Written by: Olivera Tolimir

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams from loudspeakers while hundreds of people hastily search for Christmas gifts in a mall, not even noticing the holiday music.

It’s been common in the past decade or so in Serbia.

But was it always like that?

Is that what Christmas is about?

Of course not!

While some Orthodox Christmas traditions are forgotten, especially in cities, many aren’t! Serbs take Christmas seriously. So, if you’re open to learning Serbian Christmas traditions, you’re at the right place!

When is Serbian Christmas?

All Christians celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ. And every Christian celebrates it on December 25th.

“But Serbs celebrate Christmas on January 7th,” I hear you rebel!

Well, none of us is wrong.

Serbian Orthodox Church uses the old Julian calendar, which is 13 days late compared to the Gregorian. It means we technically celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but since the church uses another calendar, it falls on January 7th, according to the one we use every day.


Did you know that Orthodox churches don’t observe the tradition of Advent? The Serbian Orthodox Church is not an exception!

Advent calendars, wreaths, and Christingles aren’t a part of Serbian Christmas preparations. We adopted the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree, though! But with a slight difference in schedule.

Since Serbs celebrate Christmas on January 7th, and New Year’s Eve on December 31st, it wouldn’t make sense to wait for Christmas Eve to do it. So, we usually do it in December, whenever we find it fit. Some people wait until the 30th or 31st of December. Others adopted the Western mentality of it being the first thing to do on December 1st.

It’s crucial to decorate it before New Year’s Eve and to leave it until the “Serbian” New Year’s Eve. What is that, you wonder?

It’s just another occasion for celebration. You see, according to the Julian calendar that’s 13 days late compared to the Gregorian, December 31st falls on January 13th. The Serbian (or “Orthodox”, as we sometimes call it) New Year’s Eve isn’t remotely as big of an event as the regular New Year’s Eve, but many people like to go out or enjoy a nice dinner on January 13th, too.

Having two New Year’s Eves and Christmases sounds ridiculous, we know. But you get used to it. And you have to love a country that marks two separate dates for all major church-related holidays. The more, the merrier, right?

The Great Fast

Okay, we don’t have Advent. But how do the Serbs prepare for Christmas, then?

With fasting! The Great Christmas Fast starts on November 28th, 40 days before Christmas, and ends on January 7th (Christmas Day).

The Fast includes restraint from all foods of animal origin, eggs, and milk products. So, it’s kind of like we’re become vegans for 40 days! Except honey, that is always allowed.

Interestingly, we don’t fast the same way during all days of the fasting period. For example, the strict fasting goes on Wednesdays and Fridays. It means we don’t eat anything that contains oil (not even vegetable oil). Instead, we only use water for preparing food.

On other (rare) days, even eating fish and drinking wine are allowed. So, the strict believers follow the church calendar carefully to know what food is allowed and when.

By restraining from certain types of food, we remember Jesus’ 40-day fasting and praying in the desert. But to do it properly, replacing your daily ham and yogurt with avocado isn’t enough. The point of The Great Fast (and any other Orthodox Christian fast) is to abstain from unpleasant thoughts and wrongdoings, do good deeds, help others, and pray. Only then the fast is successful.

It sounds challenging, doesn’t it? It is. And it demands great willpower and even greater faith. Because of this, there are fewer and fewer Serbs who commit to the whole fasting period.

Most Serbs only fast on Christmas Eve (actually, the whole day of January 6th). Even then, we usually prepare fish soup, fried fish, beans, potatoes, and cakes without milk and eggs. So, it’s safe to say we don’t restrain ourselves much when it comes to our Christmas feast! But most people will take care not to eat any meat, eggs, or milk products on January 6th.

The Christmas Eve food also includes dried plums, peaches, and apples. There’s a bowl of these foods on the table, so anyone who is hungry, can serve themselves and not break the fast.

Serbs have Christmas Eve dinner with family in a quiet and solemn atmosphere. Unless a whole extended family gathered at Grandma’s. Then, we enjoy the children’s loud laughter, and reminiscense our childhood memories all at once, just as loudly. It’s safe to say that Christmas Eve’s atmosphere depends on the type of family!

Learning Serbian Christmas Eve Traditions: Badnjak

Christmas Eve is called Badnje veče in Serbian. It comes from the word bdeti, which means to be awake. The second word means eve, just like in the English name. We celebrate it on January 6th.

If you’d like to start learning Serbian ways of celebrating Christmas, you should know that many customs are rooted in the old Slavic pagan history. Of course, the church adjusted them to Christian beliefs, but their origin is undoubtedly pagan.

For example, one of our main Christmas Eve traditions is young oak logging. We call this tree badnjak. Sometimes, people cut the whole tree, but often they only take a branch.

Men go to oak logging in the woods first thing in the morning. It’s a cheerful tradition, often accompanied by singing and toasting. Then, they place badnjak next to their house’s entrance door but don’t bring it in until evening.

In the evening, they bring it in along with hay. If there are children in a family, there’s a warm but somewhat forgotten tradition. When entering the house with badnjak, one of the parents throws hay and sweets around while mimicking cackling. Children then peck like chickens and search for sweets. Hay symbolizes the stable where Jesus was born.

Since it’s not easy to go to oak logging in big cities, there’s a possibility of buying a few branches on the streets. If you visit Serbia during Christmas period, you’ll see many people selling oak branches the day before Christmas.

Learning Serbian Christmas Eve traditions is impossible without the burning of a badnjakIt’s a crucial Christmas Eve tradition. Serbs traditionally burn the young oak tree while saying prayers and wishing for happiness and prosperity in the year to come. The log burns on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

In Serbian towns and cities, there’s always an organized badnjak burning ceremony in front of the church or the city center. It’s a perfect way for people living in flats to honor the tradition while avoiding burning down their buildings by accident!

Badnjak symbolizes oak used to warm the stable in a cave when Christ was born. The interesting fact is it’s an inherited tradition since oak was the old pagan Slavs’ sacred tree!

So, Serbs acquired the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree, but the crucial tree during Serbian Christmas is undoubtedly the young oak tree – badnjak.

A figure of a baby Jesus on a hay.
(Learning Serbian Christmas traditions - hay represents the stable where Jesus was born!)
Learning Serbian Christmas traditions: hay represents the stable where Jesus was born!

Who is Položajnik?

Another Serbian tradition that’s interesting for children is the existence of položajnik!

Položajnik represents the first guest on Christmas morning. Traditionally, it’s a young boy. He goes to the fire where the badnjak is burning and starts reciting that he wishes the hosts as much happiness and money as there are sparks in the fire.

The hosts always give him something as a gift. Earlier, it was fruits or sweets. Nowadays, it can be even money. Learning Serbian traditions regarding položajnik is crucial if you plan to spend holidays in Serbia. You don’t want to disappoint a cute little kid by not giving him a present!

The Christmas Greeting

Learning Serbian special greetings is crucial if you plan to spend your holidays in Serbia! Just like we have an Easter special greeting, we have one for Christmas, too!

On Christmas, we don’t use regular good mornings nor good afternoons. Every Serb instead says, “Mir Božji – Hristos se rodi!” Sometimes we omit the first part and use “Hristos se rodi.” It means “God’s peace – Christ was born!”

God’s peace is a shorter way to wish peace from God to your loved ones.

Of course, there’s a specific answer to this greeting. We say, “Vaistinu se rodi!” It means, “Truly, He was born!”

These phrases are both greetings and the ways Serbs wish merry Christmas to each other. We don’t normally use the word Christmas in our Christmas greetings. It’s enough to say “Hristos se rodi” and answer “Vaistinu se rodi.” Of course, if you wish, you can add “Srećan Božić” afterward. It means “Merry Christmas.”

If you find it strange to use these phrases, it’s adequate to say only “Srećan Božić” to your Serbian friends!

The Feast

As you probably already realized, learning Serbian customs usually goes hand-in-hand with learning Serbian traditional meals!

A Serbian Christmas feast isn’t much different than a Slava one, but there are some differences.

First, let’s list what’s the same: there’s soup, sarma, roasted pig or lamb, various salads (for Christmas, there’s always Russian salad), and cakes.

Well, then, what’s different?

The difference is in the traditional loaf of bread made exclusively for Christmas. It’s called česnica.

Traditionally, a woman of the house bakes it and hides some small items in it. A coin is mandatory, and some women put small parts of ceremonial trees, such as cornel and badnjak, a bean, and various stuff.

We never cut a česnica, but each family member breaks a piece with their hand. Whoever finds a coin is a winner and will find happiness and prosperity that year. A cornel represents good health, and a bean is an indicator a fruitful year.

Sometimes, there’s a tradition of a host redeeming the coin that their guest had found. The host offers money, and if the guest finds it fair, they “sell” it. It’s never a large, but symbolic amount. The “purchase” represents the host’s wish for health and happiness to stay in their home. Of course, it doesn’t take away from the guest’s joy. When shared, the joy multiplies!

After the feast, we exchange gifts. It’s not a Serbian tradition to buy expensive gifts for Christmas. It should be symbolic, sweet, and from the heart. However, under the influence of the West, many Serbs started buying more costly Christmas gifts.

Serbian Christmas is about Cherishing Family

Although, as we said, Serbs don’t have Advent, there is an interesting tradition that starts three weeks before Christmas. Each week, a day is dedicated to a specific family member. The customs are the same, only the roles are reversed.

Three weeks before Christmas, we celebrate Detinjci (detechild). It’s a day dedicated to children when parents jokingly tie the children’s legs or arms, and to set free, children must promise to be good that year or even give something to their parents.

Two weeks before Christmas, we celebrate Materice (mater – and old word for mother). It’s mothers’ day when children tie their mom and expect a gift to release her.

A week before Christmas, it’s the fathers’ turn to be tied to a chair and bring presents to buy their freedom. The day is called Oci (otac father; oci – an old word for fathers).

Christmas is a celebration of children and family in the Orthodox Christian world, and that’s why we have many children-related customs. In some parts of Serbia, there’s still a tradition for children to go from house to house and sing Christmas songs. And of course, to get sweets and small presents for it!

Want to get more familiar with the traditions for Serbian Christmas? Book an online lesson with one of our teachers! The trial lesson is free.