New Year’s Eve is an international evening filled with resolutions. Be better, join a gym, travel frequently, give back to the community; all of these and more are on our minds before heading into the following year. What we mustn’t forget is that many nations were once concerned about evil spirits walking about on this day of transition. The people came up with strange rituals to ward off all evil beings, some of these rituals still standing today. For example, the Philippino population believes that making a lot of noise on the streets on this specific eve will scare malicious spirits into never wanting to harm them in their future. In Denmark, people throw broken dishes at the houses of their neighbors, signifying the spreading of good luck in their neck of the woods. Then there is a special bear dance created by Romanians, which takes place close to the capital, during a festival in Comănești. This colorful and noisy tradition will make you stop in your tracks with excitement. Let’s see why.
When one steps into the village of Comănești on New Year’s Day, one might get the feeling that they have stepped into a ceremonial gathering of the spirit world. Everywhere you look, there are people dressed up in bear fur or traditional Romanian costumes. Those in Romanian attire walk along with the “bears,” singing and playing the drums, letting the villagers know of their arrival at their doorsteps. The participants who wear bear costumes even growl loudly to chase away misfortunes, and dance (albeit clumsily) before the crowds. The movements of bears are also mimicked, the dancers adopting a bowed down position. Some bear impersonators also use their claws and heads to interact amongst themselves, imitating bear gatherings were the alpha bear is usually challenged. The pelts are decorated brightly and are passed down from generation to generation. This dance can only be found in Eastern Romania, but entire villages make a pilgrimage to Comănești for a day to take the custom to new heights.
The history of the bear dance can be traced back to the Daco-Romans, the forefathers of our nation. Old drawings show that before a bear dance existed, people used to walk a real bear in villages, promising a lack of back pain to the afflicted if bears were allowed to walk on their backs.
The Dacians worshiped bears. Their god was Zalmoxis, named after “zalmo” (skin) and “oxis” (bear). Often, villagers would get bears to enter their homes, since they thought that these animals would bring health, luck, and fortune to the inhabitants. Even today, the bear dance is thought to bring only good luck to those who let the dancers pass their thresholds. The Romanian people still care deeply about bears, the world's largest brown bear reserve in Zărneşti being a testament to that.
You might believe that a bear dance doesn’t need a lot of preparation, yet you would be mistaken. The training for the big day can start as soon as three months before the event because the bear furs need special tending. The pelts have been passed down from generation to generation and can weigh about 60 kg. Despite this fact, a lot of women join this bear parade dressed up as these worshipped animals. It also isn’t uncommon to see small children participating in their mini furs.
Because the bear furs are so old, the villagers need to take special care of them. They use oils and sprays to soften the pelts. This practice doesn’t only happen before the event, but several times during the year. All of this preparation shows the dedication of the Romanian people when it comes to our beloved traditions.
By continuing the bear dance ritual, the nation brings homage to the bears that once roamed this earth. The bear is still considered a symbol of good luck in Romania, and those who practice the bear dance in Comăneşti will surely attest that there is no better way to spend New Year’s Eve than by connecting to their roots and passing on the tradition to their offspring. Join the celebration and take some good luck home with you from the growling dancing bears.
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