Hristos a înviat din morţi cu moartea pe moarte călcând… This line has been in my head for over a week. I am in Șuncuiuș, Bihor, Romania, a village nestled in the foothills of the Apuseni Mountains. Last Sunday I had the privilege to witness Orthodox Easter for the very first time! All these years, I’ve never managed to visit Romania during this festive period. And I’m so happy that I’ve now experienced what Easter means in Romania.
In a small village like Șuncuiuș, Easter is a big affair. There are two churches: a Pentecostal one and an Orthodox one. I was bent on visiting the latter since the overwhelming majority of Romanians is Orthodox, and I was very keen to learn more about Orthodox traditions.
Easter starts well before Easter. When I came down from a hike on the Tuesday before Easter Sunday, I noticed a kid goat hanging from a tree. Dead, of course; the blood was still dripping from its throat, and it was being skinned. All excited, I asked the owner if I could take a few pictures, and he let me into the courtyard. It turned out to be the postman. He skilfully stripped the kid off its skin, and clearly enjoyed what he was doing. He had seven more, he said – in the barn. I could take pictures of these too if I wanted. They were so awfully cute – and they’d all be dead in two days. (Warning: dead animal ahead.)
Lamb is the main dish on Easter Sunday – or it can be replaced by goat’s meat. Pretty much every part of the animal is used in cooking: the organs are used to make drob, lamb haggis, and my host sneakily surprised me with fried lamb brain. I had admitted that I mainly struggled with factory farming, after which she started feeding me small bits of meat. It’s hard to be a vegetarian in Romania, especially if you are someone’s guest.
Apart from lamb and drob, eggs play a significant role – unsurprisingly. Mircea and Elena, my hosts, have 23 chickens, so all the eggs are homegrown. A basketful of eggs is dyed red with natural pigment – red onion skins in this case – and skillfully decorated with prints of leaves. On Easter Sunday, these are knocked together (a ciocna ouă) while one person says Hristos a înviat and the other replies with Adevărat a înviat (‘Christ has risen’, ‘He has risen indeed’). After which they are, of course, eaten. The person whose egg stays whole wins. (I win. Every single time.) In Bucovina, northeastern Romania, egg painting is taken to a whole new level. Have a look.
That is just one of many rituals I have witnessed, or been subjected to. On the eve of Easter, after I came back from the midnight service, Mircea and Elena decided that I had to swallow a mouthful of holy bread soaked in wine, administered by Mircea. Tired as I was, I failed to realize that I had to respond with Adevărat a înviat instead of parroting Mircea’s Hristos a înviat. I got it right the third time. The ritual was repeated the next morning, pre-breakfast (yikes), and I finally got the hang of it.
Painting the tree trunks white
One Easter tradition that puzzles me a little is that of painting the tree trunks white. Of course I’ve seen white tree trunks every time I visited Romania, but I never knew this is traditionally done during the week before Easter. There are many theories as to why this is done; some people believe it works as an insect repellent, others as sun protection, but there is no conclusive answer. It is clear though that, at least in the Romanian countryside, painting the tree trunks white is part of Curățenie de Paște. This is a collective frenzied spring-cleaning effort that has the whole village burning piles of rubbish in their yards (not great for my lungs, or anyone’s for that matter), mowing grass, generally cleaning everything and painting tree trunks white. Mircea did ‘ours’ on Joia Mare (Maundy Thurday), and painted the decorative rocks in the garden as well. Why not? It does look pretty-ish. And very Romanian.
Going to church
Mircea and Elena were too busy to go to church, but I was very keen on going. So I went on Good Friday (Vinerea Mare); I was late but that doesn’t matter much in Romania, since the services (slujbe) go on forever anyway. I arrived at the point when the procession around the church started. Pretty much everyone but me carried candles and chanted sombre incantations, following the priest and two red banners.
On Saturday night, I went again: Easter is celebrated at midnight. This time, I got my hands on a candle, although the wind blew it out all the time. Once more, we walk around the church several times. Ultimately, the priest knocks on the church door several times; creakingly and hesitantly, the door opens. This, I suppose, is meant to illustrate the resurrection (înviere) of Jesus. People didn’t seem to mind much that I took pictures, and in some cases even encouraged me: ‘Go upstairs, the view is much better there!’ And so I did.
The incantations were much more festive this time; the main line being Hristos a înviat din morţi cu moartea pe moarte călcând… (‘Christ has risen from the dead, trampling death with death’). It was repeated so many times that I can still hear it. Moreover, services continued after Easter Sunday, and the priest can be heard chanting in the entire village thanks to loudspeakers outside the church.
The best surprise
The best surprise came on Sunday morning. I was having breakfast in Elena and Mircea’s kitchen. Elena threw furtive glances at a cardboard box next to me, but I didn’t suspect a thing. Then she announced she had a surprise for me, and pulled the teatowel off the box, revealing nine freshly hatched chicklets! I was over the moon, cooing and ooh-ing and aah-ing and taking pictures for at least half an hour. They didn’t much mind being picked up, so I suggested we put some on the dyed eggs, and that was totally OK with everyone involved, it seemed. There are now about fifteen of them, and they’re safely back with their mums. Elena brought them inside because it was so infernally cold last week – things have improved a bit now. Just one of them has died. I’m looking forward to seeing them again soon!
Still eating – what’s next?
So that was my first Easter in Romania. It’s Thursday now – a week after official Easter celebrations started on Joia Mare (Maundy Thursday). And I’m still eating cozonac: sweet bread with nuts and who knows what else. Elena seems hellbent on fattening me up; I’d rather not and even if I didn’t mind gaining weight, I’d still not be able to process all the plates of cakes she serves me. Up to three a day. But I’m guessing she’ll be running out of cake sometime soon, and meanwhile I try to burn calories by going on day hikes before I get started with the real deal: a weeklong trek in the nearby Apuseni Mountains! More about that later. For now, please enjoy the view from my temporary backyard in Șuncuiuș.
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