Focus on Christmas in Romania
The songs may be in a different language, the weather a little more or less chilly, and the traditions a little more colorful; but, no matter where in the world volunteers spent the holidays, the spirit of the season shone on. Even in just one country—Romania—the scope of how volunteers spent their holidays spanned the spectrum, from celebrating with their newfound community members to escaping for a little "R&R" in a remote Romanian village.
Volunteers across Romania have shared their holiday stories in hope of giving a picture of their new communities and the customs of their Romanian counterparts. While the experiences may have been varied, the volunteers all can agree that the memories of their new home-away-from-home will stay with them for a lifetime.
I live in a town in the northeastern part of Romania. Since coming here in August, I have been tutoring children at a local orphanage twice a week in English, as a secondary project to my high school classes. Over the course of the tutoring, we have talked about many things—our mutual love of Leonardo DiCaprio, the dangers of smoking, scary teachers, and basketball. I've learned a lot about them—one said he had never had a father, another told of her father's suicide just last year.
It is a unique situation they live in, as it is small, and there are only ten children living in a house. This makes it seem more like a large family than any kind of institution. The rooms are all decorated with bright colors and there is even a dog, in addition to a really exceptional staff.
My mother came to visit me for Christmas this year and I told the children at the orphanage that I would like to bring her there to meet them. When we arrived, the children quickly hugged my mother and they all wanted to sit by her on the couch. Two of the girls sang traditional Romanian Christmas songs for us and several shared their Christmas candy. The youngest in the house, who is only two years old, wandered around with various sticky sweet things on her face and she looked delighted with all of them. They asked my mom all sorts of questions about how she was finding Romania and meanwhile, two of the girls held onto her arms. One child told us about her idol Britney Spears, another about his love for Elvis and a trip to Atlanta, Georgia, that he took last year.
I had only been away from home for about six months when my mom came to visit, and already it seemed like a relief to see her again, even though I am 23. I knew some of the kids in the house would never know their parents at all, and others would have only memories of them. But spending Christmas with these children, who have already faced so much adversity, and seeing them still able to sing and gossip, gave me a lot of hope. Watching them as they hovered around my mother, a stranger to them and yet a symbol of something they were missing, made me feel incredibly fortunate. And as clichéd as it may seem, without the crowded malls and piles of presents under the tree, it seemed like the true spirit of Christmas, and of family, really came through.
Renada has been volunteering in a local Romanian orphanage. She spent her Christmas with her mom at the orphanage, and learned exactly why her commitment to the Peace Corps has been fulfilling.
Richard Lapine took the orphans he works with to buy gifts, but a trip to McDonald's soon became the highlight of the trip.
Another Romanian volunteer introduced me to the Debora Orphanage in Arad, and I have been informally working there since May. The orphanage was the recipient of a grant (that the other volunteer initiated) dealing with the use of art as a communication and education tool. The children have responded enthusiastically. Their rooms are complete with their art.
In November, I had the 20 children create Christmas cards. The cards were sent to the United States for sale, primarily by my grandchildren. They generated enough money to have a "gift exchange," a process the children were not familiar with, and, frankly, not enthusiastic about. They couldn't understand why, when they had more cash in their possession than they had ever had, that they should buy a gift for someone else. Nevertheless, I insisted on the "better to give than receive" speech. Wrong audience!
However, we followed the rules and names were drawn from a hat, a process they did enjoy. On the Saturday preceding Christmas, we went on our shopping spree. Minus the children too young or with the measles, we went off with 13. Interestingly, the highlight of the trip was the visit to the Arad Primaria, where I am assigned, and, of course, lunch at McDonalds.
Following our return and the gift exchange, I noted that each child was comfortably playing with the gift they had bought (for themselves).
Richard also has been working with orphans. This Christmas he introduced the children he works with to a gift exchange. While it didn't work exactly as planned, the children definitely had a memorable Christmas.
Lisa Fisher's English club decided they wanted to help orphans in their community.
What a gift I was given by some of the kids that I work with in Giurgiu, Romania.
I have held two very successful and well-attended English Clubs, which meet at the Culture House twice a week, through the mayor's office. The club for older kids has members, which are mainly high school girls. These girls, through my work, became aware of the orphanages that exist in their community. Before this, they were totally unaware that orphans were still present in Romania, much less Giurgiu.
The English Club decided to give the gift of games, which allowed for frequent revisits.
Late in the summer, they came to me and asked me if they could have a Christmas party at one of the orphanages. I was quite pleased that they—on their own—came up with this idea. I had been in contact with an orphanage which had 9 to 11 year olds, and they welcomed the opportunity to have such a party for the kids. We set a budget for the party and the girls were totally responsible for purchasing the gifts, food, and drinks. They were also accountable for every penny they spent. In deciding what toys to get the kids, they decided that games would be better than individual toys, as then they could go back to the orphanage on a regular basis and play with the children.
The party was an overwhelming success. The girls are committed to returning regularly on their own and as part of English club. The kids at the orphanage were elated and thrilled to have youth come and be part of their lives. The director and workers at the orphanage were made to feel part of the activities. Also, the local TV station carried a story, not about the American working with orphans, but about the Club of girls volunteering their time and talents to the kids. A story about Romanians helping Romanians!
Wow, what a concept, and what a great time. But, more importantly, seeds have now been planted and taken root for real relationships and community service with the girls in the English club, as well as the kids in the orphanage. This has been a great holiday blessing! Nu ma pot plange! (I cannot complain!)
Lisa Fisher works as an English instructor. In the process, she has also taught her students just as valuable of a life lesson: that giving back is almost always more fulfilling than receiving.
Amber Brooks realized that leaving her community for the holidays would have meant missing much of the culture.
I wasn't sure how Christmas would be so far away from home. I wanted to smell my mother's cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning and gather with my family and friends for our Church's annual candlelight service on Christmas Eve. But, here I was, with three full weeks off, thousands of miles away from anything familiar.
But, I am so glad that I stayed. Had I left, I would have missed the beautiful Christmas carols drifting through the town from the Orthodox Church. I wouldn't have seen the wonder in my little "nephew's" eyes, as he rode on a carousel for the very first time. I would have missed going with two of my friends to their tiny little cabin in a mountain village. And, I wouldn't have been able to see the most adorable Christmas pageant presented by some of my favorite kids from town. I would not have been able to wish "La Multi Ani" (Happy New Year) to my Romanian "grandmother" and "grandfather" in the countryside, nor given treats to the children who came caroling to our door. I would have missed watching the fireworks in our little town center on New Year's Eve. And, I wouldn't have tasted the champagne my father's friend had brought to celebrate. I simply would have missed how my new family and friends celebrate the holidays in my new home away from home.
Overall, it was a holiday season to remember. It was local and special, filled with visits and traditional foods, laughter and sharing – a traditional Romanian holiday – simple yet beautiful.
Amber at first thought a holiday season away from family would bring with it homesickness. Yet, on reflection, her staying in Romania brought new holiday memories that will never leave her.
I wish I were a herder of snowflakes
I'd like to have large snow flocks in my care
Which I shall have to drive across long skies
And bring them whiter, purer, back from there.
In a remote area, Sam LeBlanc saw the traditions that add so much color to Romania.
This poem by Romanian poet Ana Blandiana, paints a wonderful word picture of the scenery of Maramures. A former Romanian volunteer told us that one of the best things in Romania was the Christmas festival in Sighetu Marmatiei. So with our son and daughter-in-law and Doru, a Romanian driver/guide, we headed to this most northern Romanian village. Doru explained to us how a mountain pass and the Ukrainian mountains had kept Maramures isolated from invaders as far back as the Romans, and as late as the Communists. Thus, the people were able to preserve their traditional way of life.
Blandiana's "herder of snowflakes" had created stunning snow sculptures for us as we weaved around the switchbacks of the mountain pass. After passage, we stopped at Harnicesti to visit the beautiful white, flake-encrusted wooden church. Vasily, a little boy from the town joined us on our tour. Upon leaving, we began to see the fabulous carved gates fronting traditional houses. At Sighetu, we visited Muzeul Satului and peeked inside some of the old traditional houses.
The next day after a good night's sleep and a breakfast, Doru and his girlfriend arrived ready for the festival, both beautifully dressed in full, traditional regalia. But first, we went to Sapinta (the "Happy") Cemetery. There, we saw men of the town in their sheepskin pants and black hats and the women in multi-colored flowered skirts. It was the cemetery, however, that put smiles on our faces. Almost every plot had a colorful wooden marker with carvings and poems giving the history of the deceased—no matter from what walk of life that person came.
Sighetu itself was crowded but we located a parade-viewing spot at the end of the route. There, we saw each of the county's participating groups in their ancient costumes. A little group of children marched along with a crèche (a representation of the Nativity) scene including a live baby. Gypsy groups in rags played music and enacted the ritual of Christ's birth. Other groups made music and asked us to join in and dance. Some of them quaffed red and green colored tuica and carried huge loafs of bread baked in circular forms. Individual "monsters" wearing cowbells weaved in and out the crowd. Everybody got into the spirit of the holiday.
Too soon, it was over—the parade that is. For us it was back to Oncesti for another traditional holiday meal, where we sat down to mamaliga cu branza, grilled meats, and a delicious prajitura with rum-spiced chocolate! Surfeit and exhausted we headed back to the house.
On Sunday, while returning a different way, we came upon another treasure: the Barsana Monastery. It was built in the 1990s to replicate the old one that had existed there for centuries. It was accurate in every detail. The wooden church has the highest spire in Romania, or so we were told. With the sunny day, transparent cold air, cathedral environment and four exhausted travelers, we wanted to check in for a few days. Unfortunately, we couldn't. Our "cross-cultural" leave was up!
Sam took the advice of a returned volunteer and spent the holidays in an isolated area of Romania. The culture and the unique way of life did not disappoint him.
Chuck Clouse learned that it doesn't take a lot of resources to make the holidays special for many.
It truly is that time of the year for self-reflection regardless of your beliefs. I have learned much this year, and realize how naïve I had been—and to some extent still am—regarding the people of the world. I have met some wonderful people who are committed to make a difference. I have seen different perspectives of what people think of Americans in Europe. It has all been very interesting.
Last week I played Santa Claus at a day care facility. The innocence of a child is so precious. There were two Santas, so we had to explain that we were only helpers. The United Kingdom Department For International Development (DFID) purchased many of the toys for the children and more. I believe it was a true example of making a difference. For many of the children, my understanding is that what they received on that day was the majority of their gifts.
For Christmas, I stayed in Vaslui and attended the Catholic Mass on Christmas Eve with a Romanian friend and his mother. Let me re-emphasize that the Romanian people are very gracious to their guests. I have an invitation after Christmas to another friend's house for dinner, and for New Year's Eve, and I'm going to my foster family's house in Plopeni. The office where I work starts back up on January 5, 2004, so I plan to keep busy until then.
And for my Christmas gift to me, I should be flying home for the last two weeks in January. My mother lives in Norfolk, Va. and I have found a flight that goes there from Bucharest. I'll spend a couple days there and perhaps take a bus to the Valley. Before coming to Romania, bus travel was out of the question – but buses, trains and taxis are a major form of transportation here. Our standard of living in America is very high, and I trust all of you will reflect on how good things are there.
Make a difference this upcoming year and pray.
Chuck Clouse played the role of Santa, and through that role learned that he had a lot to be thankful for. The experience was memorable for him. But more importantly, the impression he made on the children brightened their Christmas in ways he hadn't ever realized possible.
Last updated Jan 22 2013