrated Easter in Romania for nearly a decade now. Flights tend to be very expensive around any of the two big Christian holidays. Many Romanians who have children or elderly back there pay anything just to be with their families. They tend to live a basic life abroad and cut a lot of things out for the rest of the year. These are people who work very hard to support family left back in Romania. I however focus more on my life here and couldn’t afford flights for Easter so far.

One day I plan to take my partner Adrian to experience this holiday how I have known it. And we will crack coloured hard-boiled Easter eggs. I will teach him how to say Hristos a inviat, Adevarat a inviat*, before cracking each side of the egg. It is a fun custom, as the person who cracks both ends of the competing egg wins both. I guess Adrian will pray I won. He highly dislikes the taste of eggs.

*Christ has risen, He has truly risen.

 

 

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