Romanies generally adopt the religion of the country where they live. They do have a Patron Saint, Sara who was queen of a Gypsy tribe in France. Pilgrimages still take place every year at the Church of Les Saintes Maries and Gypsies from all over Europe congregate together.
Historically, Gypsy families roamed the roads in small family groups. Usually one wagon on its own but sometimes two or three would travel together. They had their regular stopping places. It was here that they would meet up with their friends and relatives. The New Forest Gypsies would not travel great distances and would travel to places such as Salisbury and Southampton. Those that followed craft making such as pots mending and knife grinding would have a regular route, sometimes calling on the same house twice a year. Local people would put their pots aside to wait for them when they came. (Len Smith, 2000)
Taboos & Cleanliness & Superstitions
To preserve and maintain a proud cultural identity Gypsies have strict social and cultural boundaries.
Culture and Life-style
Cleanliness to Gypsies and Travellers is not merely a question of comfort but of moral standards. They make a clear distinction between the inside and outside of the caravan as they do between the inside and outside of the body. They are very particular about cleanliness in the home. Women and girls spend a large part of the day washing and cleaning until the place ‘sparkles’. In contrast to a holiday caravan, a Gypsy trailer has no chemical toilet. To have a lavatory in the same place where food is prepared is considered distasteful and unhealthy. Good quality china is used for everyday eating and drinking and any cracked or chipped item is thrown away, it being thought of as ritually unclean rather than dirty. It is also considered polluting to wash yourself or your clothes in the same bowl that is used for washing food utensils and tea towels.
It has been suggested that the Traveller’s reluctance to accept immunisation for children could be due to their conviction that “dirty” substances should not be introduced into a clean body.
Ignorance with Gypsy Culture and attitudes to health mean that we are at risk of causing offence by contravening codes of etiquette. This may cause us to adversely affect our relationship with this community.
There is still a superstitious attitude to health and illness, with some people believing that demons and ghosts can cause poor health or ill fortune. Certain parts of the body can be associated with bad luck.
For Gypsies, the inside of the human body and that part above the waist is regarded as clean. Below the waist is thought to be impure.
A non - Gypsy is regarded as unclean, because they do not have the same beliefs – our standards of hygiene are regarded as less strict than those of the Gypsy community. For example, when washing clothes, the Gypsy woman would not wash a towel in the same washing load as a tea towel. One bowl is used for washing oneself and another is used for personal care. Food and utensils MUST be washed separately from everything else. A bar of soap is especially dirty and must never come near a sink used for food.
The nomadic lifestyle presents difficulties in obtaining clean water and this has encouraged the hygiene practices which are a necessary part of their life.
Animals which eat flesh are considered as unclean. If a plate should be touched by an animal or something polluting it becomes ‘mochadi’. (Romani word for dirty) It can never be cleaned and no matter how precious will be thrown away.
A man would drink from the same vessel as his horse but not from his cat or dog. Because animals are considered “mochadi” and they always live outside the home – so cats are not usually kept as pets. Gypsies consider cats and dogs to be unclean animals as they lick themselves all over – a horse is considered clean because he can’t do this.
There are many taboos surrounding the health & hygiene of the women. A woman who is menstruating would not usually prepare food or walk in front of a man. Young women who are menstruating are encouraged to stay at home.
The birth of a new child into a family ensures the continuation of the family line and thus adds to the respect of the family. Although large families are common in travelling people not all have large families.
Traditionally, the birth cannot take place in the family’s usual home, whether it be a trailer or house because it would become unclean, most women prefer to give birth in hospital, despite many hospitals mis-understanding of the travellers women’s beliefs.
After the birth, a new mother is allowed to touch only essential objects during what amounts to quarantine, until the baby’s family baptism, usually 2/3 weeks, this again is because of the belief in the unclean.
Babies were rarely born inside the living wagon or trailer, and often would give birth in a tent – this would then be destroyed when the baby was a month old. During this time, a woman could not cook or clean for a man – just as when she was menstruating.
Women’s and men’s clothes were never washed together and a woman could not pass in front of a man if he was sitting down. She could not step over anything a man would eat – local history tells the story of a woman who once walked 3 miles to avoid crossing a stream which was used for drinking water. It was also considered unlucky for a woman to give birth without having her ears pierced.
Gypsies believe in many lucky charms including four-leafed clover, holed stones, wishbones from certain birds, and fossil stones, to ward off the evil eye. Good omens included stars falling, a horse standing with its head over a gate (a white horse was especially lucky), bees coming into the wagon, bird droppings landing on one (especially pigeons and starlings), finding double flowers or double berries, a robin tapping on the wagon roof or window, and a frog hopping on the wagon steps.
Feared omens include an owl hooting closely after dawn, where it is said that the bird is calling a soul from a human body. Other omens include seagulls flying over the vardo (wagon), which is considered a threat of death to the family - a cuckoo heard after mid-summer, and the screams of a falling tree – it is said that the ears should be quickly covered by the hands when the tree is about to die.