The main attraction of the village Branesti is its annual folklore festival “Ziua Cucilor”, or Cucu’s Day.
This rite of spring celebrates manhood and fertility as well as bringing people together. Like many rural traditions in Romania, it has faced a marginal existence until recently. Now the festival gathers participants from all over Romania as well as Bulgaria, displaying the rich ethnic diversity of this country. Strong, bright colors compete with the rhythmic rattle of the bells calling for the arrival of spring.

Origins
After the winter holidays, together with the start of the Easter Fast, in Branesti – Ilfov there is an old tradition that makes a great motive to celebrate. These days are filled with the celebrations of Forgiveness, Urals and Cuckoos’ Day.

Forgiveness
In the Sunday just before the start of the Easter Fast, there is this custom where the young families go to their families and their godfathers to receive forgiveness for their wrongs and mistakes throughout the past year. They share among themselves food, sweets, boiled eggs, lighted candles and drink wine as a symbol that their consciousness is free and they are forgiven. The explanation of the confession and the forgiveness is simple and it has a deep Christian character. The entrance into the Easter Fast must be made with the soul liberated from any fights, argues and resentments among these members of a family. That Sunday night, while children organize The Urals, which is an illumination custom, adults honor the day by toasting a glass of wine for their well being and for a new beginning.

The Urals
This custom is met also in other villages in Romania, not only in Branesti, Ilfov. The custom is usually organized by children, after the sunset. In the same Sunday, just before the start of the Easter Fast, they set a fire on the street and shout around it, usually all together, accompanied by bells and other instruments that make sounds. The bells used at this celebration will be used next day during the Cuckoos’ Day manifestation. They shout: “Ural!” “Ural!” (Ro: Uralie, Uralie), usually followed by satiric dialogues which critic the people habits and manners in the village and in society. This is an illumination custom, the fire symbolizing the purity and the renewal, burning the rests of the winter and reliving the nature and the spring.

Cuckoos Celebration
Monday, on the second day, the first day of the Easter Fast, the Cuckoos’ Day Festival takes place. This is the most important traditional and artistic manifestation which transforms Branesti village into a real traditional outdoor spectacle. The traditional manifestation assumes that youngster get dresses up in cuckoos (male and females) and they touch their villagers on the shoulders with their hands to “ward off the evil” and to “get all the health they need for their entire year”.

The main characters are:

  • The male cuckoo – wearing a male costume made by him. The mask, called “the face”, is the costume’s piece of resistance, a spectacular piece of art, having a great cupola, heavy and embellished with hundreds of vivid colored flowers made out of colored paper and at its back having tens of colored ribbons which hit the ground. The mask has stuck on it several little mirrors which symbolizes the major astral objects: the sun and the moon. Then there is the helmet ( RO: obrazarul) which has a long nose from which hang on a lot of tassels or little bells and the beard made of rabbit fur. The whole costume is made of peasant’s clothes, on which there are stamped red crosses and a belt put on diagonal on their chests, made of small and round bells ( RO: lopci).
  • The female cuckoo – there are young men dresses like women, wearing a cardboard mask on their faces and a headkerchief on their heads. They usually take this feminine piece of clothing from the girls and women they like, they are in love with. They wear a belt on their waist made of big and double bells. ( this belt is called “acioi”). In their hands they have a rod with a sandal or something rubbery stuck in it. Accompanied by the loudly and scary sound of thei belts, the female cuckoos are more aggressive and they touch their villagers on their shoulders a little harder than the male cuckoos, usually their closest friends and acquaintances.

Today, the female cuckoos represent the majority of costumed cuckoos, but in the cuckoos allay can be seen other characters too, belonging to the Romanian mythology or from the ordinary lives of the people. The rubber masks, a little bit more modern, started to increase among participants in the last years.

The Cuckoos’ custom is an old tradition, having pre-Christian roots, mentioned in Romania in old churches’ documents starting with the 17th century (“The Lives of the Saints” written by Dosoftei Mitropolitul. This custom is practiced in Branesti as far as the village exists.

There are more hypotheses referring to the origin of the custom:

  • Some ethnographs consider the custom as being a carnival with Thracians influences with two sides – first, which is north – danubian – cuckoos and the second – which is south – danubian – kukers, between these two sides being reciprocal influences because of the carpato- balcanic population movements.
  • Others believe that this custom has a Greek origin, that the cuckoos dance from Romania or the kukers’ dance from Bulgaria originate from Dionysos’ celebrations, taken over by Greeks from the Thracians and adapted differently. The cuckoos and kukers would have the origins in the kukla’s dance or in the masked man specific to Greeks from Thracia.
  • The ethnograph academic Romulus Vulcanescu considers cuckoos like a manifestation related to some pastoral and agrarian rituals of the Thracians above which there have been overlapped Greek elements from Dionysos and Slavonian elements from Cupalo processions ( Cupalo – The Joy God for Slavonian people)
  • Although there is also a Romanian hypothesis, in Branesti village the cuckoos dance is made based on Bulgarians who lived in the village starting with the end of the 18th century, coming from Silistrea and Cadrilater where this custom had a very similar way of expression.

The rituals and its symbolizations are extremely complex, but they are not known anymore by the actual members of the communities:

  • The pastoral and agrarian rituals were symbolized by going plowing the field with the plow, the symbolic seeding, and the pastors with their goats, sheep or donkeys – all these symbolize the starting of the agricultural work.
  • The fertility and fecundation rituals is seen in the cuckoo’s costume’s elements: the beard made of rabbit fur are sign of virility and masculinity coming from Dionysos, the same as touching the girls on their legs expressing their interest in them.
  • The rebirth of the nature, the spring victory on winter and the beginning of a new year all symbolize by the inflorescence of the masks with the face, a real master piece full of colors.
  • Warding off the evil and the bad spirits by making all those loudly and scary noises by the cuckoos belts during dances.
  • Later on, to prevent the illnesses caused by fever, Branesti village being situated between waters that could have caused malaria or other similar diseases, the original rituals of cuckoos’ dance disappeared for a while and got a new ritual who generalized as a theme – a small touch on the shoulder which symbolized the wish of health for the new beginning.

Today, the community in Branesti, especially those who know a little bit the origins and the good intentions of the celebration, gather to take part in this traditional manifestation “Cuckoos’ Day” – which is a traditional spectacle meant to bring to the people hope for a new beginning in their lives, with good health, joy and happiness in their hearts.

In addition, The Cultural Association Branesti Ilfov, represented by Marius Sebe, has constituted a group of people (cuckoos) to represent the festival from Branesti in other representations around the country and abroad. Their purpose was to show that this custom is part of the cultural dowry, part of the local cultural patrimony, that is a brand for Branesti community and by means of this group there is an insurance of perpetuating the tradition to the next generations.

However, as years have passed there is little involvement from the young generation in this kind of cultural manifestation. The number of masked people has decreased and the interest has fallen as well. That is why there is an acute need of organizing stimulating activities in this sense for young people to participate and feel the emotion of transmitting the tradition forward.