Ursul—Romania’s Bear Dance Festival

Christmas traditions and New Year traditions are often intertwined, especially in countries where pagan rituals were absorbed into Christian holidays. In Comanesti, Romania, for example, the weeklong Christmas to New Year celebration isn’t complete without dancing bears.

On the 12th Day of Imported Christmas,* we held our own mini Ursul parade and explored this striking tradition that has captivated photographers and visitors every year.

The origin of the bear dance is up for debate, but legend has it this tradition goes back to ancient Romania, well before the conversion to Christianity. Townspeople dress up in bearskin suits with big red tassels hanging from the shoulders and parade through the streets. The bears are accompanied by bear tamers, characters dressed as old women, and drummers. At one point in the dance, the bears lay down and then rise back up, representing the death of the old year and birth of the new (and, in Christian tradition, death and resurrection).

Someday I’d love to see the parade in person, but the photos and videos are stunning. Dozens or hundreds of people dressed as bears dancing through the streets makes for a powerful experience.

We know a guy with a couple (legally and humanely sourced) bearskin rugs, so we spent Christmas Eve teaching some family members a little bit about this Romanian tradition and testing just how heavy those costumes may be. Of course, the rug doesn’t give the same effect as the real costume, but it made us especially impressed by all the children who dance in the weighty suits. We loved the opportunity to extend our Christmas celebration beyond our more familiar traditions.

Interested in learning about more international Christmas traditions? Follow our 12 Days of Imported Christmas:

Twelve Days of Imported Christmas

  1. The First Day: Chichilaki—Georgia’s Shaved Christmas Tree
  2. The Second Day: Lotería de Navidad—Spain’s Communal Christmas Lottery
  3. The Third Day: Stargazy Pie—Cornwall’s Town-Saving Fish Dish
  4. The Fourth Day: Rellenong Manok—The Phillipines’ Elaborately Stuffed Christmas Chicken
  5. The Fifth Day: Himmeli—Finland’s Geometric Straw Ornaments
  6. The Sixth Day: Figgy Pudding—England’s Fiery Festive Centerpiece
  7. The Seventh Day: Glückspilz—Germany’s Lucky Mushroom
  8. The Eighth Day: Pumpple Cake—Philadelphia’s Quadruple Dessert
  9. The Ninth Day: Porchetta—Italy’s Decadent Pork Centerpiece
  10. The Tenth Day: Julkalender—Sweden’s Serialized TV Christmas Countdown
  11. The Eleventh Day: Peppermint Pig—Saratoga’s Shattered Sow
  12. The Twelfth Day: Ursul—Romania’s Bear Dance Festival

*Yes, this is the first time we’ve ever actually managed to publish all twelve days of the Twelve Days of Imported Christmas. No, we can’t believe it either and, no, there is no guarantee this will ever happen again. So let’s all enjoy this momentous occasion.

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