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 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.
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.
Learning Serbian Christmas Eve traditions is impossible without the burning of a badnjak. It’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!
Serbs also acquired the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree, so now we have two types of Christmas trees in our houses during Christmas Eve – badnjak and a colorful pine tree!
Learning Serbian Christmas Eve Traditions: Fasting
Christmas Eve is the last day of the Christmas fasting period. It starts 40 days before Christmas.
Fasting in Orthodox Church is a vegan diet, with two exceptions – it’s allowed to eat fish and honey.
Some believers fast all 40 days before Christmas, but most only do it on Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve dinner includes fish soup, fish, potato salad, beans, dried plums, walnuts, and honey, and sometimes a cake made without milk and eggs.
However, the point of fasting in Christianity isn’t to restrict ourselves from certain types of foods. We should avoid swearing, fighting, and evil thoughts. We believe all arguments and insults should be forgiven on Christmas Eve and Christmas so that this holiday brings us peace and love.
Serbs have Christmas Eve dinner with family in a quiet and solemn atmosphere.
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!
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.
After the feast, we exchange gifts.
The Weeks Before Christmas
We listed all the crucial Christmas traditions.
But do Serbs have advent?
Well, not in the sense of burning one candle every Sunday, but we do have an important holiday every week before Christmas starting from week three.
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. 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. 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.
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!