The Romanian Way to Love. About the celebration of spring, love and Dragobete.
Read this wonderful article by Andreea Baceanu.
When Romanians think of Valentine’s Day, there’s an inevitable second thought that comes along with the western celebration of eternal love: “We have our own!” and nowadays it is celebrated 10 days after Valentine’s Day. It’s called Dragobete. The meanings behind this celebration go far beyond the surface of modern times and the celebration itself has its roots in the Romanian mythology. However, not many Romanians know what exactly Dragobete is – all we know is that it is the Romanian Valentine’s Day, but even its origins are uncertain – some ethnologists claim that it is as old as the Dacians (our ancestors).
I am one of those who can decrypt to some extent the hidden web of meanings underlying this very special day. The following explanations are based on a wonderful book, a lecture I would recommend for each and every one of you out there who can understand Romanian: A sufeltului românesc cinstire (Praising the Romanian Soul) by the philosopher Alexandru Surdu, one of our most appreciated academicians.
The celebration of Dragobete means more than red hearts and stuffed animals. Like Valentine’s Day, it is intrinsically influenced by history, religion and mythology. In connection to our culture, the word “dragobete” has at least three meanings:
- It is the name of a mythological being (when spelled with a majescule – Dragobete);
- It is the name of the celebration of love (spelled with minuscule and held in the “memory” of the mythological being);
- It traditionally designates a bucket of flourishing branches tied together, used during the actual celebration of dragobete (spelled with minuscule).
First of all, Dragobete is the name of a young man who represents the love that is being resurrected in the beginning of the spring, after the winter paralysis, just like Valentine the priest symbolizes the love that survives the hardships of earthly life.
He is the son of Baba Dochia (Dochia the Old Lady), an iconic figure that embodies everything that can be unpleasant in a mother-in-law (please note that in the Romanian culture the mother in law is seen as being rather evil than loving and understanding). Eventually, she pays for her sins (and especially for tormenting her daughter-in-law, Dragobete’s wife) by being turned to stone while up in the mountains with her sheep.
Despite his “genetics”, Dragobete is the exact opposite of his mother and Romanians acknowledge his name as being intrinsically linked with flourishing love. With this particular feeling being so important anywhere in the world, it is no wonder that Romanians started to celebrate Dragobete annually, near the beginning of the much awaited spring.
The mythological Dragobete had the capacity to fly and sometimes was riding a flying white horse, but always and only during daytime, never after darkness fell. “He was associated with light, sun and spring.”
The appearance of the first snowdrops and the flourishing trees was thought to be the result of his magical presence. The flowers were gendered as well, being separated into boys and girls that found a “soul-mate” among its “peers”, but every now and then there was one that had no mate. Therefore, the flower buckets were made of “unpaired” flowers, so they will resist longer, due to the fact that Dragobete took care of their loneliness and paired them after being picked and gathered into a bucket.
He was also responsible for the multiplication of the number of insects and birds, but his skills never went beyond the borders of Mother Nature’s realm. Even here his influence was not total – he never paired animals, wild or domesticated. Also, he did not have the capacity to make people fall in love, like Valentine, but it was believed that it was the flourishing nature itself that had this impact over people’s lives, triggering the desire for love.
Regarding Dragobete’s limited influence in the forest, it was believed that animals are subdued to the “horned one” (Satan), and they were not getting “married”. Their pairing was purely sexual and the characteristic sounds came directly from Hell. For example, bears were mating during the fall and wolves during the winter, so Dragobete was not around then – it was not the right time for love. The wolves, foxes and bovines were making terrible sounds during the mating season, therefore Satan must have been involved in the process, strongly contrasting to the way the birds and flowers were getting “engaged” and then “married” – the flowers were leaning towards each other (like the snowdrop), the birds were singing and kissing each other (like pigeons do). The only exceptions from the rule were the crows and hawks that were thought to be possessed by the “Evil One” due to their unpleasant singing.
This is how Dragobete, a young and charming man, was represented in the Romanian folktales and traditional poetry. He brought the nature to life and with it the human heart was fiery again.
Dragobete – The celebration of love
Traditionally, girls’ direct interaction with the outer world was very limited and had to be permanently mediated by older men or women. For example, unmarried, young girls were not allowed to wander around the village by themselves and had very little interaction with one another. No wonder they awaited so dearly the moment of their liberation. One of such moments was the meeting that took place on Dragobete Day or sometime around it. It was called “the love engagement” and always took place in the beginning of the spring, on a beautiful, sunny day. If the weather on Dragobete Day was not appropriate for this celebratory event, then another, more suitable day, was chosen. The place of the event had to be a sunny glade, surrounded by forest, if possible. The cheerful families arrived in groups, always having among themselves a young unmarried (but of marriageable age) boy or girl. It was mandatory that the boys would wear some flowers on their hats and that the girls had beautiful, hand-made flower crowns on their heads. Musicians were also present, entertaining the audience during the entire ritual.
The first phase of this symbolic engagement consisted of the formation of two groups, organized accordingly to the gender of the participants. Following the rhythm of the music, they were shouting each other’s names until two separate, distinct and distant groups were formed. Then the dancing began – the girls with their “sisters”, the boys with their “brothers”.
This whole time the relatives and spectators were forming a large chattering group on the side of the glade. The dancing took place like this: for a while, the members of each group danced together, but after a while they were separating from the larger circle and danced in pairs (boys with boys, girls with girls), hugging and kissing each other on the cheeks. The girls’ hugs were very delicate and expressed love and care, whereas the male embraces expressed strength and power. After this, the two groups were supposed to re-form the original circle-shape, and then they would separate from it again and so on. The kissing and hugging one’s same-sex peers meant that the girls were now sisters and the boys were brothers. This brother/sisterhood was stronger, more important than the blood ties between the members of a community. They became related by making a superficial cut in the form of a cross on the inside of their arms and then placing these wounds one on top of the other, so the blood would be “exchanged”.
After this “bloody” rite, the two circles would start dancing again but, this time, at the signal of one of the girls, all of them had to run towards their families and hide behind them, after which they would sneak out into the woods and pick few flourishing tree branches, which they called “dragobețe” (read dragobetze)
. After picking these branches, they tied them together with some colorful scarves (bete), turning the dragobețe into…dragobete.
After a while, the boys’ circle was also disrupted and they went searching for the girls – first, among their families, then all around the glade and into the woods. This entire time the girls remained hidden and were secretly picking a favorite of the boys whom they would kiss as soon as they would get the chance. A girl had to run silently from the woods, touch the boy with her dragobete (the tied together branches) and then kissed him wherever she could – on the cheek, on the chin, on the moustache, it did not matter. After kissing her chosen one, the girl had to run back to her family and it was their duty to hide and protect her. “This once-in-a-lifetime gesture, made in front of the entire community by a scared girl towards an unknown young man, but beautiful as Dragobete himself, was the sentimental equivalent of the catharsis as it had been described by the ancient writers – a strange combination of fear and pleasure, closely related to death itself, but, at the same time, of authentic life, of true fulfillment of the human destiny.
Meanwhile, the boys were not passively waiting to be kissed – they were running all over the place, grab the girls, hold them up in the air and kiss them. These very lively and entertaining moments were interrupted by a sudden loud noise (a scream or so) and the girls would instantly start running towards their homes. No one followed them – the boys and everyone else had to form a huge circle and dance to the music of the band. Once they reached their destination, these young women carefully hid their dragobete, so no one would find them. As a prophylactic measure, they also cursed the dragobete, so anyone who would disturb them (and, therefore, their love) would pay for the damage. The end of the ritual finds the girls in a cathartic state and it was not a rarity that they would cry the whole night, until the next day.
This was “the love engagement” – the only one which did not underscore other values but the pure love itself. The following ritual was called “taking out the girls for a dance” and it meant the actual acknowledgement of an individual as being “on the marriage market”. During this one, the boys invited girls to dance with them, they picked a favorite and few days later, if the families came to terms the “real” engagement took place.
This is how love and marriage were enacted in a traditional village in Transylvania, near the city of Brasov (Kronstadt), as described by acad. Surdu in his book, Praising the Romanian Soul. Everything had Dragobete as a starting point. Although it was not he himself who would “marry” the unmarried youngsters, it was due to his work in the nature that all the above rituals took place. Dragobete meant spring, life and love and the above-described symbolic engagement came as complementary to nature’s resurrection.