The holiday season for Romani – speaking from the personal perspective of my own family – is very different. We don’t traditionally celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving and our Christmases are very different. Every fall, we usually had just returned from a summer spent travelling around Europe working and were settling in for the winter. Early mornings were spent hunting mushrooms, medicinal herbs and plants, berries and fruits, and other edible morsels. We’d pick hedgerows around the farmers field for the vegetables that were seeded too far out – the rogue turnips, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, and sprouts. Halloween was something my grandparents refused to accept, despite the fact that we have a tradition of semi-terrifying ghost/demon/witch/dragon stories. My grandmother would cluck under her breath and mutter about mule and dujevodjengere and čoxanja and how inviting them to come back and mocking them was wrong and then she would cross herself, pray to Sara la Kali and put a few bokelji on the windowsill.
I do remember the first time we went out on Halloween. I was about eight and my grandfather decided there’d be nothing bad in us going around with a lantern if we wanted. So, of course, I got totally into it! All the kids went out and found some turnips to make the udud. Normally made from potatoes and filled with animal fat (to burn as a lantern), we just hollowed them out and used candles in them instead. Some even used large potatoes. Most of us didn’t carve any kind of face in it as we didn’t really know the whole “jack o lantern” thing. My kako Róbi started telling us all of the horrible things that might happen to us because of our decision to partake in this non-Romani holiday. From hungry mulo eating our hearts in the middle of the night, to the ever-creepy dujevodjengero who’d come, tip-tapping sideways on their crooked legs, with their crooked faces and crooked, hollow eyes. Unable to be seen when looked at directly, you’d only know they were there when you caught them out of the corner of your eye and by then it was too late. Then there were many and varied čoxanja who would come and cause trouble. Mostly indžibaba, they could do all manner of terrifying things. Like the one who could shape-shift into anything at all. She could be the chair, the cup, the dog barking in the wind. Or the little man with the red hat who’d come and make you invisible forever. Then of course the stories about the devil himself, who’d come and take you from your family and turn you into a cherry tree, or a river, or a bird.
By the time Halloween came around, most of us were genuinely convinced we’d either see a real ghost or be eaten alive…
I remember I was so into the idea of it that I crafted a witches hat out of black paper and made up a whole ‘curse’ to yell at anyone and everyone. For a while we just stood, in the street, at a loss what to do. We watched the gadže kids walking up to the door and receiving their sweets and goodies. I suggested that my brothers should do it. They refused, so I decided for a laugh I would go and yell my curse.
Slinking menacingly down the front path I barely made it to the door before one of the occupants flung it wide. “Aren’t you one of them gypsy kids?” They asked, squinting into the darkness. “Go on away with you. Get off my steps!”
And that was about as terrifying as it got!!!
Thanksgiving is a holiday that I’d never even heard of until I came to the US. Although we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in the same way Canadians and Americans do, for many Romani giving thanks is a big part of winter celebrations, including Karačonja – Christmas. One way in which we give thanks is through patjiphenav – forgiveness. An old saying we have argues: Sar šaj dživas, te na džanas jekh avreske te odmukel? How could we live at all, if we didn’t learn to forgive each other?
Forgiveness. It was really a big deal. My Maami (father’s mother) would start leaving food (generally bokelji makoha – poppy seed cake) out on the windowsill way before Christmas, hoping to appease any mule who we may have offended during the year. Daje and I would clean everything in the house, even washing the walls and floors, and we would bring lots of fresh greenery inside – sprigs of holly and evergreen, making small wreaths for candles, sprigs for windowsills, doors and walls, and small bouquets to gift to relatives.
My grandmothers, aunts, and older female cousins would start baking and buying/picking food way before the holidays. Baba Edíta made amazing pekadore and šinga (Christmas cookies – some shaped like strudel or crescent rolls) as well as heavy fruit cake. There was always a formal declaration around the beginning of December about who’s house we would go to. My Daj would call my Baba and say, “kada berš avava ke tumende pre karačonja” – This year I will come to you on Christmas. It always amused me, as we always went to Baba’s house!
As the holidays drew closer more and more family members would go visiting each other – passing gifts, cakes, cookies, and other food, and sharing drinks and stories, and of course songs. Any problems between family members were shelved and forgiveness seemed to have a ripple effect. My uncles would square off with each other and stare for a moment then laugh and slap each other on the back toasting loudly with a glass of whiskey. Maami Babka would berate her sons for not coming to see her often enough (even though they were with her every day!), but shower them with drink after drink and cookies and cakes galore. For their part, my uncles and father would sheepishly agree they were bad sons and toast her health enthusiastically. We’d also spend time expressing gratitude for things we had and the family in our lives.
When it finally came to Viljija (Christmas Eve) I was always very excited. My Dat and phrala would go and get the jezulankos (Christmas tree) every year and decorate it. We would only get it a few days before Christmas and take it down again before the night of the 5th of January. We always had a fresh one. Usually we dug it up and kept it alive if we could. If not we used the tree for wood/mulch after January. The tree had a mixture of things on it – some more traditional and some all sparkly and decidedly not traditional! On Viljija, we didn’t eat much. We’d spend time making more food for the next day and taking it to our relatives houses. Generally we’d have a plain meal at night – arminakeri zumin (cabbage soup) with potatoes and buns sprinkled with poppy seeds and milk. We’d eat together as a small family, remembering our ancestors with candles and a prayer or small speech, often focusing on forgiveness and giving thanks. We’d listen to music and there was an air of excitement for the next day (often just called baro džives – big day).
For us, the entire season (from October through December) is a season of forgiveness and gratitude. We celebrate our relatives – living and dead – and celebrate our family. When I was younger many more of our family would come together, but as I grew older, we seemed to disperse further, it became more difficult to travel and some how… we were never all together anymore. It seems so often that forgiveness, love, and gratitude are forgotten in the sparkling lights of Thanksgiving and Christmas. So often I hear so many negative things about the Romani and our way of life – but really, we are… a loving, kind, and grateful people.