Traces of ancient belief systems and superstitious practices are linked to several holidays and feasts celebrated in Transylvania today. These beliefs and practices are mostly related to the changing seasons and the eternal renewal of nature. The two days that have most attracted a whole array of superstitions throughout the centuries are none other than December the 31st and the 1st of January.
The day on which the Western world says goodbye to the past year was named after Pope Saint Sylvester I, who was elected head of the Roman Catholic Church in 314 AD and died in 335 AD, exactly on December 31. The customs related to the last day of the Gregorian calendar and the beginning of the next year were – and still are – meant to bring good luck and happiness to people, to keep them and their animals out of harm’s way and to ensure that the crops will be bountiful.
In Transylvania, bells are rung in churches as a send-off for the old year about to reach its end. The New Year is greeted with cheerful singing and music. Loud revelries and noise-making with different kinds of instruments – cracking whips, clanging cowbells, crackers and fireworks – are all meant to keep away malevolent forces. In some places, it is still customary to wrap a wagon wheel in straw, light it on fire and roll it off a hilltop on New Year’s Eve.
Many still try to get a “weather forecast” with the help of a red onion. They cut the onion in half and peel off 12 layers, representing the months of the year. A pinch of salt is then thrown on every layer. If the salt melts by the next morning, then the month that layer stands for will have plenty of rain; but if the salt remains, a drought is to be expected.
January 1 is a day during which one has to be particularly careful about things, as it is believed that the way this day passes will be characteristic for the entire year. Thus, a large number of superstitions are linked to the first day of the year. People try to avoid feuds and sorrow, and women are not supposed to work – mostly to wash clothes or saw. It is also forbidden to take out the garbage, as one might throw the house’s luck away with it. Furthermore, it is believed that if the first visitor to your home on the morning of January 1 is a man, he will bring luck, while if it is a woman, she will attract misfortune.
In some villages, girls put a red apple in the water they wash their faces with to stay healthy and be beautiful. It is also said that the dreams people have on the night between the two years can foretell the future. Fortune-telling in general plays a big role on New Year’s Eve. It is believed that if girls write men’s names on small pieces of paper and put these into the dumplings they boil, the first dumpling that comes up to the surface will be the one bearing their future loved one’s name.
What one eats on New Year’s Eve is also important. Poultry attracts misfortune because these animals scrape out luck from the house, while fish can swim away with it if one does not live nearby a lake or river. It is especially lucky to eat roasted piglet or aspic made out of a pig’s nails, tail or ears. Lentils and other beans attract money, and long, richly filled strudels – called beigli – stand for a long and bountiful life.
Whether you mind superstitions or not, have a happy and prosperous New Year!
Title image: Types of food have their significance at the turn of the year – the richly filled beigli represents a long life