The Romanian Valentine
February 15, 2010Posted by on
Valentine’s Day has caught a lot of momentum in the last 10 years in Romania, growing exponentially from a shy attempt at mimicking a Western tradition to a full-fledged commercial craze, like mostly everywhere.
This “imported holiday” caused a counter-reaction in some milieus, at the beginning mostly artsy people who opposed the over-the-top commercial spirit it perpetrated. After a few years this has led to re-discovering an ancient Romanian tradition, equivalent to a “Valentine” type celebration, the “Dragobete”. It is a paradox – without the Valentine’s Day import and the anti-Valentine reaction, poor Dragobete would have been long forgotten. Practically, Valentine saved it from extinction and… created competition.
The “Dragobete Day” is on February 24th. Probably the month of February was considered a month of revival, the day of 24th being the beginning of the agricultural year (sometimes it was considered the day when the bear comes out of the den). It is the time when nature awakens, birds start looking for places to build their nests and people, especially youngsters, follow the course of nature. Looking for mating opportunities, that is.
Dragobete is the name of a deity similar to Eros or Cupid. The son of Dochia, a famous figure in Romanian mythology (about her, some other time), was a handsome and loving man. He wasn’t kind, like Valentine, but impetuous; the Dacians thought he was the god who, like a “cosmic godfather”, officiated in heaven, at the beginning of spring, the marriage of all animals. Along the years this tradition extended to people too. Thus, on Dragobete’s Day, boys and girls meet to make their love last the whole year, as well as the birds which “get engaged” on this day.
Dragobete is also a deity of joy and well-being, his day used to mean: party!, often ending up in future marriages (hehe). The euphemism was “Dragobete kisses the girls”. Yeah right.
The Romanian popular belief says that those who take part in the Dragobete festivity will be protected against sickness all year long. Therefore, in the morning, dressed up in their best clothes, young people used to meet in the center of the village or in front of the church. If the weather was fine, they would go singing in small groups to the forest or on the meadow, looking for snowdrops or other miraculous plants (used for love incantations); if the weather was bad, they would gather at someone’s place to play games and tell stories. On Dragobete’s Day, people used to make symbolical engagements (sometimes followed by real engagements) or the boys and girls made themselves blood brothers.
In the forest, around the fire, young boys and girls gathered to talk. The girls picked up violets, which they kept near icons, being then used for various love rituals. In some places, girls had the habit of collecting water out of the unmelted snow or out of the wild strawberry’s flowers. The water obtained was carefully kept because it had magical properties (it was said to be “born from the fairy’s smile”) and it could make girls prettier and more loving. If there weren’t snow and wild strawberries, the girls would collect rainwater (for washing their hair) or spring water, when the Dragobete’s Day was held in March.
At lunchtime, girls started to run down the village. Each boy would chase the girl that he liked. If the boy was fast enough and the girl he was chasing liked him back, this chase was followed by a long kiss in everybody’s sight. This kiss was the playful engagement of the two, for at least another year, and many times it was followed by a real engagement.
The community was very interested in what happened on this occasion (obviously), because at this time of the year they could find out what weddings they would have to attend in autumn. In the afternoon they would have a great party, where everybody, whether “coupled” or not, would dance, sing, have a good time because it was said that young people who didn’t have fun on Dragobete’s day, or had at least seen a person of the opposite sex, wouldn’t be able to find a partner for the rest of the year.
For everybody this holiday of love was considered a holiday of good omen for both small and big things in life. People believed that Dragobete could help farmers have a richer year than everybody else; people would not work on Dragobete’s day, like on others religious holiday, they would only clean up their houses. Only the daring girls worked on this day, the girls who wanted badly to be “punished” by Dragobete. Even if he sometimes “punished” the disobedient ladies, Dragobete was seen as a protector of lovers, youth in general, being considered a true Romanian Cupid. Or, more recently, a Valentine.