Dragobetele: the wonderful Romanian version of Valentine’s Day, with its mistical rituals and customs

This post is also available in: Romanian

I didn’t know too much about Dragobete, but it would be the Romanian equivalent of Saint Valentine. Like many of us, though. I did not know that it is a celebration of Nature, fertility and young love, of romantic pledges, stemming from birds-ancestors. And how much respect there is, in some communities that never forget their history, how many rituals and amazing symbols related to this engagement of Birds … which I will narrate, fondly, below.

People link the commemoration of Dragobete to the beginning days of birds mating, that gather in flocks, chirping and starting to build their nests. The spring Engagement of birds became a celebration of human eroticism, the brotherhood day, the simbolic and real engagements of young people. We have here a remnant of avimorf totemism, the cult of ancestral birds, which played an important role in the people’s life. If nowadays fables and stories animals are some allegories of human qualities and flaws, in the past, the behavior of birds was a model for human conduct, invested with sacral prestige. (Ivan Evseev – Magic, demonology and Romanian mythology dictionary)

"Tradition of Dragobete", by plastic Otto C.

“Tradition of Dragobete”, by plastic Otto C.

Of course, in our age of technology and loneliness, of skepticism, it’s very hard not to be ignorant. Especially regarding these beliefs and myths of the creation of the world and, therefore, of us. Where we come from and who we are, some ask, some who become many. It’s a sign that the need and curiosity to know our history, our traditions, to know the so many faces of Truth, the meaning of each culture, wil never die.

The exaltation and tenderness which characterizes the Romanian lands are unmatched in world cultures – maybe it’s just a subjective view I assume. In any case, Dragobetele worthes remembering. It is not only a celebration of love but a celebration of life, of rebirth. And love and life get to be at the deepest level, equal.

Dragobetele pupă fetele! “Dragobetele kisses girls!”

Most believe that Romanian Dragobete is Valentine’s Day, celebrated in America and Western Europe on 14th of February. Well, actually, Dragobetele is celebrated on 24th of February. Tradition has it that, on this day, boys and girsl grt dressed in festive clothes, as for Sundays (religious belief requires that on this day of rest, Sunday, people should get dressed as for church). In the morning, they meet in front of the church and then go into the forest, searching dor spring plants. Then sit around a fire and tell stories. At noon, the girls flee the village, each being pursued by the boy who’s in love with her. If he’s fast and get to the girl he likes, and she feels the same way, he seal their love with a kiss in front of the people in the village, the community, to “formalize” their love. Or the boy steals a kiss – it’s not just a simple game, the kiss is a commitment to a year full of love. Hence the expression “Dragobetele kisses girls”. Their kiss signifies engagement and, sometimes, their wedding which will take place in autumn.

Who is Dragobete?

In some areas, the holiday has different meanings. Apparently it’s not a fixed date and it is called the Head of Spring, The Dashing, the Fiance of Birds, resembling the Greek god Cupid or Eros. Some legends say that he is the son of Baba Dochia, but there’s some room for interpretation. If it were not to believe this idea of a divine creature, Dragobetele is a cheerful and positive character, a symbol of pure love, the giver of joy and hope – opposed to his mother Dochia. Some legends say that he was half human and half angel, forever and extremely beautiful.

Dragobete passes unseen through the world, because people have become so bad, that have no eyes to see it (possible analogy with the perpetual alienation of modern man). It is the protector and bringer of love: birds gather in flocks and they mate on Dragobete, unless they remain solitary and therefore “cursed” to have no chicks until next year, according to the Romanian Encyclopedia. Stories say that Dragobete was originally the one that blessed animals before expand his powers to people.

Nature plays a primordial “model” for communities. Girls and boys who believe in God and rituals of nature (“bird” in Latin meaning “message of heaven”) inoculate them in their lives and therefore seek their soulmate who will be in love with all year – at least.

The holiday of Dragobete would be as old as Dacian times, celebrating fertility and the awakening of nature from the slumber of winter, marking the rebirth and harmony between people and Nature. The traditions are still kept in the South and South-West of Romania.

The most popular legend is that Dragobetele (or Dragomir) was the kind and beautiful son of Baba Dochia who falls for a girl. Their love is so powerful that they marry without the consent of his mother. Obviously angry, Dchia sends her daughter-in-law to wash a black wool in a river on a very cold weather, until it becomes white. Impossible that is, but motivated by love for Dragobete, the young girl begins to wash the wool until her hands begin to bleed. Impressed by this sacrifice, a deity helps her with a red flower – which dropped into the water, will white the wool. It did. When Dochia sees the red flower on the girl’s chest, she believes that spring has come and leaves with the sheeps into the mountains. But the weather is deceitful and manipulates Dochia to give up the 12 warm sheep skins on her. On the twelfth day, at night, a cold wind starts blowing and freezes her to death, among with Dragobete and their sheeps, turning them into rocks (the famous unusual rocks of Bucegi).

Desen-Dragobetele-Otto-Constantin

Otto Constantin painting of Dragobete

Dragobetele 2.0

No matter how commercial and famous Valentine’s Day has become, the returning to Romanian roots is becoming more intense among Romanians (foreigners are also fascinated by our traditions), tired of this modern superficiality the holiday is. Also, to be “against the system”, many brands create campaigns that emphasizes authentic Romanian values as means of attracting customers and focus on Dragobete, not on V’Day.

In some areas of Romania, people put passion into the celebration of this magical day of eros. Some farmers use ancient recipes and techniques. They bake bread and goodies that honors the feast of Eastern Europe, as Ada Mihai tells us in “Romania’s Valentine’s Day: Celebrating the God of Love”. Dragobetele has a mystical significance. What matters now, more than ever, is to be joyful, grateful and honest about the person you love.

Carmina Maior, from ASTRA Museum in Sibiu, believes Dragobetele represents a way into the souls of the villagers, meant to explain the significance of their connection with the world, the universe, the nature. “Dragobetele was inspired by Nature. People observe changes such as birds mating and nesting this time, and take examples from them. (…) Time is changing, as habits are. Dragobetele evolves into a modern holiday.” Example for that is that, on Dragobete, if you step foot on your partner, you are the one who will lead the relationship.

Valentine’s Day rituals: “how to make him/her love you”

You should get noticed. This ensures that thw year will be full of love, happiness and success – according to legends. Unfortunately, many of the traditional customs of Dragobete have been lost in modern times. However, in some rural areas of Romania, on 24th of February, animal sacrifices are forbidden because it would interfere with mating rituals.

On Dragobete, men better not hurt women, or else they’ll have bad luck the entire year. Youngsters believed that these days should be glad and respect the traditions, for to be loved the whole year.

If Dragobetele takes place in a sunny day, as is desirable, young people will spend the day into the woods where they’d pick flowers or collect herbs that will be used for love spells. If the weather is bad, they will play in the snow or gather at someone’s place to tell stories and jokes.

In some areas, young people search for nettles, snowdrops, violets or other plants, nettles being among the first plants that spring up at the end of winter and one of the most commonly used in traditional seasonal cuisine.

The celebration of this Romanian god seems to be dedicatd to women, whether they are looking for a soul mate or are already married, regardless of their age. Those who respect the Romanian feast will be free from illness throughout the year.

“Every woman who has a husband must meet a stranger. That’s tradition and villagers respect it. If you make a mistake, if you do something wrong, you risk getting a bad year in terms of love “(Carmina Maior).

Detail of "Dragobete customs" by Otto Constantin

Detail of “Dragobete customs” by Otto Constantin

In the past,  single women gathered snow – this snow fairy melted from from their smiles. “They use  the melted snow to wash their faces to have beautiful skin all year round and to be cherished. Also they use it in magic potions”. For troubled couples, Dragobetele may be a chance for magic rituals to make loved ones to fall in love again and find out how their relationship will go.

Two special seeds of a plant with purple flowers should be planted and allowed to grow. If lean towards one another and touch, is a sign that the marriage will take place or at least the interaction between the two lovers.

On Dragobete, tradition says to stop working and spend the day decorating the house to receive the God of Love properly, along with fairies who whisper words of love into the ears of people.

You shouldn’t spend Dragobete alone, because it would be a sign of loneliness for the entire year. If girls don’t know or don’t think about a boy in this day, that year they will not find true love.

It is the only day when those who want to become spiritual brothers can mix their blood to officiate this bond.

If it rains on Dragobete, spring will come sooner.

Dragobetele versus Valentine’s Day

The Catholic Encyclopedia from the end of the nineteenth century, three saints are mentioned as Valentine: a priest of Rome, a bishop of Termi and a bishop of Africa (third century). Valentine’s feast was held in the Middle Ages, too, in England and France, on 14th of February, when “the birds begin to mate.”

In the twentieth century, people already switched to a multitude of legends, explained very well by Tudor Pamfile, Romanian writer, anthropologist and folklorist: “when talking about folklore, legends of saints are so different that it causes confusion, even those of the same saint (…) legends live through  the power of imagination of people who feel the need to give miraculous connotation to the deeds of saints.” Valentine also has several different legends, especially related to his religious faith and romantic side.

The modern integration of Valentine’s Day in Romanian space happened in the 90s by media through teen movies (“Beverly Hills” being the most famous), schools and colleges, and nationally through anonymous love letters and gifts. All this represents a natural reaction to years of political isolation in the Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorial politics.

While Valentine’s Day became cool and so popular to be in line with the world, Dragobetele became rarely mentioned, as it was a celebration long forgotten, lost through small and almost mystical villages, unrevealed to us. The only quoted name ramained was that of Simion Florea Marian, Romanian ethnography and folklore scholar who has researched this theme thoroughly in the book “Romanian Holidays” at the end of the nineteenth century. So we learn that Dragobete is celebrated either on 24th of February along with “Discovering the Head of Saint John” or on 1st of March, the Head of Spring.

“On this day, in the morning, all boys and girls comb their hair, get  clean clothes and if the weather’s nice, they go to the river to collect snowdrops. (Marian, p. 237) (…) It’s a competition for girls to fall in love and there is so much joy among mothers who see their innocent daughters surrounded by love, they often end up envy and fighting for it.”

STUDY: What Romanian people believe?

According to a study for 2013 on a sample of 740 respondents 15-65 years old, Valentine’s Day gets more notoriety with 100% versus 95% for Dragobete. 57% of them celebrate V. Day, versus 44% who celebrate Dragobetele. 63% believe that Dragobetele is the right day to celebrate Day of Love.

How important is the celebration of this day? It seems that the majority believes that Valentine’s Day is more important, while men think it’s more important for their partners. Women believe that their partners do not give importance as much as they do to this holiday.

33% didn’t delcare their feelings on Valentine’s Day, while 38% said “I love you” to their partners. 15% used other words to express love, while 14% were given to understand that.

In 2013, 40% have celebrated Valentine’s Day: 74% with their partner. 80% of respondents gave gifts and 40% celebrated the holiday outside, 35% cooked something special (especially those between 45-64 years old) and 7% had dinner to a restaurant.

The gifts came from men between 15-24 years old including flowers, sweets, candy, chocolate, cosmetics, jewelry – while women have provided clothing, candy or personalized gifts with an average price of 93 lei for a present. The men gave more (around 100 RON) than women (about 73 RON).

What do Romanians think of Valentine’s Day? “I don’t think we need a special day to celebrate love” ticked 77% of respondents, while 76% think it is just another opportunity to increase the income of traders, 67% think it’s more publicized than necessary and 56% believe that Romanians should celebrate Dragobete instead.

Most believe that Valentine’s Day is just another regular day, it’s not traiditional and thus should not be celebrated, it’s kitschy. On the other hand, some believe it is a day to remind us how important is love. A large percentage believe that Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to do something together with your partner. 22% think it’s the perfect opportunity to make important decisions or to make big steps in the relationship.

In short, Romanians prefer Valentine’s Day to offer gifts and dine out – they usually go hand in hand. The gifts were special, bought from stores, especially flowers, sweets and cosmetics. Women preferred clothing / footwear or customized gifts. Although many believe that Dragobetele is a genuine celebration, Valentine’s Day is still more active and commercial – to increase income of brands. If you’re wondering what brands were heavily marketed and purchased, it seems they were Milka and Raffaello, followed by Lidl and Emag.

On Dragobete, be cheerful as birds, as tradition demands it anyway. And it’s a tradition of universal happiness.

 

Sources:

Romania-Insider.com,  gonomad.com, muzeultaranuluiroman.ro, comenius-legends.blogspot.ro, terradacicaaeterna.blogspot.ro, exactcc.ro;

A new definition of occidentalization: from Saint Valentine to the Romania ‘DRAGOBETE’ and from Disneyland to the Romanian ‘DRACULA PARK’, lector drd. Georgescu Sorina, Universitatea Hyperion (www.academia.edu)

 

 

 

 

 

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