I realized tonight that it has been a month and a half since I last wrote anything for the blog and all my ideas for posts are quickly becoming outdated. Since Jake recently shared about some ministry we did over the holidays, I thought I would throw in one more experience.
While Christmas shopping with our family at Cora, which is comparable to Target in the States, Mae, Isaac, and I happened to be looking at a Play-doh display in the store when a young woman walks up and starts speaking to us quickly in Romanian about the things in the display. When I stop her and explain that I don’t speak Romanian well, she switches to English and explains that she’s there as a representative of Hasbro to answer people’s questions about all the new Play-doh products this year.
But, since I had no life-shattering questions about this expensive moldable plastic, she was full of questions about America, where we came from, what it was like there, why was I in Romania, what do I think about Romania and Romanians, etc. (Side note: almost every Romanian I meet asks me what I think of Romania, with a sense of earnestly desiring to know my opinion.)
I answered her questions, and she kept asking me more because she said she loved my accent (who knew American English could sound interesting to anyone?), and she would ask Mae lots of questions, because she loved hearing her cute little girl voice. Finally, she got to asking about what our family was doing in Romania. After explaining that we were Christians and that we wanted to tell people about Jesus, she asked me something like, “So, Christianity…is that like Orthodox or what is it?” I was a little taken aback, because most people here know quite a bit about Romanian Orthodoxy, but she didn’t really even know what that was about beyond the name, and she asked as if she’d never heard of Christianity before.
I felt this love of God for her in my heart, because she didn’t know about the love of Jesus and all that He came to do for her, so I briefly explained about Jesus and how He’s not just a religion but someone you could know. She seemed interested, but then other customers kept coming over asking her questions and interrupting, so she needed to get back to work. I offered to get together with her again, answer any more questions, let her practice English, whatever. Unfortunately, I haven’t heard from her again, but I was encouraged that God can take whatever seeds we sow, and He can water them and grow them in people. I pray for her still; her name is Mihaela, and I am excited that God can draw people to us wherever we are, even shopping at a department store.
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.
Way back here, I wrote about an experience we had with the singing of Romanian churches. It’s very funny, so if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.
In America, we Christians have forgotten how to sing. We go to church, we listen to a rock-n-roll concert put on by professional musicians who are way better at singing than us so there’s obviously no point in even trying to sing. Besides, even if we did try, we’ve got the music cranked so loud that we’d never be able to hear ourselves anyway, so we’d never quite know if we were singing in key or not. Not that there’s any real reason to sing in key. Were Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, Louis Armstrong, or Chuck Berry concerned about singing in key? I think not.
I’m joking of course, but I think, as a culture, we as Americans have mostly given up our ability to sing. We’re so used to being sung to and entertained that, on the whole, we don’t know how to sing well and we generally don’t care to try. Sure, there are groups where singing is a huge part of the community, but that seems more the exception than the rule.
Tonight, Jessie and I attended a Christmas production at Biserica Sfânta Treime (Holy Trinity Church). Our friend Daniel was singing in the choir and invited us to come for the show. And, yes, once again, we were reminded that Romanian churches know how to sing.
So for the next hour we sat, crammed into a pew next to a cheerful old Baptist woman with bad breath, mesmerized by the interwoven harmonies coming from this choir of some of the best singers in the world.
I really like rock-n-roll. I’ve always admired guys like Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes or Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou for writing and performing some incredible music despite their voices that wouldn’t make it on American Idol. I like the raw energy that sometimes comes with a growly, scratchy, straining voice. I like the passion and “realness” that can come from a less-than-perfect vocalist.
But as we sat mesmerized by the singing tonight, I couldn’t help but fall in love again with these people who really know how to use their voices. I know bad singers exist in Romania – I’ve heard some on the radio 😉 – but I’m pretty convinced that they’re not allowed into the churches. 🙂