Merry (Serbian) Christmas!

Traditional cakes and a česnica.
Image from babamim.com

Today is Serbian Christmas~♪ How can that be, you may wonder? Well, Serbs are, for the most part, orthodox, and the Serbian Orthodox Church uses the Julian Calendar for holy days.

In the Julian calendar, Christmas Day (December 25th) falls on January 7th in the Gregorian Calendar (the one internationally used today), hence we celebrate Christmas Day on January 7th =3

In the spirit of today, I thought I would talk a bit about the Serbian Christmas traditions. Note, however, that different regions have different traditions and that many traditions have been lost or changed from the time that my mother was a child (45 years ago) to the time I was a kid (14 years ago), when I experienced it for the first and only time, and then again until now.

It is also important to note that households in Serbia are generally multi-generation households, i.e. children, parents, and grandparents all live together.

Greetings

First off, Serbia is a very religious country and while we do have a way of saying “merry Christmas” (srećan Božić), we have a special way of greeting each other on Christmas which we use instead.

One is to say Hristos se rodi (Christ is born) to which the other(s) is to respond Vaistinu se rodi (Truly, he is born). After that, you can usually add “merry christmas.” While I don’t believe in God or Christ, I still honour traditions and say the greetings.

Gift exchange

We do not exchange gifts Christmas Morning. Rather, we do that on the three consecutive Sundays leading up to Christmas, which I suppose is kinda like Advent. The three Sundays leading up to Christmas are called Detinjci (Children’s Day), Materice (Mothers’ Day), and Oci (Fathers’ Day), respectively. The name of the days tell who it is that are the gift givers. But it’s not like they just ‘give’ the gifts, they are given as ransom XD

E.g. on the morning of Materice, the children will wake up early in the morning and tie together the feet of mothers (doesn’t have to be their own) and the mothers then give gifts in order to be untied by the children. The best gifts are usually kept within the family while those outside usually receive candy or fruits. The same applies to the two other days ^^

This tradition has unfortunately mostly died out today, and instead, gifts are given on the 7th of January and only to the children; parents and grandparents receive nothing =[

Church

The church (and mass) plays a central role on the first Christmas Day and is attended extremely early in the morning. As I recall, I was woken up at about 3 AM, we were at the church at 3:30 AM, and the church was already jam-packed by then. Today, the church has also taken over some of the traditions that were performed by the head of a household, such as the burning of the badnjak log.

Badnjak/Veseljak

A priest throwing a badnjak on the fire
Image from babamim.com

The Badnjak is a log of oak (the oak is considered a tree representing Christ in Serbia) that is cut on the morning of Christmas Eve, is burnt through the night until Christmas Morning and then plays a role with the visit of the Polažajnik (later section).

There used to be many traditions associated with how and when to bring in the log, but all died out by the time I was a kid, so I don’t know any of them except that you are supposed to enter right foot first.

Sometimes, leaved oak branches replace the log (they did when I was a kid). Christmas Eve is actually named after the tradition of the tree, being called Badnji Dan (lit: “Day of the Badnjak”) and Badnje Veče (lit: “Eve of the Badnjak”). The burning of the Badnjak is said to symbolize the fire made to keep the newly born Baby Jesus warm through the night.

Christmas Straw

This is a tradition that has simply died out because kids these days only care about money and technology >___> But long ago, the head of the house would gather straw from the stables tie it up in a bundle and carry it into the house. He would (in some regions) then cluck as a hen and the children would (in all regions, as far as I know) then imitate chickens and pick at the straw.

The straw would then be spread out on the floor and money, walnuts, candy, and whatever else would be thrown in as well. The children would then dive in and search for all the goods. This was obviously far more fun back when my mom was a kid, because a family would usually have several children.

Strong Water

The tradition of collecting water differs from region to region, but in all instance it is water collected from a well or stream before sunrise on Christmas Day and that it is later used for making the Christmas Loaf. What is done in-between differs greatly, but in our case, nothing was done.

Česnica

A baked česnica.
Image from blogoye.org

Česnica is the Christmas Loaf made early Christmas morning by usually the woman of the house. The dough is made using the strong water and symbolic items are inserted before the bread is baked. The items are different from place to place and sometimes the same item may symbolise one thing in one region, but something else in another.

In our village, it was customary to use a coin, a small twig from the Badnjak (in some places, it is the first splinter that falls off while felling the tree), and a small, cleaned bone from the foot of the roasted Christmas Pig.

When breaking the bread, it was generally believed that getting one of the items meant that you would be especially beneficial in whatever the item symbolized, e.g. if you got the coin, you would have a good economy for that year, if you got the bone, you would have good health, and if you got the twig, you would be exceptionally lucky. It is actually possible for the head of the house to purchase the item, and the luck associated with it, if he so wishes.

This tradition is still carried out today, and I just got a call from one of my cousins in Serbia 1½ hours ago, wishing me a merry christmas and informing me that she got the piece with the coin XP

Položajnik

The Položajnik (goes under MANY other names as well) is the first and usually only outside guest on Christmas Day, as this day is usually spent with the family alone. The visit by the Položajnik (who is typically male) is usually pre-arranged and he is meant to be the bringer of good fortune for the following year.

Like with the Badnjak, much of the tradition with the Položajnik had died out by the time I was a kid, such as poking at the Badnjak that had been burning overnight with a firepoker in order to produce sparks while reciting a verse (the verse equates the number of sparks with the amount of different livestock and prosperity the household will have that during the next year).

By the time I became the Položajnik, the only traditions left alive was to enter the home right foot first while saying “Christ is Born, Merry Christmas”, to which the family responds “Truly He is Born”. Also, the Položajnik dines with the family and breaks the Česnica with them. I’m actually on my way out now to fulfill my duty as such.

Final Words

There are many more traditions than those explained here, but many of them have either died out completely, weren’t celebrated in my family, or I simply didn’t bother cover them (such as the Christmas Dinner, cause it’s a bit mundane). But yeah, crazy stuff, huh? XD

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