Romanian Ancestral Traditions: Tudora and Comanesti Winter Festivals
Every year in December, in some areas of Romania, the fixed space and time laws are shattered by the parades of winter feasts. Every Romanian, whose DNA is not yet completely altered by the politics of globalization, feels something moving inside him, when he hears the rhythm of the drums, the sounds of cow bells, flutes and whistles, the shouts, or when he sees the dances of the bears, stags, goats, horses and masked men. And all that Romanians see in late December is millennia old, dating from the early Bronze Age!
It seems that the proto-Dacian and Dacian tribes that settled on the Romanian territory, in spite of three millennia of history, population migration, war and political turmoil, preserved their customs and specific attire. Tradition was stronger as a result of the population living in very conservative environments, mostly rural areas that were covered by forests. The transition from feudalism to the Modern Era effectively happened in the middle of the 19th century, spearheaded by the reforms implemented by Alexandru Ioan Cuza. The boyars of that era felt threatened by these reforms and Cuza was arrested and then exiled as a result of their plotting. Traditions were preserved amazingly in Romania, with all their mystique and anachronism, taking place every late December. Initially, some of these took place in the spring, at the beginning of the new agricultural year. But, over time, they merged with those from the winter solstice and were all celebrated at the end of December.
The dances with masks
The dances with masks are specific to the Moldova and Maramures areas, which, in antiquity, even after the Romans occupied other Dacian territories in 106 AD, remained independent and inhabited by free Dacians. Later on, the Christian Church opposed these old pagan dances, banning them and banning the people who practiced them from attending the Holy Communion. However, on Romania’s territory, the old traditions proved to be very strong, so the Church adapted, accepting some or assimilating others, giving them Christian meanings. Consequently, through the resolve of the people, the cultural heritage of the nation endured, and the dances were carried on through the interwar period.
During the communist regime, these pre-Christian dances did not disappear; they were actually highly appreciated in that period and the cultural heritage of the ancestors was very much nurtured. Unfortunately, the so called “professional bands”, that were supposed to echo the dances of the peasants, only managed to parody them and so the tradition was distorted, even to this day. Luckily, the true tradition lives on with the actual descendants of those peasants, whose strong blood ties to the past linger on.
We have to note that these people are not reenactors and this is not a quirky fashion statement. Oh no! There just wasn’t a December without masked people ever since the Bronze Age. If these dances would have been abandoned they would have been forgotten, but this is not the case; the bears are dancing today on the shamanic drum rhythms with the same craziness as always.
These are the dances of kings and Indo-European warriors of Kshatriya cast, who came upon these lands from the East. They were the riders with bronze arms who dispersed the local Neolithic civilizations as the well-known Cucuteni culture. One can assume that these two worlds borrowed from each other since they share many symbolic elements.
The masks in the winter parades are considered to be in one of these two categories: the beautiful masks, when the faces remain uncovered, and the ugly masks, when the person disappears completely, becoming an ancestor or an animal: a bear, a goat or a stag.
Consider the horses dance, even if the actual animal is present, it still belongs to the beautiful masks category, because the riders’ faces remain uncovered and, in the heat of the dance, they appear to merge with the horses, resembling ancient mythological centaurs.
Beside the old and meaningful masks (the ancestors, the bears, the goats, the stags and the horses), in time, masks without any profound meaning have appeared, masks that are actually related only to the popular theatre for the public’s entertainment, as the gipsy couple, the doctor or the hunter.
Practically all these dances with masks are warrior and shamanic in nature, being related to various initiations, to the ancestors’ cult and to the spirituality around the winter solstice. In the primordial chaos of the year’s end nights, in the period between the demise of one creation cycle and the beginning of a new one, the gates between worlds are opened. The dead return fondly to their kin; demons roam free and attack when the light of the world dies with the sun in this longest night. For protection, people and animals, have to wear red wool tassels, while making as much noise as possible.
If, in Central and Western Europe, the bear, Aryan symbol of royalty and warriors, was deposed by the lion brought by the Crusaders, in the Romanian villages it didn’t lose its place. Telluric animal, unstoppable force of nature, the bear’s life halts with a symbolic death only to be reborn in the spring. The bear dance can be performed by a single or a group of bears. In some areas, like in Bacau County, bear assemblies can reach significant proportions, with dozens of bears! The bears are accompanied by beautiful masks, representing old shamans, rulers of beasts, some who may have names taken from Christianity, like Herod, and by a few ugly masks.
The stag is actually an equivalent of the goat, bearing the sun between its horns. The stag and the goat – linked to the Capricorn sign – perform a symbolic death and resurrection ritual, commemorating the Neolithic celebration of the winter solstice. The masked horses’ dance is also a solar dance, the horses being all white.
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