Easter at Familia AMURTEL


I have been in Romania now for a little more than a month, but it wasn’t until this past week that I felt I was truly able to connect to something uniquely Romanian and make a satisfying contribution with my volunteer work.

Back home, in the United States, in my family, Easter has never been a big religious celebration, community event, or been associated with certain traditional food. Rather for me, it was a fun day where my brother and I would run around the house, maybe tackling one another out of the way, to find all the hidden Easter eggs we could and competing to see who could find the most.

As I headed to Pănătău I saw beautiful saffron fields which painted the roadside yellow and I watched the emerging green of the mountains that accompanied spring. I strolled through a serene Orthodox convent and I saw different styles of village houses, houses that I have never seen in the States. One that was like a triangle, with a roof that almost reached the ground.  As we passed through a rural Roma community, it seemed the neighbors were involved in a competition for the most lion statues to decorate their fences and lawns.  We passed by some villages with houses that were little cottages, and some that were falling apart.

Yet, those sights were soon overshadowed by my experiences once I arrived at the AMURTEL Family home. On the night that I arrived,  Paște (Easter) was commencing. At around 12:30 am some of the older kids, the adults, and I walked to the church: an Eastern Orthodox church with a trifold-cross, cemetery, and frescos on the ceiling.

While we were still on the road, one of the kids from the home who had gone ahead to buy the thin candles used in the ceremony, came back and distributed them to us. When we arrived there was still some time until the priest arrived (since he had to split his time between two towns) but I got to see the inside of the church a bit and the surrounding cemetery which was subtly illuminated by the gentle burn of red candles, and the thin candles that I too was holding.

It wasn’t until 1:00-1:30 that the ceremony began. First, people filed into the church to light their candles, and once that was done, we all gathered outside to listen to the start of the mass: the priest chanted scripture and the congregation would chant responses,  kneel, cross themselves three times and stand, all the while keeping the candle flicker from being blown out by the cool night wind.

Once that part was over, I returned to get some well-needed sleep, as the entire, mass was supposed to last until 6 am in the morning. Indeed, several of the children returned home at dawn!  I also learned that for the whole month people greet each other with “Hristos a înviat” (Christ has risen) and respond with “Adevărat înviat“ (he has truly risen).

The following morning, once I was properly rested, I woke up to help prepare for the second part of Easter: a picnic and hunt for personal goodie bags hidden by the courtesy of the “Easter Bunny.”In reality, I along with Didi and two youths hid the bags. One was in a well, some were in trees, others were scattered under and inside of other spots in the little dandelion dotted meadow where Familia AMURTEL gathers every Easter.

After that, we set up the food, spread out on tablecloths on the grass, and soon the rest of the children arrived. When they did I was tasked with taking pictures of all of them and I remember thinking how cute the whole tradition was. Much to my surprise, once almost everyone had found their bags, Gopi asked me, “Are you looking for the Easter bunny?” At first, I was confused, but then I had the joyful realization that I was also included in the Easter festivities. There wasn’t much in my bag since I’m vegan and they probably didn’t have access to vegan chocolate, but the mere gesture was really what counted for me. At the picnic, I got to witness yet another tradition, that of cracking the red eggs. Two people take an egg, hit it together, and see which egg cracks first and thus determining the loser. One of the little girls had a clever trick – her egg was actually wooden!

Once I thought the celebration was over, to my surprise we were invited to Gopi’s house – one of the original founders of Familia AMURTEL who is now retired, to have a nice outdoor dinner. The food was very traditional, as I was told that it’s the food Romanians prepare at all celebrations: polenta, cabbage rolls, and smăntănă (a type of sour cream). After everyone ate, it was very heartwarming to see the way the rest of the gathering proceeded. The kids were very lively: dancing, playing, getting their faces painted, fighting with balloon swords, and even having fun with my phone and trying out all of the ways the filters on snapchat made their faces look. I got to practice Romanian, and even got to do a “hora” circle dance and a Romanian line dance with some of the kids and adults.

The whole day was a truly special experience. As I always find when I go to new places, it’s not until I spend time with the people of that place that I can form a  true image of that place. For me, this was the first time I’ve been able to see a special holiday or festivity of a country I have visited. I hope one day I can do it again, but if not I will treasure the memories of this wonderful glimpse of Romanian culture and that of the Familia AMURTEL home.

Karuna de Hoyos, AMURTEL volunteer from the US, 19 years old