To understand Maramureș, one needs to understand the role that religion has played in this region throughout history. Just looking at the magnificent century old wooden churches present in almost every village, one can sense how important faith is for the identity of these people. God is omnipresent in the everyday life. The most common greeting that is heard in the villages is “Salutăm pe Isus! (Jesus be hailed!), to which the answer is “În veci, amin!” (Always and forever!).
Among religious festivities, Easter is perhaps the most important, even more important than Christmas. It is an occasion to mourn the death of Christ and to celebrate its resurrection. People make long preparations for this occasion, starting with the preparation of the soul (the 40 days of fasting before the night of Resurrection, the adorning of the graves of the deceased relatives during the Holy Week) and continuing with more mortal issues, such as preparing the basket that will be blessed by the priest on Easter Sunday morning, and the preparation of the festive Sunday meal.
The meal for Easter Sunday is prepared on Saturday. The traditional food is red eggs (the reddening process is without chemicals, the red leaves from red onions is used as an agent), pască (a dough with sweet cheese), “cozonac” (dough rolled, and filled with minced nuts), pork sausages, and, of course, the roasted lamb. The sacrificed lambs are filled with “drob”, a mixture of boiled eggs, liver and spices. The filled lamb is then thrown into an oven.
On the Resurrection night, people dress in their traditional garbs to attend the midnight mass. Before going to mass, the villagers pass by the village cemetery, to light candles on the graves of the dead and pray for them. It is a way in which the living share the moments of joy with those who left this world. It is very emotional to see how these people honour their departed ones. The cemeteries, alight from candles, are a wonderful sight.
The midnight mass celebrates the resurrection of Jesus. At the beginning of the Easter mass, the priest and the faithful circle the church three times, before entering the church, where the remaining of the mass is celebrated. The moment of resurrection is marked by the lighting of the candles. The priest offers light with his candle to the faithful. After this mass, the villagers will greet each other for many weeks with “Cristos a înviat!” (Christ has risen!), answered with “Adevărat c-a înviat!” (He has truly risen!).
Unlike in the town of Sighetu Marmației, where the priest blesses the faithfuls’ baskets immediately after the midnight service, in the villages this ceremony takes place the next morning, on the Easter Sunday morning mass. Villagers bring baskets full of home made food (“pască”, lamb, red eggs, sausages), to be blessed then, after the mass, they all go home to eat with the whole family. This morning Sunday meal marks the end of the fasting.
Celebrating Easter in Maramureș is a way to return to the true, religious, origins of Easter. In the Western societies, Easter has long lost its religious meaning and has since long become a secular holiday, or even a commercial one. For the people of Maramureș, faith is not about religion. Religion is complicated in Maramureș, a land that before communism, was whole greek-orthodox. Communism forbade greek-catholicism, converted or imprisoned its leaders. Orthodoxism, which was tolerated but not encouraged, took its place. After the 1989 revolution, many villagers across Maramureș returned to the religion of their ancestors. Religious dissension arouse between the orthodox and greek-catholic communities, with the orthodox church unwilling to return former possessions and churches. Sometimes, whole communities clashed, although in a non-violent manner, with most dramas occurring around the century-old wooden churches. Yet, villagers respect each other, no matter the religion. They all believe in a God that is above the particularities of their religion. They respect people of honour, people of character and those who do good. Religion in Maramureș is, above all, about believing in a God that is good and that brings justice, a God above all religions.
Understanding Maramureș takes time. It has a complicated history. Two thirds of Maramureș actually lie in Ukraine, lost after the World War II. But it takes very little to love this place, its uncomplicated and honest people. It is a place full of life, that struggled to resist Ottoman invasions centuries ago, resist collectivisation during half of a century of communism and now is struggling yet again to keep its identity in the face of consumerism and globalisation. Returning every year to Maramureș, I am amazed this place still exists, that the young generations still don the garb of their mothers and fathers. I do hope this world will survive, although I know that Ottoman invasions, savage and destructive as they were, are likely to prove milder than the corrupting power of globalisation and corporate interests.