As a child, I learned all about my religion from my grandmother, in her small and remote Romanian village. She told me many Bible stories from our Christian Orthodox tradition, often disguised as bedtime fairytales, but it was not doctrine that I learned from her, as much as ritual. She taught me the prayers to say at night so I don’t have nightmares, the candles to light in church for luck, the list of dead and living to give the priest for blessings, the making and delivering of food as offerings in memory of the recently deceased.
So many of the spiritual rituals I learned from my grandmother involved food. She taught me when and how to fast, as well as how to prepare the ritual Christmas and Easter feasts: kneading and baking the traditional sweet bread filled with cocoa and walnuts or sweet cheese, cooking the celebratory pork or lamb-based dishes.
In my family, my grandmother was the keeper of rituals, many of them Christian, and many carried from a “primitive”, pagan, pre-Christian time. After growing up, as I distanced myself from my rigid Christian roots, I began to look with more appreciation back at these older traditions, some almost extinct, that had been passed down to me.
My childhood summers, spent in my grandparents’ village, felt unbearably long, with much more time on my hands than I needed. On one of those hot and boring summers, I learned about the Caloian, a tradition so unusual that it seems like I could have dreamt it in a nightmare.
The Caloian is a complex, staged, ritual burial that is meant to bring rain and is performed first in the spring and then, as needed, during draughty summers.
Village girls make a small anthropomorphic mud figure that they place on a piece of wood, or a small coffin, and decorate with flowers. In some parts of the country, the figure is molded by a breastfeeding woman, representing the never-ending spring of life. The figure is then carried throughout the village, in an elaborate procession in which only girls and pregnant women can participate. A child carrying a cross leads the procession, followed by another carrying a decorated tree branch—the tree of life. Wailing and lamentation are part of the ritual.
The figure is “buried” in a garden, under a tree, or next to a well, and the children then have a feast for the dead, which usually consists of a simple sweet-cheese filled fried dough. After three days, the figure is “exhumed” and sent afloat on water, either river or lake.
The mud figure is Caloianu, a child, the son of the rain. The ceremony is meant to send the rain her son back, because legend says until she is reunited with her child, rain does not fall. Caloianu is a messenger, carrying the villagers’ plea for rain and abundance.
Grab the handles with your hands
In the sky open the gates
So you free the rain
So it feeds the grain
So the rivers swell
So it fills the well.
Let the crops take root,
Let us have their fruit.
In a different interpretation, Caloianu was once a beautiful child whose death caused so much grief that even the sky shed tears, leading to the belief that reenacting his funeral rituals would bring the rain.
I wished I remembered more of my grandmother’s stories. She is 98 years old now, and I haven’t visited her in several years. Every time I’ve been back home (somehow almost always during Christmas) she has tried to teach me a very long Christmas carol. She fears she might forget it. Last time I recorded her, knowing that I’d never learn the carol by heart myself—all my memory is kept by technology. One day I’ll transcribe that song and translate it too, for my daughter. Because I know my turn is soon coming, as the keeper of ritual.
Lori Tiron-Pandit is a writer, editor, translator, and Web communicator of Romanian extraction. She writes about women’s lives, mundane and mystical, and their ancestral and contemporary imprint on the world. Her first novel, Spell of Blindness, published in 2012, portrays a woman’s journey in search of the mythical “great love,” a universally feminine search that dwells both in the realm of real life and in a deeper and darker beyond. She is currently working on a second book. You can find out more about her work at www.loritironpandit.com.