I’ll tell you who you are if you tell me what you do for Christmas.
If, among family gatherings and presents, you happen to be a “sinner” and “a saint”, and feast on a multitude of pork dishes, chances are you could be Romanian…
The Romanian Orthodox Church, St Gheorghe, in the City of London, held a Sunday Christmas Service with, as special guests, the Byzantine choir “Nectarie Protopsaltul” from Bucharest.
It’s an all male choir, in the old Orthodox tradition, made up of priests and academics who sing church songs and Christian carols in their original Byzantine form, one unchanged for hundreds of years. Arresting you with their celestial music, the choir is a portal to time immemorial, to a Christian Romania of almost a millennium ago. It’s an opportunity to observe that very little has changed and that Christmas celebrations are incredibly revelatory about the life and history of a people.
Young and old, in a church full to the brim, Romanians knelt on Sunday and made the sign of the cross in sync, lit their candles, honoured the dead and the living. Very little, if anything, would betray the location. The Church has a strong hold on Romania, which is 80% Orthodox: according to a recent poll, three out of four Romanians claim too to go to Church during the Christmas holiday.
What’s interesting though is that the more religious the Christmas traditions, the more pagan their origin. Christianity and paganism are not mutually exclusive, and in Romania, more than most places, it’s difficult to know where one starts and the other begins.
This dualism pervades the other two most important Christmas events: carolling one’s neighbours and the slaughtering of the pig. The carols are sung on Christmas Eve either by children or adults – depending on which part of the country they live in. They mostly tell of the birth of Christ but they also beckon less holy advents like good humour, fertility, wealth and well-being for the following year.
As for the pig, well, one can’t have Christmas without pork, shop bought or slaughtered in the back yard. If in the country, the pig is marked with the sign of the cross and slaughtered in a ceremonial get together of village neighbours.
Although the pig sacrifice takes place on Dec 20th – the feast day of St Ignatious, a Christian martyr killed by the Romans – the killing of the pig has nothing to do with the martyrdom of the saint but is related to the Roman celebration of the god Saturn, god of harvest. The death of the pig marks the rebirth of the New Year.
Against a background of Byzantine music, three things come to mind: adaptability, resilience and continuity. Happy Christmas!
The Nectarie Protopsaltul Choir from Bucharest appeared in London from 12th-13th December, both at the Romanian Orthodox Parish ‘St. George’, Fleet Street, and at the Romanian Cultural Institute Belgrave Square.