The Romanian village, we are constantly told, is dying. Young people are leaving in droves, either for the the country’s towns and cities or to seek their fortune abroad. Christmas in Ianculești, in the far northwest of Romania – just a kilometre or two from the Hungarian border – would suggest that the trend is not uniform everywhere. Here I found a Romanian village that appears to be blooming, where tradition remains strong and where the church is a focal point of life.
It helps that the town of Carei, which offers employment and opportunities, is not far away (indeed, administratively, Ianculești is part of the town). Roads, long little more than mud tracks, are now paved, and the arrival of gas a couple of years ago means that central heating is now standard: no small thing during a Transylvanian winter.
Children are, alas, a little thin on the ground: there are just a handful in the village, but that was to the delight of my daughter Valeria, who went from door to door on Christmas Eve singing carols with four cousins and friends. With a virtual carol monopoly, they arrived home after five hours of singing the good news with 260 lei each as their reward: just about every house welcomed them with open arms, a few lei and enough sweets and chocolate to keep them going until Easter.
At church on Christmas morning the local priest – my wife’s cousin – handed out more goodies to the local kids. He also reminded the packed congregation that life can sometimes be brought to an abrupt end, and that it was therefore important to enjoy every moment. A simple, and yet important Christmas message, not least for those of us who can all too often take life a bit too seriously. Locals in traditional costume sang more carols, and young lads dressed as the Three Wise Men performed a short theatre piece.
With Christmas lent over, the smorgasbord of food that adorned the dinner table was a treat for all. Roasted pork, roasted rabbit, sarmale (cabbage rolls) and a wonderful apple crumble made by my wife (I insisted on at least one English dish) were washed down with delicious, sweet vișinata (a cherry liqueur that can be deceptively strong). On Boxing Day, more carols, as we visited family and dined on yet more traditional food. There were presents of course, but these take a back seat in Transylvania’s villages, where family is the most important gift of Christmas.
Anyone who has become cynical about Christmas, reduced in so many places to a secular festival of commerce, would do well to spend next year in a Transylvanian village. Life can still be hard, but there is enough evidence – at least in Ianculești – that the demise of traditional village life has been exaggerated. It is to the credit of many people here – not least my wife’s cousin, the priest – that there is still a place for the more simple pleasures of church, community, family and a belief that life is itself a gift we should treasure before we realise, too late, that it has passed us by.
I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a Christmas as much.