Ancient Patterns of Life, Craft and Culture

Patterns of life, set hundreds of years ago for reasons long gone, still persist today in festivals and traditions in the Saxon Villages. There are some excellent museums explaining the extraordinary Guild systems of Saxon cities and the meanings of many rural festivals.

Traditions of the Saxon Villages

Researched by Lenke Balint

The medieval Saxon villages of Transylvania, or the Hufen, have remained unchanged in structure and size for centuries. Typically, they were built in a line along each side of a stream, with each household owning a more or less identical portion of land. The farmhouses have a high wall and a large and wide enough gate to allow a loaded hay cart through. The courtyards are paved with cobblestones.

Saxon society was well-structured, well-organized, conservative and industrious. Most Saxons were hard-working farmers and traders, their communities were ruled by elected mayors and town councils. The Saxon people believed in the sharing of resources and manpower.

The Neighbourhood System

The villagers were organized into different ‘neighbourhoods’ or Nachbarschaft-s (the village of Saschiz had 9 for example), according to the location of their properties. The neighbourhoods all shared communal tasks such as street repair, building, ditch clearing etc. These organizations also served as a support mechanism to its members- during events like baptisms, funerals, weddings etc. The people who failed to fulfil their community obligations risked being banned from their own neighbourhood.

Nobody was permitted to live outside the bounds of the village. The church bell tolled at noon (a custom still observed in some villages), and again at curfew, at 18.00 hrs, after which everybody was expected to be within the village or face a fine.


Each Saxon village has its own dialect, and villagers can immediately detect and distinguish the original village or district of any speaker. The Saxon language is not a written one, sounds similar to Dutch or the Low German dialect of Luxembourg.


The Saxon people knew how to celebrate and be jolly. Christmas and Easter were typically family- oriented holidays, closely linked to religious proceedings held in their distinctive fortified churches.

Children would have to search for ‘Wintergrun’ (Sidebellis wintergreen) in the nearby forests to decorate the interior of the churches, complementing the three Christmas trees traditionally adorned with fruit, nuts and candles.

During Easter, the young boys and men would visit girls’ and womens’ houses, sprinkling water or home-made perfume on them, as a symbol of rejuvenation and prosperity. The ladies would offer them red died eggs and sweet cake- hanklich and striezel (and to the older ones, a shot of a very strong, home-brewed plum brandy, called pali ) in return.

The Rosseltanz and the Grigorifest

Perhaps the most festive of all were the events called the Rosseltanz and the Grigorifest.

The Rosseltanz was held every two years, on the 25th of January by the ‘brotherhood’ of young, single men called the Brudershaften. The young men, dressed in very colourful and some, in traditional garments and costumes, would form a procession, similar to a parade (Fortzug), followed by a band and march through the village, dancing and singing all the way. The villagers were encouraged to join the ‘zug’ (train), rejoicing with the mass of youngsters, masks, multicoloured flags, hats etc. The ‘young horse’s dance’ was followed by a large celebration.

The Grigorifest commemorates a teacher who, according to the local legend, convinced the Transylvania -ravaging Turks not to destroy the village of Saschiz by organizing a great feast for them. The festival was always held on the 3rd day of the Pentecost.

Children would start off the celebration ‘Festzug’ and other youngsters would join the parade as the march went by their homes, according to their age group.They would all be wearing their ‘Sunday clothes’ and carrying colorful flags and decorations. The girls would wear flower crowns. The band would follow behind and after stopping at the church for blessing from the priest, the Festzug would carry on and feast in a specific location, in the clearing in the woods.

The Brudershaft witnessed the emergence of the female ‘sisterhood’ in the early 20th century. The Schwestershaft helped organize other great traditional festivals like the Weihnachtbal (Christmas ball) the Johannisbal, the Pfingstbal (Pentecost Ball) the Michaelsbal, the Osterbal (Easter ball), Kathreinenbal etc.

Transhumance and Pendulation,
The Seasonal Movement of Man and Animal

“To let my bones lie
Somewhere here close by,
By the sheepfold here
So my flocks are near,
Back of my hut’s grounds
So I’ll hear my hounds.
Tell them what I say:
There, beside me lay
One small pipe of beech
With its soft, sweet speech,
One small pipe of bone
Whit its loving tone,
One of elderwood,
Fiery-tongued and good.
Then the winds that blow
Would play on them so
All my listening sheep
Would draw near and weep
Tears, no blood so deep.”

— From Mioriţa

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of shepherds and their livestock, over long distances, between upland and lowland pastures as the seasons change. Transhumance has been practiced by the shepherds of Transylvania for hundreds of years, typically from alpine regions of Transylvania, in summer, to low-lying areas in the southern Romanian plains and even to the Black Sea coast in winter. Some of the transhumance routes used to cross Tarnava Mare. Transhumance had effects on biodiversity – for example spreading wildflower and crop seeds from one area to another – and on culture by spreading developments in agricultural methods, music, etc.

Transhumance has largely died out, partly owing to loss of free passage along the old routes. But movement from in-bye winter grazing near villages, to more distant summer grazing, still persists in most Transylvanian villages, including Tarnava Mare. This summer-up winter-down movement within a village’s grazing territory is known as pendulation.

Under pendulation, livestock spend all the summer months in the more distant summer pastures. The summer camp, or “stana” – usually no more than a moveable wooden shack – is on these pastures and is the shepherd’s fixed base for the summer months. Often in Tarnava Mare the animals belong to many families from a village, with a shepherd employed to look after them. The flocks are mainly sheep but can also include pigs, goats, donkeys and horses.
Sheep milking and cheese making is by hand, up in the summer sheepfolds. The unique richness of flowers and herbs in the grassland, and the fact that the milk is made into cheese within minutes of milking, gives the cheese a special character. The cheese is transported down to the village by donkey, or horse and cart, once or twice a week.

Transhumance and pendulation are important for the maintenance of grassland habitats, and have an influence of culture. In landscape conservation terms, this mirroring of natural wildlife patterns prevents overgrazing and maintains good status of natural habitats for all sorts of wild species plant and animal species.

Many Romanian and Carpathian traditions, foods and songs have their roots in these practices. Mioriţa, which could be described as Romania’s national poem, tells the story of a brave shepherd ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of his flock. Miorita, for the Romanians, compares with the Iliad for the Greeks as an embodiment of national identity.

Click to read a version of Mioriţa, (The Little ewe)


The Pied Piper of Hamelin

The legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin that was originally told in English by Robert Browning in his 18th Century poem, dates back to 1284. It tells the story of a German town suffering an infestation of rats. A colourfully dressed piper appears and uses his musical pipe to lure the rats to their death in the Wesser River. When the towns people refused to pay him, he uses his pipe to lure the children of the town into a cave and they are never seen again.

Transylvanian legend tells that the children emerged from the Almas Cave near Baraolt, and that the children were the ancestors of the Saxons and this explains why there are so many blue eyed, blonde haired German speakers following traditional customs so far away from Germany.

“That in Transylvania there’s a tribe
Of alien people who ascribe
The outlandish ways and dress
On which their neighbours lay such stress,
To their fathers and mothers having risen
Out of some subterraneous prison
Into which they were trepanned
Long time ago in a mighty band
Out of Hamelin town in Brunswick land,
But how or why, they don’t understand.”

Vlad the Impaler; Count Dracula…

This fits with the timing of the arrival of the Saxons in Transylvania, and many researchers into the Hamelin story suggest that the piper was a recruiter for the colonization of Eastern Europe.

Sighisoara is the birth place of Vlad Tepes – the inspiration behind Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vlad was the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Wallachia. In his early years he was held as a hostage in Istanbul, where he learnt much about the brutality of life. This inspired his approach to dealing with prisoners and gave him his name – Tepes meaning Impaler. In one instance in 1462, he had 20,000 Turkish prisoners impaled alive on stakes.

A statue of Vlad can be found in the square next to the church and Vlad’s birthplace is now the cafe Casa Dracula near to the Clock Tower in Sighisoara.

The Citadel of the Giants

Four Kilometres north of Saschiz, in a pasture called Volsoc, by local people, there is a very important historical relic- The Citadel of the Giants!

In 1949 a team of archaeologists from Cluj discovered that the Citadel, built between 2500 -1800 BC, was a hideaway for the local people.

The Citadel is on the list of Historical Monuments of National Interest that need to be protected and preserved. It is described as ” the Roman settlement of Saschiz” , the Giant’s Citadel from II-III century, Roman time ( code LMI MS-I-SB 15412).

In past folklore, locals believed that the Giants were waiting a sign of disloyalty from them. Then they would rise up and go out again in the world. To protect themselves from the Giant’s vengeance, the locals gathered all the stones that the Giants could throw at them from the hillside, then they lined them up, wisely, on the front of their houses.

Alin Pora , second year student History College, U.L.B. Sibiu

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