Serbian Christmas Traditions in the 21st Century
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Chilly tickles of falling snowflakes on my cheeks. Sparkling branches of a burning oak glowing in the eyes. Gentle touch of green wheat sprouts on my fingertips. The first buttery taste of cheese after fasting. Jingling giggles of the jolly family. Hasty mother whirling around the house cooking several dishes at once… Thinking of Christmas and Serbian Christmas traditions brings back so many childhood memories.
I’ve always loved the end of the year and all the holidays, especially the old rituals that included doing things you’re normally never allowed to do – like tying your parents, dining on the floor or throwing nuts and seeds around the house.
Serbian Christmas traditions are very old, rich and beautiful. They include numerous customs, beliefs and rituals. Many of them are actually old pagan practices in Christian disguise. I was born to parents who grew up in the communist Yugoslavia. Church and religion were never a big thing in our home. But Christmas and other holidays with old customs, as well as our slava, St Nicholas, were always something we respected as our Serbian tradition and national mark.
Orthodox Christmas in Serbia is celebrated on January 7th. If you want to learn why we have different dates for the Serbian Christmas and Serbian New Year, why the Serbs celebrate two New Years and what’s the difference between the Christmas and New Year celebrations, please visit this post.
In this article I will explain the Serbian Christmas traditions and rituals we’ve maintained to the modern age.
Serbian Christmas Traditions: Sending Greeting Cards
Today we can send quick emails, text messages and e-cards for every holiday. But when I was a child, we used to write postcards: one postcard for the entire holiday season. The text was usually a variation of the same message: “Srećni božićni i novogodišnji praznici!” Meaning: “Merry Christmas’ and New Year’s holidays” – because there are many holidays around the end of the year. They are all part of the Serbian Christmas traditions.
Photo: 2015, City of Pančevo, skupstinapa.wordpress.com
The businesses and administration today have kept this practice. They send an email or a post card to their clients with this message. Usually there is a mild orthography panic in the offices in December, because people are unsure which word(s) to capitalize and make an educated impression.
The orthography rules are clear and this is how we capitalize the holidays: Božić (Christmas) and Nova godina (New Year). However, it’s nova godina if you have in mind the entire new year and not only the celebration. Adjectives božićni and novogodišnji are not capitalized.
Here are some examples of how to write Serbian Christmas greetings:
Srećan vam Božić i Nova godina! (Merry Christmas and New Year to you!)
Želim vam srećan Božić i Novu godinu! (I wish you a merry Christmas and New Year!)
Srećni božićni i novogodišnji praznici! (Happy Christmas’ and New Year’s holidays!)
Srećna vam nova 2020. godina! (Happy New Year 2020!)
Mnogo sreće i zdravlja u novoj 2020. godini! (Lots of luck and health in the new year 2020!)
The Holiday Season in Serbia
The festive season has already begun in late autumn and continues through winter, with numerous slavas (family saint patron day celebrations). Sveti Nikola or St Nicholas, on December 19th, is the most important one, because it’s the most widely celebrated of all slavas. I still owe you a decent post about Serbian slava custom, and I promise to make one – probably next year.
Here you can see what is it that we first serve to our guests on the St Nicholas day.
Serbian Christmas Traditions: Wheat Sprouts
St Nicholas is the day when the Christmas wheat is put in wet dishes to start sprouting. It’ll take just about until Christmas to have beautiful green sprouts to decorate your Christmas table. Believe it or not, it’s not that easy to make nice sprouts. You need the right temperature and the right amount of water… But you can always choose the easier way and buy a prepared decoration, as many busy people actually do nowadays.
Serbian Christmas traditions begin in mid December, with three holidays that celebrate family.
Three Family Bonding Holidays: Detinjci, Materice and Oci
Three weeks before Christmas, or rather: on three Sundays before Christmas, we celebrate these three holidays. They are an important part of the Serbian Christmas traditions and they bring lots of laughter and fun to our homes. Actually, there isn’t a real celebration, but more a game that all family members enjoy.
The children’s day Detinjci comes first; it’s on the third Sunday before Christmas. On this day in the early morning, parents take some rope, a ribbon or a scarf, to tie their children before they wake up. Then children have to redeem themselves by giving small gifts, drawings, reciting or singing a song to their parents.
The following Sunday it’s the mothers’ day, Materice – two Sundays before Christmas. On this day the children will tie their mother, grandmother, aunt and any other woman in the family. She will give them previously prepared gifts to redeem herself. Mothers and grandmothers usually love this holiday and make sure to prepare treats and gifts for their family, especially children.
Finally, on the Sunday before Christmas, it’s the fathers’ day: Oci or Očevi or Paterice. Fathers are usually most fun to play with. On this day, the father must be prepared, but can also play with children, not letting them catch him easily. He will run away from a loose rope and usually play a hard nut. But in the end, after a good laughter, he will finally submit and offer presents to buy his freedom.
Detinci, Materice and Oci are movable holidays, so sometimes they coincide with another holiday. This happened in 2018, when I filmed the video below: the paternal holiday Oci happened to be on the same day as Christmas Eve: Badnje veče. In this video I explained these Serbian Christmas traditions in the Serbian language, so here’s a chance to practice your listening skills:
Serbian Christmas traditions: Christmas Eve Today
The day before Christmas, January 6th, is called Badnji dan, and the evening Badnje veče. In fact, I even remember how my paternal grandmother, who was a communist and a partisan in her youth, would come to our house in the morning, saying: “Dobro jutro, srećno Badnje jutro!”
It’s the last fasting day in the long Nativity fast. The truth is, we never fasted much – so that was the only fasting day for us. Because my other grandmother never allowed us not to fast on this day, and on Great Friday before Easter. She was a sweet, religious, hardworking lady, who taught us most of what we know about the Serbian traditions.
The day before Christmas goes by in preparations. Mothers are cooking and preparing the food for the evening and the great holiday the next day. Fathers are getting the Serbian Christmas tree – badnjak – and usually roasting a pig, if they live in the countryside.
Serbian Christmas Traditions in the 21 Century – Live Lesson in Serbian
Traditional Serbian Christmas Tree
What you call “Christmas tree” in English, for us is “New Year’s fir tree” – novogodišnja jelka, as I explained in this post. For Christmas, we actually have a different kind of tree.
In the early morning, the head of the family goes to the forest to cut off a young oak tree. That’s the old Serbian Christmas tradition, and people still do that in the countryside. I know my cousins do it with their sons.
Often many men go for this task, and the ritual of course involves drinking rakija, so you can read many jokes on the social media about “going at 6 AM for badnjak and returning home at 12 as drunk as a lord”, or as we put it, “mrtav pijan” (dead drunk).
Photo: 2018, pannonrtv.com
If you want to learn details about the old Serbian Christmas tradition of cutting the Christmas oak tree or badnjak, and other very old rituals and beliefs around Christmas, I recommend this post on the blog Old European Culture. Most people in our days don’t even know that all these customs existed, let alone their ancient meaning.
Today, in the cities, we actually buy some less impressive branches. It’s more of a symbol then a real, traditional badnjak. A few days before the Serbian Christmas in January, you can see the stands selling badnjak-bouquets in every town.
Photo: 2017, mojnovisad.com
Serbian Christmas Traditions: Burning Christmas Trees
Badnjak was originally a big oak log that burned the whole night before Christmas in the fireplace, while people would sit around and talk. Today we don’t have such fireplaces any more. Many people live in apartment buildings, without fireplace.
I suppose that’s why people started gathering in cities to burn big Christmas oaks, usually in front of the churches. It is often a big and jolly gathering, with fireworks, firecrackers, mulled wine and šumadijski čaj (tea of Šumadija, wich is, of course, boiled brandy – the merriest of all the Serbian Christmas Traditions).
Photo: 2015, arhiva.vesti-online.com
Serbian Christmas Traditions: Christmas Eve Dinner
The best part of Christmas for me has always been Christmas Eve dinner. In my family, we’ve kept the tradition of setting up our Christmas Eve dining table on the floor. We also have some straw to evoke the atmosphere of the stable, where Christ was born. That’s the only day we all sit on the floor together.
This tradition comes from the ancient days, when this dinner was served for the living and the dead – that’s why it’s on the ground. But most families today will serve their Christmas Eve dinner, Badnja večera, on a dining table, with some straw under the table.
We spread a blanket on the floor and put a table cloth on it. On top of it, we arrange plates, food, the left over candle from slava last year, and the ceremonial bread. All around we put pillows for us to sit on.
The food is fasting: it contains no animal-related food, except for the fish. Traditionally, we have baked beans (prebranac), some fish, pickled vegetables, red-pepper with garlic, baked pumpkin, dried fruits and nuts.
Before we sit for dinner, badnjak is taken into the house. In my family’s tradition, it’s the father who brings it in and the children follow him chirping like chickens. The mother of the house is greeting them by showering them with all sorts of seeds, mostly wheat and corn, from her sieve. We may not know exactly why we do that, but it’s really funny.
Serbian Traditional Christmas Bread: česnica
An important part of Serbian Christmas Traditions is česnica. It’s a ceremony bread baked with a coin that symbolizes wealth, and sometimes other elements, that predict prosperity for the coming year. For example, a little branch of dren (cornelian cherry) symbolizes health.
In my family, we’ve always had our česnica on the Christmas Eve, even though in some families it’s a part of the Christmas feast. My father would break the česnica bread and give each family member a piece, there would be one piece for the house and one piece for an accidental visitor.
After breaking and distributing the česnica, my father would always take four walnuts from the sieve my mother previously used. He would throw one walnut to each of the four corners of the room, making a cross. As a child, I never knew why he did that – it was simply a tradition. Now I know that walnuts were offerings for our ancestors.
Serbian Christmas Traditions: Christmas Morning and First-Footer
As soon as I’d wake up on a Christmas morning on January 7th, even before breakfast, I’d quickly dress up and rush out the door. My elders scared me: “Don’t let anyone beat you and be the first!”
The first person who comes into your home is your first-footer for that year, or as we say it polaženik. According to the Serbian Christmas Traditions, he has a very important role in predicting what will your new year be like. So we won’t let just anyone assume that role by accident. Rather, we’ll arrange the whole thing.
I know in some families the children take the role of polaženik in their own homes. That’s not how we do it in my family.
As a teenager, I was the arranged polaženik in my aunt’s house, and my cousin in mine. We had a little contest who’ll wake up first and do the job. Scared that someone else would be quicker, I remember one year she even came very early, so early that she woke us all up!
Now we have three children at my mom’s for Christmas, and the contest is among them: the child that wakes up first is taken to my aunt’s to perform the ceremony. It’s very important for the children, because polaženik is treated as a special guest and gets presents.
Polaženik, polažajnik or polaznik is a very important part of the Serbian Christmas Traditions. The name comes from the verb poći, polaziti (to start, begin). That’s the person who starts the new year for your family and predicts how it will be. The ritual involves using the badnjak branches to make fire and sparkles (varnice).
My aunt lives in an apartment building, and has no fireplace. But that doesn’t stop us: she heats up an oven for that purpose. Polaženik puts badnjak on the heaters in the oven to make sparkles in the oven. My mom has a furnace, so our polaženik makes a real fire.
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It is our Serbian Christmas Tradition that polaženik tells good wishes for the following year using this formula: “Koliko varnica, toliko parica” (As many sparkles, that many coins) and continues listing all the good wishes for the whole family and family members individually.
If you do a good job as polaženik, you’ll be invited again next year.
Serbian Christmas Traditions – Elaborate and Complex
Hopefully, I managed to show you at least a little part of the magic the Serbian Christmas traditions bring. There are many rituals and customs, most of them feel really pagan and old. I’m sure there are quite a few I didn’t mention here, but I’ll keep updating this post and adding more information.
Finally, if I may give you a piece of advice: If you have family or friends in Serbia, especially in the country side, visit them for Christmas Eve and Christmas. Be a polaženik. All these traditions are slowly giving way to the new practices and globalized culture. It’s already slightly different from when I was a child.
For this Christmas, I wish you to experience the Serbian Christmas traditions while they still resonate with our ancient pagan roots. Then, make sure to use the Serbian orthodox Christmas greeting – similar to the one used on Easter:
Mir božji, Hristos se rodi! (Peace of God, Christ is born!)
Usually written in the Cyrillic script: Мир божји, Христос се роди!
Vaistinu se rodi! (Truly he is born!)
In Cyrillic: Ваистину се роди!
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