Celebrating the Serbian Christmas reminds me how lucky I am to be living abroad and to have the opportunities that I do. I have had such unique experiences in regards to their culture and customs and their Christmas is one worth sharing.
Serbia’s main religion is Orthodox Christian and Orthodox Christians annually celebrate Christmas Day on January 7th, instead of the Western culture’s December 25th. The reason for the 13 day difference is due to the fact that this date works to the Julian calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. In 1752 England and Scotland switched over to the Gregorian calendar but many people, especially in rural areas, preferred to stick to the Julian and didn’t accept the 13 day difference.
Christmas day for Serbians is a time of reflection, inner thoughts and healing, the same in many eastern European countries. Many Orthodox Christians fast before January 7, usually excluding meat and dairy products starting 40 days before Christmas is celebrated. While in the West the day is more about Santa, the North Pole, Christmas movies, presents, cookies, and lights, Serbia’s Christmas differs greatly. One of the things I found shocking last Christmas (Jan 7, 2019) was how differently the day is viewed in Serbia. The day focuses much more on traditions and the religion behind the day, rather than the more modern-day take on what Christmas is all about in the Western culture. For them, New Years is the holiday that is more about presents, Santa, cookies, etc.
One of the many Serbian Christmas traditions starts on Christmas Eve (‘Badnji dan’ during the day and ‘Badnje veče’ after the sun sets). This is the last day of the 40 day fast and during the morning it is tradition for the father of the family to go to the forest and cut a young oak for the Christmas tree (‘Badnjak’). This tradition is not so honored now for people living in the more suburban areas and most will just go buy one. Once obtained, the Badnjak is then burnt like a Yule Log! When you drive around in the evening you’ll often see large gatherings of people outside of churches with huge bonfires burning Badnjak and oak branches.
Christmas morning you’ll hear church bells going off around the city! What you won’t hear is gunshots being fired. When Nenad and I celebrated Serbian Christmas in California in January 2017 we heard many people from Serbian decent discussing this tradition. I’ve also read about it on multiple blogs that discuss the Serbian Christmas. Neither Nenad nor many of my Serbian friends have ever heard or seen of this happening. In fact, guns are not common at all outside of the government and there are strict rules on having one. Maybe in some small villages this is something observed but definitely not in any towns or cities.
Once the day gets started it’s time for some good luck to be brought to the house and family for the new year! This person is called ‘polaznik’ and it’s the first person to enter the house on Christmas Day. This tends to be a neighbor or family member and often times it’ll be the same person year after year. I’ve read that if the family didn’t have a good year they won’t ask the same person to come back but that is very untrue. That would not only be out of character for the warm Serbian culture, but this is more a tradition than something that is heavily believed in.
Another Christmas tradition comes with the round bread that’s served (česnica). This bread has a coin that’s placed in it before baked and each person of the house grabs a piece of the bread and tears it off at the same time. Whoever has the piece with the coin is said to have good fortune for the year! I was lucky enough to win the coin piece this year in 2019 and I have no complaints, so I’m hoping for round two! Other popular food items on Christmas day includes sarma (sauerkraut leaves stuffed with a mixture of rice, minced meat, onion and spices), lots of meat (mostly pork), and a ridiculous amount of sweets! It’s very common to have guests coming and going throughout the day as most holidays are shared as a community.
The greeting for family and friends on Christmas day would be ‘Hristos se rodi’ (Chris is born) and the response would be ‘Vaistinu se rodi’ (Indeed he is born). Wheat being on the table is another classic tradition. On December 19th, the feastday of St. Nicholas, wheat grains (žito) are planted as a Serbian Christmas custom. These seeds are watered after a recited prayer and left to grow for the remainder of Advent. The green shoots that grow are a Biblical metaphor for the death and resurrection of Jesus and serve as a symbol of new life. Once grown out, these shoots are tied with a ribbon around them and a candle in the middle and is placed in the center of the family table for Christmas (when tied and placed like this it’s called pšenica). After the Christmas period passes, the pšenica is scattered in the garden or a place where no animal or person will be treading.
A Christmas different from how I grew up, I can still appreciate the traditions it holds for the Serbian culture and a day spent with those that you love. Lucky for me, I now get to have two!