Father Christmas – Romanian Moş Crăciun and his roots in the Indo-European mythology


Winter solstice was the time of many important festivals in the European antiquity. People believed that in the shortest day of the year the sun dies and must be helped through rituals using the power of fire to revive the astral divinity, which in turn would give abundant crops, prosperity and wealth for men and animals.

The Romanian folklore, as well as the folklore of other European countries, is very rich in customs related to the winter solstice. Among a few of the most important Romanian rituals in the winter time specifically related to fire is the rolling of burning wheels down the hills which recreates the rolling of the sun in the sky, custom found in many European traditions, particularly German one. The interdiction to give away fire from one’s home on Christmas Eve is another custom, or that of young boys rummaging the fireplace to stir up the fire and increase its power, while singing the carols. (Vulcănescu 1987)  For the Christmas Eve dinner women must bake round breads, “colaci”, that symbolize the sun, or in the shape of hands in some other parts of the country, perhaps symbolizing the hands of Crăciun’s wife, as in the very popular folktale: when Virgin Mary was looking for a place to give birth, she knocks at the house where Crăciun “Father Christmas’ and his wife Crăciuneasa are living; because young Mary was having a child out of the wedlock Crăciun is not willing to offer her hospitality.  In spite of her husband’s interdiction, Crăciuneasa houses Virgin Mary in the stable and helps her give birth to Baby Jesus. That angers Crăciun, who cuts off his wife’s hands; Virgin Mary will perform a miracle and Crăciuneasa will have new golden hands. Researchers consider the golden hands as part of an ancient cult of the sun (Muşu 1982).  The motif of mutilated hands is well represented in the Indo-European tradition, as for example the German god Tyr losing his hand to Fenriswolf, just as Crăciuneasa loses her hands to help the Virgin Mary. In the end, Crăciun becomes the first Christian. His conversion may be considered a proof of his condition as a pre-Christian deity.

A general custom in many European households is for people on the Eve of Christmas to bring inside the house a log or stamp named the Christmas log, mostly of oak, known in English as the Yule log, named in Romanian “butucul crăciunului”. This oak log was kept burning until spring in the belief that the weaken sun needs help to raise and shine the next day. As Frazer writes “…it is no very far-fetched conjecture to suppose that the Yule log, which figures so prominently in the popular celebration of Christmas, was originally designed to help the laboring sun of midwinter to rekindle his seemingly expiring light.” (Frazer 1922: 746) The Romanian folk researchers of the 19th Century found the custom of the burning oak on the Christmas Eve well represented in many areas of the country. The same custom was found in the Megleno-Romanian homes, where on Eve Christmas a log named ‘boadnic’ was brought in to burn until the January holiday of ‘baptism’ bobotează, when its ashes were spread at the roots of fruit trees to assure their fertility. In the French tradition this log is called ‘chalendal, chalendaou, calignaou, calnos’, (Ionescu 1978) to which we can add the Romanian călindău, another name used to designate the Christmas log. The custom is also well known among the surrounding Slavic groups, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Russians, Serbian-Slovaks, and is very popular in the North-West part of Europe. The same with the Romanians in all these areas the Christmas oak log was ceremoniously brought into the house on Christmas Eve and burnt incessantly for as long as possible.

In most of these traditions the log, representing the weak sun, was kept until spring when its powers of light and fertility were increased, and when its ashes were spread on the fields before plowing, or mixed with the food that was given to the animals and the poultry, all in the belief that this will make them healthier and more productive. This custom stays witness to the sacred role of oak in the Indo-European mythology: “The worship of the oak tree or of the oak god appears to have been shared by all the branches of the Aryan stock in Europe. Both Greeks and Italians associated the tree with their highest god, Zeus or Jupiter, the divinity of the sky, the rain, and the thunder. Perhaps the oldest and certainly one of the most famous sanctuaries in Greece was that of Dodona, where Zeus was revered in the oracular oak” (Frazer 1971: 184)

It is well known that ancient Celts did not perform any of their rituals without oak leaves, and their image of God was a tall oak. For Germans the holy tree was the oak, symbolizing their main god Donar or Thunar, as the Scandinavian Thor, all words with the meaning of ‘thunder’. The Slavic god of thunder Perun like the Lithuanian god of thunder and lightning, Perkunas or Perkun, were honored by sacred endless burning fires. In Lithuania men sacrificed to the oak-tree, while women sacrificed to the lime-tree, perhaps because they considered the oak a male spirit. In Germany and Scandinavia the oak tree was the center of the world, a source of luck and protection, celebrated as late as the 19th century. It was believed that gods used to assemble beneath the World Tree or the World Pillar, thus people sacrificed at its roots. Since the name for the World Tree was Yggdrasil and one of the many names of Odin, or Wodan, was Yggr, the usual interpretation for this name is ‘the horse of Yggr.” (Davidson 1988: 170)

It is a well-known fact that Indo-Europeans used the sacred oak-wood to light their sacred fires for their ceremonies, and that they related the oak to the power of thunder. In the Romanian folklore and that of the Balkans the trees cult survived well into the 20th Century. The Romanians revered evergreens and oaks, as is testified by a custom from 17th Century called ‘the judgment by the borders under the oaks’: the oak had the role of border delimitation but also that of a witness for settling property disputes. (Vulcănescu 1972) The sacred role of the oak in the Romanian tradition is proved again by the old shepherds’ custom according to which the shepherd settled court for the bare sheep under an oak.

The Romanian word for this log ‘butucul Crăciunului’, the Christmas log, also name for the Christmas holiday, Crăciun, has a controversial etymology, and subject of many disputes. The official solution for ‘Crăciun‘ etymology was through the Latin word “creatio, -onis” ‘creation’ (Densusianu O. 1929-1932; Rosetti 1971), a derivative from the verb ‘to create out of nothing’. Yet, this meaning does not agree to that of natalis, as it is used by all the Christians, ‘Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad’, or in Russian rozdestwo, Ukrainian rizdvo, all connoting the act of born not of created. To accept the Latin etymology one would have to look at the historical developments of Christianity on the Romanian territory and assume the existence of a formed clergy who would associate the Latin concept of ‘creatio’ already existing in the Daco-Roman language with that of ‘the birth of Christ’, even though in all the other Romance languages the birth of Christ was associated with the notion of ‘birth‘, not with that of ‘creation’. Such association is contradicting the religious Christian belief in the divine birth of Christ from a woman, as in the religious formula născut iar nu făcut “born but not made/created”.  If the meaning of the word would be that of ‘creation’ why it will be also the appellative for the character from the story we mentioned above Crăciun, a mean old man who would not let the Virgin Marry into his house?

Another hypothesis was that the word has its root in the Slavic languages, hypothesis contradicted by the fact that “the geographic spread of the word Crăciun outside the Romanian territory includes only the immediate area adjacent to the Romanians” (Caraman 1931). Anca Irina Ionescu approaches the subject of borrowing ‘pagan’ cultic words from Balkan Latin into Slavic languages, such as calende, or Crăciun, “at a very early date”. (Ionescu 1978) This unspecified dating ‘at a very early date’, could not be before the 6th Century AD, the established date of the beginning of the Slavic invasion into South-East Europe, a very important date in any discussion pertaining the Romanian language etymologies, and particularly that of Crăciun.  According to her assumptions we would have to agree that the notion of Crăciun, having its roots in the Latin ‘creatio- onis’, meaning also the ‘birth of Christ’ was already established in the Daco-Roman language and the Balkan Latin, from where the Slavs borrowed it. In fact, in the Slavic tradition the word Kracun, or Kracunec, or Korocjun, does not represent the ‘birth of Christ’ but a period of time, as attested in the Novgorod Chronicle from 1143, where Kracun was the time starting from August 15th, or, in some cases, the winter solstice, or the day of the Saint Spiridon which falls on December 12, or on June 8 in the Bulgarian tradition. This proofs that the Romanian form Crăciun is the source for the Slavic forms, and not the other way around, as it is also proven by the Aromanian forms Crăciun, Caraciun, Meglenoromanian Cărciun. The Albanian linguist E. Cabej (1965: 101-115) believes that the Romanian form is coming from Albanian, and he offers a reconstructed form *kerçun, “log, stump”. He does specify though that the Albanian form never meant anything else but “log”, and it did not extend its meaning to such an important winter holiday. It seems somewhat difficult to believe that the population leaving on the entire Romanian territory borrowed this word from Albanian, and used it to name a very old and important winter ceremony, whereas the Albanians themselves kept it only to designate the “log, stamp”, while preferring a different set of words to name the Christmas Eve, nata e buzmit, “the log night.”

The above discussion can bring us to the conclusion that the initial meaning of the word Crăciun does not relate to the Latin creatio, but rather, the initial meaning of this word was that of ‘oak, sacred oak’, as in the Latin quercus. In the Mediterranean region there is specie of oak, quercus coccifera, ‘kermes’ or ‘holly oak’, revered because it stays green all year round, with leaves resembling that of holly, a sacred plant in the pre-Christian Europe (Williamson 1986) and similar to the Romanian specie of oak, cer (sic). The Indo-European root for oak is reconstructed in Pokorny as: “*perku-s, oak, from here probably, force, vigor, the world tree, and the thunder god tree, Perkuuno-s” (Pokorny 822-23).  Related forms are the Irish ceirt (quiert) “apple tree”, (Proto-Celtic perkunia, later ercunia), Welsh perth, “bush, hedge” (assuming a Proto-Celtic form kwerkwti), Latin quercus, “oak”, with the Italian form quercia, “oak”.  Remarkably, we find in the Italian tradition names such as Madona della Quercia, Quercia della Vergine, other names for the Saint Mary, replacing probably the name of an oak forest divinity from the pre Christian era, reminiscing of a Roman fest in which a virgin personifying Junona, was dressed in flowers and carried in a cart next to her consort, an oak log, allegorical representation of Jupiter.

In the Balto-Slavic area this root is found in the Old Lithuanian Perkunas, the thunder god, Lettonian Perkuons thunder and the thunder god, Old Prussian percunis thunder, Old Russian Perun thunder god. An interesting connection was made with the Indo-European  root *ker, ‘ash’ *kr-em ‘burn’, which is cognate with the Romanian word scrum ‘ash’, thus helping to explain the metathesis  cer – cre in the word Crăciun and Cărciun in Meglenoromanian. One should keep in mind that the Indo-European populations practiced incineration of the dead, which was probably performed on oak wood, in the belief that the soul will go into the light of the sun.  Roman Jakobson, discussing some aspects of the Slavic divinities and the IE *perku- s, observes: “This root appears, for example in Latin and Germanic languages, as substitute for the noun ‘oak’, a preferred tree for storms and devoted to the thunder god; and in the Indo-European tradition the same root with a nasal suffix means ‘a hill covered with oak, an oak forest’, in Celto-Latin Hercynia (silva), Gothic fairguni, Slavic *pergynja, Old Slavic prgynja, Old Russian peregynja, Polish przeginia.” (Jakobson 1985)

Concluding, this sacred Yule log brought inside the house with veneration in the Eve of Christmas, and burned till spring, may have its roots in a solar cult of the most important god of the Indo-European mythological pantheon, the god of thunder and lightning, of sun and fire, be it Zeus, Jupiter, Diuspater, Wodan, Indra, Perkunas, and later Mithra, the powerful sun god celebrating his birthday on December 25th whose cult was spread in Eastern Europe by soldiers from the Roman legions. Interestingly, only in the Romanian folklore the character of Santa Claus Moş Crăciun was retained as the name of the winter festival, Crăciun, hence the name of the god’s log, yule log, while in mostly other cultures the name is Saint Nicholas.

Lastly, it could be only a simple coincidence that Moş Crăciun/Santa Claus always comes through the chimney?



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