How the Roma Celebrated Christmas in the former Czechoslovakia
Since Christmas is a religious holiday, Roma all over the world celebrate it according to their chosen religion. Christmas is the main holy day for Catholics and Protestants, while Eastern Orthodox Christians place greater emphasis on celebrating Easter or the New Year.
Czech and Slovak Roma call Christmas Karachonya (or Karachon) and their celebrations display a number of elements derived from the respective majority societies around them, along with their own Romani traditions, some of which even reflect their centuries-old Indian origins.
Among the traditions in which Romani Christmas differs from Czech Christmas are forgiving and reconciliation, and remembering deceased relatives.
Forgiving and reconciliation are very important for Roma, because during the time when the Roma were a completely isolated, they had to have strong solidarity within the group. They were entirely dependent on the community in which they lived, so they could have no dissension. The Roma therefore made use of the Christmas season to reinforce the relationships between members of the family or community. This custom finds expression in idioms found in all Roma groups which are inseparably connected to the Christmas holidays:
O Roma penge tele muken.
O Roma jekh avres phiren te mangel, kaj leske te odmukel.
Roma go to each other to beg forgiveness and be forgiven.
O Roma, kaj save te ulahas rushte, pre Karachonya penge odmuken u aven pale lachhe.
Roma, though they be the worst enemies, forgive and are reconciled during Christmas.
Sar shaj jivas, te na janas jekh avreske te odmukel? How could we live at all, if we didn't learn to forgive each other.
Remembering deceased relatives at Christmas is connected to the belief among the Roma that a person's soul survives them and exists after the body's departure in the next world. The Romani word for the souls of their dead ancestors is mule and they try to be on good terms with them, since the mule can also harm them. During Christmas Roma placate them by leaving them food on the windowsill or in the corner of the room, so they won't haunt them. Roma also talk about their deceased relatives and remeber them over Christmas.
During Advent Roma would prepared for coming christmas holidays - cleaning, the women would whitewash the walls and then the last step would be fixing up the floor - because they didn't have a wooden floor, they would spread yellow clay as a floor. During Advent the Roma would also trying to get enough food for the Christmas holidays, which is why Roma children looked so forward to Christmas - finally once a year they could eat to their heart's content! Roma musicians practiced the songs they would play to the farmers on Christmas night under their windows, and Roma boys learned to exchange best wishes - in other words pass on wishes for good health and fortune for the coming New Year.
For Christmas Eve Roma use the word Velija or Vilija. Just like Czechs, Roma would fast on this day. The strictness of this fast varied, however - in some amilies they simply didn't eat meat until the evening, in others they ate nothing but baked potatoes all day. Christmas Eve dinner was always prepared by the mother, who would be helped by her daughters. The decoration of the Christmas tree was always the responsibility of the boys. Before dinner the father or oldest member of the family would give a speech, and after that a toast and blessing and a remembrance of the dead. Candles would be lit for them and food from each course put in a bowl and set on the window sill or in the corner for them.
For Christmas Eve dinner Roma most often ate cabbage, beans with plums, potatoes, pishot (pastries stuffed with boiled potatoes) and boblaky (buns sprinkled with poppy seeds and soaked in milk). In some areas, Roma went around exchanging best wishes immediately after Christmas Eve dinner, in others they didn't do so until Christmas Day. Romani men and boys went from house to house, so as not to leave anyone out, and exchanged their wishes for health and good fortune. During these rounds, Roma would also forgive each other, because as the older Roma say: when Roma stick together, neither hunger, poverty, nor evil can destroy them.
Christmas Day became a day of Christmas feasting, during which Roma gathered together and ate, even meat. During these banquets the Roma would once again be exchanging best wishes, and singing old Romani songs.
Source: Romano Dzaniben, no. 4, 1995.