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feature 05 Jan 18

Christmas Comes Twice in Divided Moldova

Even the celebrations of Christmas and New Year are a matter of siding with the ‘East’ or the ‘West’ in this former Soviet republic.

Madalin Necsutu
BIRN
Chisinau
...

When the calendar hits December 24, Moldovans know they have to brace for a three-week holiday season, with no less than two Christmases and two New Year’s parties. 

In terms of faith, the country is split between followers of the Moldovan Orthodox Church, which – like the Russian Orthodox Church – follows the old Julian calendar, and the Metropolis of Bessarabia, or Bessarabian Orthodox Church, which – like the Orthodox Church in Romania – follows the modern Gregorian calendar.

Either way, geopolitical tensions make their way into Christmas celebrations in the former Soviet country.

Russian-aligned Orthodox believers therefore celebrate their Christmas on January 7, rather than December 24, and mark the New Year on January 13-14.

The others celebrate Christmas along with the rest of the Western world on December 25 and the New Year on January 1.

However, since 2013, when Moldova officially declared December 25 and January 1 as public holidays, most people put aside geopolitics and celebrate both sets of holidays.

Russian-style Christmas lingers in north

Under the influence of the powerful Orthodox Moldovan Church, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, people in the north of Moldova decorate their Christmas trees and lights according to the Julian calendar.

“Most people here celebrate Christmas on January 7,” Ana, aged 26, from the northeastern town of Soroca, told BIRN.

“Children go from house to house singing carols, praising the birth of Jesus around the neighbourhood. There is also the custom of visiting parents, grandparents and relatives. The hosts put on big, rich feasts for them,” she added.

She explained that, especially in the countryside, locals butcher a fattened pig in order to throw these traditional rich meals.

“Everybody sacrifices a pig for meat and makes sausages, and almost every part of it is used to make different dishes,” Ana explained.

On January 13-14, the night between the years, groups of men fan out across the villages, shouting chants wishing people health and prosperity in the New Year, to chase away evil spirits.

At the start of the New Year, groups of young men also “go sowing” around the villages; they go from house to house, throwing seeds, rice or wheat, in the yards, chanting for prosperity for the host. In return, they receive wine, food or, in modern times, money.

This pagan ritual has survived, especially in the countryside, where it brings a lot of joy to the children.

However, as Ana says, even in the northern regions, Moldovans also celebrate New Year’s Eve on December 31.

‘Western’ Christmas takes root in capital

In the centre of the country, especially in the capital, Chisinau, more and more people celebrate Christmas on December 25, partly as a way to banish memories of times when Moldova was part of the Soviet Union.

“For me, Christmas on January 7 is somehow linked to Russia. When I was little, Russian TV and radio stations were rebroadcast in Moldova with church services from Moscow,” Angela, aged 30, recalled.

She said she finds it interesting and funny that one of her relatives still celebrates Christmas on January 7 – and so was fasting on December 31, when the rest of the family was partying on New Year’s Eve.

However, the Christmas traditions remain largely the same, despite the difference in dates, Angela says. In Chisinau, too, small children go from house to house, singing carols. The favourite is “Steaua” [“Star”].

“Children place a star on top of a staff and fit an Orthodox icon into the star, usually the Virgin Mary nursing the baby Jesus, and the go around the neighbourhood with it,” Angela explained. “They receive sweets and money. Nowadays, they visit mostly their relatives.”

In the south of Moldova, around the town of Cahul, which borders Romania, people celebrate Christmas in December, and feel more linked to Romanian culture and traditions. 

Many people here follow the Metropolis of Bessarabia, an autonomous Eastern Orthodox bishopric of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Torn between two cultures

Born on the eastern border with the breakaway region of Transnistria, in Dubăsari County, Nadia, aged 28, now celebrates Christmas “new–style” on December 25.

“We used to celebrate Christmas following the Russian ‘old style,’ but after I graduated from university in Romania, I decided to celebrate it ‘new style,’” she told BIRN.

Nadia believes a lot of old Romanian traditions were lost and replaced by Russian ones during Soviet times in Dubăsari.

“Many Bessarabians continue to masquerade on New Year's Eve as characters that they learned from the Russians,” she says.

Liuba, aged 60, a Moldovan born in Transnistria, who teaches Russian literature at the University of Tiraspol in the breakaway region, told BIRN that Moldovans have got used to doing things “twice” as a result of the tug-of-war between Romanian and Russian traditions.

“In Soviet times, besides two Christmas holidays, there were also two New Year`s Eves,” she told BIRN.

She noted a parallel between the double celebrations of Christmas in Moldova, and the Soviet Revolution in Russia, which happened on October 25 under the old Church calendar, but which the Soviet regime celebrated afterwards on November 7.

Paradoxically, despite have “two Christmases”, Moldovans do not have that many reasons to celebrate right now. Their country remains the poorest in Europe. It suffers from endemic corruption. Many people find life a struggle.

About 30 per cent of the total population of Moldova now works abroad, in order to send home some money for their families.

But whatever the country’s difficulties, when they come home for the winter holidays, everyone sees it as a good reason to throw as many parties as possible. On that point, Moldovans are united.

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