I don’t know how many of you know this about me, but I was born in Serbia and have lived my childhood just a few kilometers from the Serbo-Hungarian border in a small city called Subotica. Serbia is a small country nestled in the middle of the Balkan peninsula where approximately 6 million Serbs live. Fun Fact: Serbians as well as most Slavs are Orthodox and there for celebrate Christmas according to the Julian calendar which means that Christmas Eve for us falls on the 6th of January. Christmas has always been my favorite holidays and I have so many warm memories that involve my family, lots of food, pajama nights waiting for Santa, snow and ,of course, presents. That’s why I decided to share with you some of our most cherished customs when it comes to this Holiday.
Holidays that are celebrated today on the territory of the Balkans have their roots in the pre-Christian era. Slavs, same as many other tribes from the ancient times, were pagan. The most famous holidays that were celebrated throughout Europe at the time of Paganism were summer and winter solstices, as well as the spring and autumn celebrations. By the arrival of Christianity, Solstice and Equinox lost their significance; however, some pagan holidays were preserved only by obtaining new, Christian characteristics. Most Christian holidays are celebrated today with elements of paganism, so religion in these places is sometimes called a dualism, a religion that is both Christian and pagan. So many of our customs are heavily influenced by our ancestral culture and nowhere is that more visible than at the time of Christmas.
The very essence of the holidays is the same as everywhere else where Christmas is celebrated. The birth of Christ is at the epicenter of the holiday, but fostering good family relations is of utmost importance. Guests are more than welcome, since it is a tradition to have the neighbors and friends visit on Christmas day. If your next trip is to Eastern Europe or you have friends/family who are Orthodox here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to Christmas Orthodox traditions:
Before the Christmas Eve, it is a tradition for the youngest and eldest man from the house to go to the forest and cut the yule-log. The log is then brought into the house and placed on the fire on the evening of Christmas Eve The felling, preparation, bringing in, and laying on the fire, are surrounded by elaborate rituals, with many regional variations. The burning of the log is accompanied by prayers that the coming year brings food, happiness, love, luck, and riches. The log burns on throughout Christmas Day when the first visitor strikes it with a poker or a branch to make sparks fly while wishing that the family's happiness and prosperity be as abundant as the sparks. As most Serbs today live in towns and cities, the badnjak is often symbolically represented by a cluster of oak twigs with brown leaves attached, with which the home is decorated on Christmas Eve. While the ceremonial yule log burns it is important to see a lot of sparks coming from it as sparks symbolize a fretful year ahead! Women mostly take care of the upcoming feast and prepare traditional dishes and sweets.
On Christmas, people say "Christ is born! Hristo se rodi!" to all the members of the family or anyone they encounter that day, while the person should respond with "He truly is! Vaistinu se rodi''.
Polaznik is the person (commonly a young kid) who first enters the house on Christmas. He stumbles right across the threshold, greets everyone in the house with the words "Christ is born’’,
If the person who first enters the house is male the superstition is that any babies born that year to the occupants of the house will be male or female of the first person happens to be a girl. It is a custom to gift the boy/girl who came to wish you a Merry Christmas with candy or even money.
A česnica; derived from the noun čest, meaning "share"), also called Božićna pogača is the ceremonial, round loaf of bread that is an indispensable part of Christmas dinner in Serbian tradition. The preparation of this bread may be accompanied by various rules and rituals. A coin is often put into the dough during the kneading; other small objects may also be inserted. At the beginning of Christmas dinner, the česnica is rotated three times counterclockwise, before being broken among the family members. The person who finds the coin in his piece of the bread will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year.
Hay underneath the Christmas dinner table
Hay is placed underneath the dining table and it symbolizes both the hay in which Jesus was born and our connection with our ancestors. Often fruit and sweets are hidden in the hay for the kids to find after dinner.
In today's, urban conditions, the celebration of Christmas is performed in a slightly modified and customized form but, the dedication to our ancestral customs is reflected in the gathering of the entire family by the table and sharing or love and kindness for each other as well as for others.