Serbs celebrate Christmas in real style – and with a variety of old and interesting traditions that were a true revelation to this incomer from the Netherlands.
By Fabian Vendrig
When the Dutch celebrate Christmas, they usually do so with family and friends, which is just the same in Serbia. But the Serbs celebrate Christmas very differently to back in my old home country.
When I celebrated my first Christmas with my Serbian family in Milocaj, a village near Kraljevo in central Serbia, I was fascinated by the customs and traditions of this holiday in Serbia.
Before I came to Serbia, I had not even known that Christmas in Serbia is celebrated on a different date. In Serbia it is celebrated according to the Julian calendar. This means that Serbian Orthodox Christmas takes place 13 days after Catholic Christmas, on January 7. I was surprised to find out that “my Christmas”, on December 25 and 26, is not even a public holiday in Serbia. Everybody is still working and all the shops are open.
Badnje vece (Christmas Eve)
While the Netherlands and most other countries celebrate Christmas Eve on December 24, in Serbia it is on January 6. In Serbian, Christmas Eve is called “Badnje vece” and on Badnje vece you go to church. In the Netherlands, people used to go to church on Christmas Eve, but not a lot of people do that nowadays.
The difference is that the gathering in church on Badnje vece in Serbia, besides the religious aspect of the service, is also a social gathering. After the service is finished, people do not go home directly. They gather around a huge campfire, close to the church, which is lit with an oak tree blessed by the priest.
I was surprised to get a branch of an oak tree planted in my hands, which I was supposed to put on the fire. The more sparkles you get when you burn your oak branch, the more prosperous your coming year will be. As we gathered around the fire, I got some hot rakija – plumb brandy – as well. This warm beverage is known as Sumadija tea, after the region of central Serbia. I really enjoyed this part of the tradition, because you get to meet friends, family and neighbours. This is especially the case if the church you attend services a small village. The church where I usually go, in Cvetke, is just that kind of a church. It this makes the celebration even more personal. After the service and the social gathering, it is finally time to head home.
Christmas Eve customs at home
When I arrived home, more customs and traditions were revealed to me. I’d already gathered that it is better not to be a young oak tree before Christmas in Serbia, as so many are cut down as part of the tradition. Branches are not only used in church for the Badnje vece. You should bring a young oak tree, or at least a branch, into your house, too.
It all depends on the family and location of course, but the young oak or oak branch is normally brought into the house on Christmas Day, though some take it inside on Christmas Eve.
An interesting book from long ago, “Servia, Youngest Member of the European Family”, written by an Englishman, A. A. Paton, in 1848 (available for free on www.gutenberg.org describes these Christmas traditions in the mid-19th century.
“At Christmas, for instance, every peasant goes to the woods, and cuts down a young oak; as soon as he returns home, which is in the twilight; he says to the assembled family, ‘A happy Christmas eve to the house;’ on which a male of the family scatters a little grain on the ground and answers, ‘God be gracious to you, our happy and honoured father.’ The housewife then lays the young oak on the fire, to which are thrown a few nuts and a little straw, and the evening ends in merriment.”
This tradition is alive and well today. My nephews and niece went wild when their father brought hay and an oak tree inside the house, and he, too, was welcomed enthusiastically with kernels and walnuts being thrown at him.
The hay is placed on the ground, which is where you have dinner on Christmas Eve. It symbolises the hay of the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The dinner is “posno”, a fasting dinner, which means no meat or dairy. Actually, the whole day before Christmas is “posno”.
This is a big contrast with my old home country, where the Christmas Eve or Christmas Day dinner consisted of a full table groaning with various kinds of food. The dinner table is shiny and people put on their best clothes, just like in the American Christmas movies.
In Serbia, you eat fish and vegetables on the ground, on hay. Personally, I like this kind of celebration of Christmas Eve more than what we do in the Netherlands. It seems like a return to basics!
After the dinner you enjoy the evening together and after midnight you can let off fireworks or firecrackers. I thought Serbs only let off fireworks at New Year, or when Serbia wins something in sports, but no, it happens for Christmas, too – to keep the evil spirits out of the house.
Christmas morning starts with an old greeting: “Hristos se rodi”, or “Christ is born”, to which you reply: “Vaistinu se rodi” (“He was born indeed”).
After breakfast follows a Christmas lunch, which is not “posno”. There is a special baked flat bread, called a “cesnica”, which contains a coin, a kernel, a bean and a piece of the oak tree inside. If you find one of these in your bread, you will be lucky in the year to come. You will also eat soup, “sarma” (stuffed cabbage rolls), pork and, of course, a cake. After lunch, you relax and enjoy Christmas with your family next to the Christmas tree with the Christmas lights, just like everywhere else. Another interesting thing is that the first man entering the house on Christmas Day is called the “polozajnik” – which means he gets a present. So, be on time when you are invited.
“Srecan Bozic!” (Merry Christmas!)
This article I wrote earlier for Belgrade Insight, which is part of BIRN (link) and appeared in their 265th Edition from 21 December 2018.