Roma traditions neglected

By • on January 15, 2010

The Iron Curtain’s fall has enabled Roma as well as other citizens of the former Communist Czechoslovakia to work and live in countries of the European Union. Slovak Roma who immigrated to Belgium, Ireland and other countries come from communities and families which have always kept the traditions of Christian holidays. Holidays have always meant gatherings of Romani families, strengthening of family relations and following the Christian rituals like blessing every house during Easter or Christmas. But many families have scattered and adopted some other traditions while migrating into different countries. They forgot their old customs as Roma have always been able to assimilate to the environment which they had lived and live in. This is a process of adaptation which brings many positives but also some loss.

Slovak Roma living in Ireland celebrate Halloween. I had an opportunity to be present in Ireland during this holiday. The family I visited had three children aged from seven to twelve. The whole house including the front garden had a ghostly decoration and children, also dressed in scary Halloween costumes, went door-to-door collecting sweets. These families do not get together during Christmas like they used to do at home. What had changed them is envy that bewitched them in foreign countries and thus caused enmity between brothers and sisters. Families that I know of in foreign countries do not keep up with their years-preserved traditions. For example Roma from Slovakia living in the Czech Republic for ten or twelve years have already integrated into the majority society. They gave up their strong traditions from Slovakia thanks to the integration. They lived in communities or towns with a higher number of Romani inhabitants, which made it easier for gathering of big families, bonding and belonging. When they moved to the Czech Republic because of work, they lived in boarding houses or rented flats. They arrived without their families and started new friendships mostly with Czech non-Roma. In order to keep up with old habits they lacked other members of families, mostly the older Roma who had carried and still carry on those traditions. Non-Roma countryside does not offer many traditions. Quite on the contrary, here the Slovak Roma learned that holidays do not mean anything anymore. So Christmas turned only into days of good food and sitting in front of the TV. Whether it is Sunday or not, Roma start up power saws, cut lawns and do laundry. A Roma person doing such things on Sunday back in Slovakia would have been harshly deprecated and loathed by others. All those families who used to take Christmas as something sacred suddenly changed their styles of life in the Czech Republic.

One Orthodox Catholic family from Vranov, a district in eastern Slovakia used to go to church before eating Christmas dinner in Slovakia. Now that they have lived in Mlada Boleslav for several years and despite the fact that all the siblings and their mother live there, they are not together during Christmas Eve. They do not even meet up the following day. Nobody from the household knocks on the door with bread and a candle to bless the house and wish all the best before the Christmas dinner. Nobody wears their Sunday best for the Christmas dinner and only a few Roma go to church during Easter to bless “paska,” a sweet bread only baked during Easter (tradition is to put paska and a sample of each Easter food into a basket and take it to church). They could not imagine eating Easter meal without blessing it first back in Slovakia.

I lived in Slovakia all my childhood and now I am in the Czech Republic. This reality surprises me unpleasantly. Christmas and Easter were always sacred holidays for me and my family. My family used to cheer that we would all be together and we would always welcome a new member of the family. My father and brother with my youngest nephew would always knock on the other relatives’ doors, step in, bless and wish all the best to them. These wonderful moments make the family stronger; they teach us to help each other and to forgive. Many Roma have given up these traditions and maybe because of that relationships between siblings break up.

Those very few Romani traditions which have survived until now proved that Roma stuck together even during challenging periods in history. They survived and so survived our language. Traditions of coherence are what protected us, Roma against the destruction of our identity which happened as forceful assimilation. That is why the traditions that unite Roma are so important. It is therefore dangerous when Roma forget those traditions which build in us a sense of family ties. In the scope of integration they take on foreign habits in which we get lost and we lose our mutual contact.

But luckily I also know Romani families who are returning to their families at least during Christmas because as many say: the best Christmas is always at home. There where our families live and where Roma get together also during Christmas to wish each other all the best and recollect old times…

My grandpa, who already passed away, used to tell me how Roma did not celebrate Christmas in every family separately before. As Roma were poor, every Romani woman would cook whatever possible and neighbors and family would meet in one house. Those were the Christmases of our ancestors. They held together and helped each other. I remember when two old Romani men met before they always titled each other as “my brother.” But I do not hear it anymore nowadays…