Winter traditions at Sighetu Marmației

I am a year late in publishing this material. Today, the 47th edition of the winter festivities, at Sighet, took place. This post is about last year’s edition.

Every year after Christmas, at Sighet, is held the customs and traditions festival, the oldest and most renowned winter festival in Romania. It is the time when the villages of Maramureș send their representatives to dance, play and sing traditional Christmas carols. The festival was born in 1969 when it was decided that, given the rich heritage of winter traditions in Maramureș,  a festival should be held annually. While many of the local traditions have a profoundly religious meaning, the festival was born as a non-religious festivity, given that under Communism all religious activities were banned. The name of the festival itself carefully avoided any reference to Christmas. The original name of the festival is preserved until today, even if nowadays overtly religious elements are present, such as the Nativity scene.

A central figure of the festivities is the so-called “dracul” – the devil.  Young villagers done devilish masks made from sheep fur and cattle horns. A giant devil mask carried by young devils opened the procession last year.

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Last year, more than 30 formations mainly from the Maramureș villages but also from Sighet, were present. For many years now, participants from other parts of Romania are present – last year  they also came from Neamţ, Sibiu, Bihor, Botoşani and, in some years, also from neighbouring countries such as Slovakia and Serbia.

Below: the group from the Forestry High School of Sighet, in traditional garbs.

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The violin is the central instrument in Maramureș songs. The violin player called “ceteras” in the Maramureș language, is held at high esteem in the villages, as they are the soul of all celebrations. It is almost always accompanied by the drum (“doba”, in the local language).Winter traditions at Sighetu Marmatiei-20Winter traditions at Sighetu Marmatiei-24

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The carriage towed by horses is, of course, a staple of  the village traditions.

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Some of the delegations had prepared plays mixing religious and humorous elements. The home-made costumes are sometimes very impressive.

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What impressed me were in particular the children. Some of them were wearing a bit oversized clothes – inherited from elder brothers or, in some cases, their parents’ – but all were taking with immense responsibility their role, singing, dancing or walking, all proudly representing their village. Their cherubic faces were a wonder to behold…
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From Şişeşti, a village that hosts a magnificent wooden church among the eight on the UNESCO heritage list, a male only chorus offered a splendid set of carols.Winter traditions at Sighetu Marmatiei-35

The delegations from other parts of Romania – such as Bihor, below – were also very impressive and exceptionally well prepared. Their traditional garbs are very different from, and typically more heavily adorned than, the Maramureș traditional garb.

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Winter traditions at Sighetu Marmatiei-40 From the Botoșani county (Romanian Moldavia) came a large delegation of children and teenagers that put on a very impressive show of carols, where the youngest ones held the central roles. This group took a well deserves second place in the competition that ended the day’s procession.

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As the day ended, all formations performed, each at its turn, on the stage in Sighet’s main square.

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I  hadn’t returned to Sighet, in winter, for more than a decade. I found the festival beautiful, although not as rich as the ones I remember as a child. There is a visible struggle to keep the traditions, preserve them in the face of the destructive force of globalization. Many of the delegations were made up from elders and young, with the middle ages sparsely represented. This reflects that many of the working age villagers are away, working abroad. Many of the groups from large villages were also quite small, in some cases surprisingly so, reflecting that traditions are slowly disappearing and the traditional dances and shows are now more and more reserved to more professional performers. As a kid, I remember huge delegations from a village, with dozens of villagers coming from the larger villages.

Nonetheless, the most vivid proof that the tradition is still alive and kicking was the large presence of these talented young boys and girls, the future preserves of the local tradition. It was also evident that the local officials and the villagers themselves had put very significant efforts in organizing this event and ensuring that it still preserves its authenticity. There is still hope that the most valuable heritage of Maramureș – its people and traditions – is alive, kept alive by those few who believe that traditions should not be replaced by the modern way of living, in the name of progress and empty consumerism. I  admire and respect these people.

Next year will be the 48th edition. This time around, I plan to be present.

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