January 6th and 7th are two special days in the Christian Orthodox calendar. The Epiphany Day (Boboteaza, January 6th) and Saint John’s Day (Santion, January 7th) are two of the most popular religious holidays, rich in meanings and symbols.
For the Romanians the Epiphany Day, also called Boboteaza or Teofania, is a day of purity and cleanness, both spiritual and physical. This is the day when Saint John baptized Jesus Christ in the Jordan River. Thus, it is customary for people to wear clean clothes and go to the church to fetch holy water – or aghiasma.
There are a few special customs crowning the day. The day before the Epiphany day is a day of black fasting: no eating or drinking (other than pure water) from dawn till dusk. It’s believed that those who fast get special powers that allow them to bring on the rain and that bachelorettes who fast will eventually wed good men. In some parts of Romania, maidens also place a stem of basil under their pillow to dream of their future husbands. The basil used by the priest to bless the homes of the followers is believed to have magical powers.
The Orthodox priests travel from house to house to purify the homes with holy water and prayers. The priest dips a bundle of basil in aghiasma and then shakes it over people and their belongings, to let the holy water drops spread over as many things as possible. In many places the lady of the house opens all the doors and waits for the priest with a lit candle in her hand. The priest blesses first any religious representations people have in their houses (usually icons and crucifixes), then the children, then the men of the house and in the end the women.
The Epiphany ceremony takes place outdoors, usually near a large body of water that shall be blessed by the priest. In places without rivers or lakes the priest blesses large quantities of water, stored in wooden barrels, for example.
This is the day when the priest embodies Saint John. If there are frozen lakes and rivers on Epiphany Day it is customary for people to cut a cross of ice and to make the place of service. In the absence of ice a large wooden cross will mark the place. At the end of the ceremony this cross will get tossed into the waves and to get purified by all sins and wickedness young men will go into the water to search for the cross.
Peasants also believe that he who enters holy waters today will stay safe from illness and evil all year.
The day after Epiphany Day is Saint John’s Day – or “Sfantul Ion” (in short Santion) in Romanian. This is the last religious holiday in the Christmas chain. Christmas trees are taken down today. In some parts of Romania the gates of those named “John” (Ion) are decorated with Christmas trees. John is also the most widespread name in Romania.