Christmas in Romania – The Bear Dance
We’re busy planning some Christmas outreaches this week, so we missed out on joining our friends for church at either Missio Dei, Spiritual Revival, or Raul Vietii. We were all a little disappointed, because we enjoy the extra fellowship and encouragement from friends at those churches, but we got to witness a unique Romanian Christmas tradition as a result, the Bear Dance.
Now, I will freely admit that many of our holiday traditions in America are pagan in their roots. The Easter Bunny bringing a basket of eggs during the Spring? Sorry if this is the first time you’ve heard it, but that’s not in the Bible’s account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It clearly has it’s origins in pagan fertility cults. Christmas trees, wreaths, and even Christmas lights? Again, you can trace their roots to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice, when finally the death and darkness of winter would be defeated by the life and light of coming spring. And Halloween? There’s nothing better than a little celebration of death, skeletons, goblins, witches, zombies, and ghosts to make pagans happy.
That being said, Romania’s Christmas season Bear Dance was one of the oddest, creepiest, pagan-influenced cultural traditions I’ve seen outside Halloween in America. From a sociological, cultural-interest perspective, I enjoyed watching this very foreign ritual. From a Christian perspective, it felt like this weird combination of European cultural niceties mixed with stone-age spiritism and occultism.
I had a hard time finding information on this custom on the internet, and much of what I did find was written by people who just seemed to want to make Romania look bad, so if you know more, feel free to comment and correct me.
The Bear Dance, according to this site, dates from the pre-Christian Dacians and Romans living in this area over 2000 years ago. The general idea was that men would drape themselves in the skin and fur of a brown bear, so as to look like a giant, walking bear. Other men would dress up in bright costumes and carry makeshift ornamental weapons. Then the men would chase the “bear” around the city, with music and dancing of course, and thereby drive demons (symbolized by the bear-man) out of homes. From what I’ve gathered, after Christianity came to Romania, the Bear Dance continued on but became mixed with Christian tradition. Some say the bear is meant to symbolize demons that came during Jesus’ birth to try to kill him before he could become the Messiah, and the men dressed in bright uniforms are therefore driving the demons away and guaranteeing the Savior’s birth.
Either way, it was really bizarre to see for the first time, caught unawares as we were.
We were busy working on stuff at home, getting cooking, cards, and gifts ready, when we heard the loud bang bang bang bang of a snare drum, followed by the intermittent whistling of horns.
“What on earth is that?” we wondered, and popped our heads out the windows, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of what we assumed was a holiday parade. But we couldn’t see a thing, just kept hearing a loud racket down below.
Finally, about half an hour later, the noise now deafening, we opened the living room windows and saw passing beneath us…
Bucky Badger and the UW Marching Band!
That was our first thought anyway, followed by comments like, “It’s some sort of pagan ritual! That guy’s wearing a bear skin! This is crazy!” I think Ben commented, “It looks like something from Ee-taow.”
I want to know more about this ritual. I doubt most people here in Bucharest treat it seriously as driving demons out of their homes – not any more than the average American believes they’re celebrating fertility goddesses when they hide Easter eggs anyway – but I’d be curious to find out what the general perception is.
From the perspective of a handful of outsiders who didn’t know it was coming, it felt like we were witnessing a European Voodoo ceremony or Buffalo Dance.
After it was all done, the photos were snapped, the procession was passed, and the music had faded, we looked at each other and thought, “This is definitely not America.”
I mean, come on, there wasn’t a single Santa Claus in that whole Christmas procession. 😉 Holiday traditions are so weird.