Epiphany Day is celebrated on January the 6th. The day when John baptized Jesus Christ in Jordan River. For Romanians that means purifying waters. The water we drink; the water we wash. Purifying us.
Just like Christmas it’s also made of a series of special customs. And they begin in Epiphany Eve. It’s a black feast day. That means no eating and drinking is allowed, except water, since sunrise till sunset. The ones who do this could bring about rain and hail storms, and the older girls would eventually get good, handsome men.
On Epiphany Eve black feast lasts only till the priest’s arrival. He comes to purify our homes and us. He does this by sprinkling holy water over the people and things. The sprinkling tool is a sheaf of basil.
The trail of priest from hose to house is called “Iordaneala” from the name of Jordan River. The priest is accompanied by a group of children forming a suite who shout all the way “Chiraleisa”. “Chiraleisa” is the Romanian pronunciation for the Greek “Kyrie Eleison”, which means “God bless you”. That’s why in other places this tradition is called Chiraleisa.
My grandma waits for the priest with all the doors opened and a lighted candle in her hand. She asks him in. First he sprinkles water on the sacred images on the wall. Children come next; then the adults. All people must cross themselves and kiss the holy cross from priest’s hand. Then priest takes a tour of the household sprinkling every wall. Grandma asks him to sit and taste the food. Traditional meal for this day is dry plums soup.
Especially the older girls at the countryside are waiting impatiently for the priest’s arrival. When they see the priest the girls put under the threshold glass pearls, ear rings and six grains so that the priest would pass over them. Those things placed under the girls’ pillows are said to help them dream of their husbands.
The premarital magic during the Epiphany Day has the basil as a totem and attributing it many erotic qualities. Nowadays girls do everything they can to get some basil from the priest so they can put it under their pillows and dream of their future husbands.
During the Epiphany Day the most important tradition is the blessing of a large body of water. The priest makes a special service next to the river or the lake situated near the village. People cut a large cross of ice in the river (lake) and they mark the place of service with it. At the end of the service the priest tosses a wooden cross in the water.
It’s said in that moment all evil would be dispersed from it. Village’s young men go into the water and search the cross. Cause anyone going into a river or lake would be kept safe from illness all year round.
When it’s time to get from the holy water the place gets very crowded because there is the belief that holy water would bring love, honesty and marriage to those who are the first taking from it. Everybody drinks from the hallowed water, including the cattle. What is left is kept in front of the icons in order to cure the illnesses.
People used to believe that the time before Epiphany Day was the winter’s hearse. Rain during Epiphany Day was said to foretell a long winter, while nice weather was considered sign for a good summer. If the north wind was blowing people were expecting rich harvests, and if the projecting roof was leaking it was a sign that good wine would be made.
There is an interesting custom in the northern country villages. It’s called “women’s Iordaneala”. On Epiphany Day women gather in large groups at somebody’s house. They eat, drink, sing and dance all night long. In the morning they go out and take up every men they find on the street. They go with him to the river and toss him into the water.
All in all, customs on Epiphany Day refer to the renewal of time and the purification of people and nature by purifying waters.