After the winter holidays, at the same time with the beginning of the Lent, on Forgiveness Sunday, there is occasion of great celebration in Brănești – Ilfov, as a series of traditions take place during these days.
It is a well known fact that for both the Thracians and the old Dacians or even the Romans, the new agricultural year and the arrival of spring were an occasion of great celebration, marked by a series of ritualistic manifestations taking place around the spring equinox. After the establishment by the Council of Nicaea of the Easter date in the first Sunday after the full moon of the spring equinox “the most important pagan celebrations and customs were placed outside the paschal cycle, on Forgiveness Sunday and Pentecost” (Ion Ghinoiu, Popular customs throughout the year. Dictionary. Publishing House of the Romanian Cultural Foundation, Bucharest, 1997, page 47). During this period, the ancient ritual scenario of time renewal preserves more traditions in Brănești: Împăcăciunea (the Reconciliation) or Iertăciunea (the Forgiveness), Bătutul Alviței (the Beating of the Halva), Cucii (the Cuckoos), Jujăul (the Neck Collar) or Datul câinilor în tarbacă (Laying the Blast on the Dogs), spreading over several days separated by the „Urălie”, a celebration under the open sky, organized at night, around the fire, synonym with the night between the years or today’s New Year’s Eve.
The Cuckoos custom or the Day of the Cuckoos, as also referred to in Brănești, is a traditional popular celebration which turns the centre of the village into a true popular carnival scene in the open air, each year on Forgiveness Sunday before Easter. The game implies the masking of young people in male cuckoos and female cuckoos and the tapping of the villagers on the shoulder to “chase away the evil” and “to have good health”. The main characters are:
- The male cuckoo – wears a male costume which he manufactures himself. His mask named chip (front) is truly impressive, with a big, heavy cupola decorated with hundreds of brightly coloured flowers of crepe paper like a huge sorcova (branch or stick adorned with artificial flowers), from which tens of long, paper tresses hang to the ground in the back, then the obrăzarul (face covering) with the long nose of which tassels or bells hang, with red, sharp cheekbones and the rabbit fur barba (beard). Mirrors are attached in the mask, symbolizing the major stars, the Sun and the Moon. The costume is composed of peasant attire, provided with red cross-shaped stamps and a belt made of small round bells (lopci), placed diagonally across the chest. - The female cuckoos – they are the young men dressed as females, with cardboard masks on their faces and kerchiefs tied up on their heads who procure the dresses in the Urălie evening from the girls with whom they have love bonds. They are girt with a acioi belt (a belt made of big, double bells) and hold in their hands the pămătuf (a stick and a rope with a peasant shoe at one end or a rubber material). Accompanied by the deafening and frightening sound of the acioaie (the belts made of big, double bells), the female cuckoos are more aggressive, they tap harder the acquaintances and friends “to have good health throughout the year”. Today, the female cuckoos represent the overwhelming majority of the masked people, however other characters from the Romanian mythology or everyday life can be seen in the cuckoos parade, more and more numerous being the modern masks.
Origin. There are several hypotheses on the origin of the game. Some ethnographers believe it is a carnival of Thracian origin with two variants – one North Danubian – the Cuckoos game and another one South Danubian – the Kukeri game, that influence each other due to the movement of the Carpathian-Balkan populations. Others believe that it is of Greekorigin, that the Cuckoos game or the Bulgarian Kukeri game originate from the Dionysus Anthesteria Rites (Dionysus celebrations), taken over by the Greeks from the Thracians and adapted differently. The Cuckoos and the Kukeri would originate from the Kukla game or the game of the transvestite human specific to the Greeks in Thrace. The academician ethnographer Romulus Vulcănescu believes that the cuckoos’ custom is a celebration related to certain pastoral and agricultural rites of the Thracians, overlapped by Greek elements of the Dionysus Anthesteria rites and Slavic elements of Cupalo’s processions (the Slavic God of joy). While there is also a hypothesis of a Romanian variant, the game is attributed in Brăneşti to the Bulgarians who came to this village starting with the late eighteenth century from Silistra and the Quadrilateral (Southern Dobruja) where this custom is present in similar forms.
The game rites. There are several opinions about the rites of the game and the original variant, and the vast majority may be found in one way or another in the cuckoos’ game of today.
Some foreign and Romanian folklorists among which the academician ethnographer Romulus Vulcănescu believe that the game of the cuckoos was based on a popular literary text under the form of an unwritten sketch preserved by oral tradition, which was generally about a symbolic marriage between a shepherd and a shepherdess or a ploughman and a ploughwoman. After the marriage, from various reasons (envy, fighting, etc), the husband was killed or he died. His funeral was attended by a character that embodied a priest mockingly performing the funeral religious service. The sketch ended with the resurrection of the dead and the general carnival of all people present. The three game ceremonials of wedding, death and resurrection (more obvious in the South Danubian variant of the Kukeri, but also in the cuckoos game in Brănești) have lost in time their initial symbolic features of fecundity and fertility rites and sometimes remained simple theatrical episodes, detached in the development of the show, on which later on elements of social satire and the whipping of the village morals have been marked. The popular literary text of the entire game was lost and the known fragmentary variants of some theatrical moments in the game were mixed. (Vulcănescu R., History of Theatre in Romania, 1960).
Gh. Vrabie disagrees with the fact that the cuckoos pantomime would have directed its roles based on a text lost in time. For him, the cuckoos are mysterious masks that announce the arrival of spring, as their walking and running imitate somewhat the hopping of the bird. The cuckoo’s mask (multicoloured, made of a wooden rack covered in coloured paper) is seen as an original hat compared with the cuckoo’s tuft. The agricultural related aspects, such as the plowing, the symbolic sowing accompanied by wishes for fertility and high crops, as well as the fecundity aspects symbolized by simulating certain procreation gestures, the birth and the wedding are more obvious in the Bulgarian Kukeri and the Greek Kalogheroi.
In conclusion, the custom in its primary form was based on ancient agricultural spring rituals dedicated to deities of Thracian origin from ancient Greece, completed with fecundity and fertility rites specific to certain celebrations dedicated to deities by the Romans. These ancestral manifestations have lost in time their features of worship of certain deities and were perpetuated until today under the form of agricultural, wedding, death, resurrection ceremonials. Their initial symbolic significance of fecundity and fertility rites is sometimes found only in some theatrical episodes, detached in the development of the show, on which later on elements of social satire and the whipping of the village morals have been marked.
The rites and the meanings are highly complex but they are no longer known by the members of the community.
- The pastoral and agricultural rites were symbolized by the plowing, the symbolic sowing, the shepherds with goats, sheep or donkeys and signified the beginning of the agricultural works.
- The fecundity and fertility rite can be found in the cuckoo’s costume, the goat beard or the rabbit fur, as signs of the Dionysian virility and the tapping of young girls on their “hips” by the cuckoos hides the same significance.
- The revival of nature, the victory of spring over winter and the beginning of a new year (as celebrated in the past), symbolized by the inflorescence on the front masks, a true capillary sorcova (branch or stick adorned with artificial flowers).
- Chasing away the evil and the evil spirits due to the deafening and frightening sounds generated by the movement of the female cuckoos’ acioaie belts (the belts made of big, double bells).
- Later on, as a measure to prevent fevers given that Brăneşti village is located between ponds generating malaria, the cuckoos’ game assumed a new rite, generalized for that matter, consisting of a slight tapping on the shoulder with the meaning of good health throughout the year.
The rendition of the cuckoos’ custom in art and culture. Over time, the cuckoos’ custom aroused the curiosity of many cultural figures, ethnographers, journalists, painters, including figures from the field of documentary film making. For example, the cuckoos’ custom was a subject of inspiration for the well-known painter Margareta Sterian – “the great lady of the Romanian avant-garde” who approaches the masks and Brănești carnival themes in her compositions. In 1969, she had at Dalles Exhibit Hall a highly successful personal exhibition entitled “Masks in Brănești”. A series of famous works are exhibited on this occasion, such as: The Lupercalia in Brănești, The Masks, Wedding in Brănești, The Bride with Cock, and others. A documentary film about the transposition of the carnival in Brănești in Margareta Sterian’s paintings is awarded by A.C.I.N. (the Romanian Film Makers Association) in the art film section within the 1985 International Festival in Nice with the theme “The carnival – reality and cinematographic metaphor”. The awarded film entitled “Eternal Joy is Happiness” and directed by Boris Ciobanu is produced by the TVR (Romanian Television) film studio in 1984, lasting 50 minutes.
The custom is also remarked by the specialists of the National Village Museum and the Museum of the Romanian Peasant who come every year to Brănești for documentation purposes and to purchase the necessary to complete the museum exhibitions. As a consequence, the cuckoos masks and costumes made the object of special exhibitions, such as the exhibition entitled “Together” or the exhibit in Torino Mountain Museum, under the title “Masks, animals, divinity”, organized by the Museum of the Romanian Peasant (Radu Ilarion Munteanu - „Dialogue with Mrs. Georgeta Roșu”, http://destinatii.liternet.ro). In 2013, during the famous Venice carnival, cuckoos costumes and masks were part of the exhibition entitled “Romania: Ceremonial popular costumes and masks” organized by the National Village Museum in Bucharest at Scuola Grande di San Teodoro in Venice.
Activities for the preservation of the custom and its perpetuation to future generations.
The cuckoos’ custom is part of the cultural heritage, the local cultural patrimony that identifies the community and singularizes it in relation to other communities. Aware of this fact, people with cultural views and a passion for tradition involved themselves over time in activities for the preservation of the local traditions and their perpetuation to future generations.
Since 1984, professor Ioniță Petre, staged with his students “The Cuckoos Parade” presented within the national competition “Cântarea României” („Song of praise to Romania”) and immediately after the 1989 Revolution, he directs the first filmed scenario of the cuckoos’ custom. He collected in 1991 cuckoos costumes and masks from the villagers and donated them to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant. The same year, the Bulgarian Cultural Association “Sedeanka” is established in Brăneşti, following the initiative of the professor and Mrs. Popescu Elena, with the main purpose of “reviving the old customs and traditions”. Among the activities, we would like to emphasize the intercultural exchange with Bulgarian communities, for example with the masked figures of Ivanovo - Ruse and the Kukeri of Kalipetrovo - Silistra. In 1994 the association organized the first prize competition of the cuckoos’ traditional costumes and in 1997, with the support of the Bulgarian “Bratstvo” Community in Romania, published part of the thesis of student Sebe Marius-Ovidiu, entitled “Brăneşti – historical, ethnic and ethnographic study”, volume I, as it also addressed aspects of the Bulgarian ethnic group history and the local customs, including the cuckoos custom. The second volume, under the title of “Brăneşti – Folklore”, volume II, is published afterwards under the care of Mrs. Popescu Elena. As the cuckoos’ tradition was decreasing year after year, at the initiative of Mr. Stoiciu Florin, Professor Sebe Marius-Ovidiu and Mrs. Popescu Elena, the organization of competitions to award the cuckoos traditional costumes is resumed in 2000 as a measure to revitalize the tradition.
Since 2001, the idea of organizing a symposium with the theme of the cuckoos’ tradition is openly embraced by the director of the Teaching-Staff Resource Centre Ilfov of Brănești, Professor Nică D. Lupu. Starting with this year, the symposium suggestively entitled “Folklore without frontiers” is organized within the Teaching-Staff Resource Centre Ilfov of Brănești, in partnership with the Bulgarian Cultural Association “Sedeanka”. Important personalities answered over time to the invitation for debate in an organized environment on the theme of the cuckoos’ tradition in the context of society’s evolution. In 2009, the symposium assumes inter-county features by the attendance of representatives of certain Romanian communities where similar traditions are attested (the Cuckoos of Dorobanțu and Mănăstirea, Călărași County and Lipnița in Constanța County) and in 2014 we may speak of a symposium peak by the attendance of representatives of certain Romanian communities (Cavnic - Maramureș, Păunești - Vrancea, Lipnița - Constanța and Călărași) and Bulgarian communities (Pernik, Kalipetrovo and Malomir - Tundja) where similar cuckoos customs are attested.
Following the prize competitions organized on the Day of the Cuckoos to stimulate tradition, young people with the most authentic costumes have been selected to set up an organized group to represent the custom and the village. Thus a cuckoo group with traditional costumes and masks was established, coordinated by Marius-Ovidiu Sebe and Stoiciu Florin, aimed at preserving, representing and promoting the specific and traditional form of the custom. The group was established in 2007 within the Bulgarian Cultural Association “Sedeanka” and is formed of practitioners of the custom who distinguished themselves through their interest and preoccupation for tradition, selected following the traditional costumes and masks competitions. Among the core group members we would like to remind Arsen Ștefan, Staiu Viorel, Arsen Valentin, Voicu Marian, Sebe Adrian, Dascălu Vasile, Comna Gabriel-Cristian, Ene Radu, Arsen Steliana, Voicu Elena. Other young people who acted temporarily completed the group. After the dissolution of the association in 2009, the group worked independently for a while and since 2014 it activates within the new Cultural Association of Brănești. Since its establishment and up to date, the Folk Customs and Habits Group the Cuckoos of Brănești already has a significant track record in presenting the custom during various festivals and events in Romania and Bulgaria: “Dimitrie Gusti” National Village Museum of Bucharest, on the occasion of the Dragobete celebration, in 2007, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014; the National Festival of Popular Traditions – “ASTRA” National Museum Complex in Sibiu, in August 2011; the Kukeri Festival in Kalipetrovo – Bulgaria, in 2007; the International Festival of Masquerade Games “Surva” in Pernik, Bulgaria, in 2010; the International Puppet Theater Festival inStara Zagora, Bulgaria, in 2011; the International Festival Kukerlandia in Yambol, Bulgaria, în 2011 and 2014.
Another important preoccupation was to establish partnerships with the educational units in the village with the purpose of stimulating the student’s interest for tradition. Starting with 2013, under the decisive impetus of the mayor of the village, Mr. Niculae Cismaru, the educational units in the village together with the Teaching-Staff Resource Centre Ilfov and the Cultural Association Brănești cooperate to stimulate the interest, preservation and continuity of the cuckoos’ tradition in Brăneşti among students and the community. The benefits of this collaboration have already been demonstrated since 2013 when the revival of the tradition has been noticed, thus becoming a large-scale celebration. Currently, the Cultural Association Brănești is partner together with the Mayor’s Office of Brăneşti and Noproduction Association of the Kingdom of Norway in a project entitled “Promotion and preservation of diversity in culture and arts within European cultural heritage - Traditional festival "Ziua Cucilor" (The Day of the Cuckoos), funded through the EEA grants within RO17/RO13 program - Promotion of diversity in culture and arts within European cultural heritage, beneficiary the Mayor’s Office of Brăneşti.