… Like stars in the sight of God…

Religion is a very personal thing and for most Romani, it’s no different. Just as our families span the globe, they also span religious denominations. There are Orthodox Romani, Muslim and Buddhist Romani, Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, atheist, Jewish, Protestant, Wiccan and Pagan Romani…

This time of year always makes me think about religion and my own journey, and many people ask what, who, and where we celebrate Christmas or other holidays.

My family held a mix of beliefs. Maami Babka and her family were Slovakian Roman Catholic. Baba Edita, and our Polish Romani relatives were part of the Polski Autokefaliczny Kościół Prawosławny [Polish Orthodox Church], though we had no Orthodox church near us and so they considered themselves no longer truly Orthodox. But, we also held our particular saint, setňi Sara la Kali [Saint Sara the Black] in high regard.

Maami had a small statuette of her in a dedicated altar in the corner of her house, along with gold coins, candles, and family mementos. A crucifix could never be taken into the house or otherwise displayed as it was believed to be a terribly unlucky and bižužo, so we had no images of Jesus, except as a baby with Mary. Maami also gave all her boys gold  St. Christopher pendants to protect them. My father never took his off, ever… and it remains with him. When I was ten years old we undertook a pilgrimage to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (Saint Marys of the Sea) in the South of France, the spiritual home of Sara la Kali. It was a rite of passage for me and marked a movement from the giddy carefree days of childhood to the measured life of a maturing woman. It was an amazing experience… the journey, both physical and spiritual, through France to the ocean with hundreds of other Romani.

Being in the crypt – being in the presence of Sara and so many others was overwhelming and is something I will carry with me forever. My childhood was filled with ancient Romani stories, herbs, tinctures, fires, and Blessed Sacrament. After we returned from France, I entered the local Catholic Convent School. I really wanted to carry on with my education, but it was considered against romanija in my family for girls and boys to be together after a certain age and there was also a risk that I would be wooed by the gadže world of drugs and sex. So, after making such a rite and passage, a compromise was found in the Convent school, run by St. Mary’s Convent of Mercy. There I was cocooned in a love that took years to fully understand. Outside of the school I was considered just a Gypsy, but there? I was a student, a person, and someone worth educating.

As I’ve grown older, religion has become somewhat syncretic to me; a blending of my Romani ancestors wisdom and footsteps, along with setňi Sara la Kali and other beliefs (including Bhadra Kali and a general fundamental belief in kindness, happiness, and compassion). I wouldn’t call myself religious in the Western definition of the word. The holiday season – whether Christmas, Hanukkah, or Orthodox Christmas (January 7th) – is always special for Romani. It’s about forgiveness, community, family, and sharing, no matter what you believe. We celebrated many things during the holiday – including Solstice, Christingle, Midnight Mass, Christmas (Catholic and Orthodox) and Saint Sarah, Guardian Angels, Santa Anna and others. I think our religion can be, just as we are, complicated, varied, and wonderful…

 

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