Yes, the winter has started recently, and Serbs are preparing themselves for the period of enjoyment. Days are getting shorter, and the favorite pastime among Serbs is socializing with friends and family. We have already mentioned Slava – authentic Serbian holidays – and the season of holidays has arrived. Very soon it will be Christmas time, so let us introduce you to Serbian understanding of Christmas…
In Serbia there are two Christmases. Actually, both days celebrate the same holiday – birth of Jesus Christ; but we have two calendars… Christians who celebrate by Gregorian calendar, like Catholics, Protestants etc. Celebrate Christmas on December 25th; as the most Westerners do. However, some of the Orthodox Churches still abide by Julian calendar, such as Russian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem, and Serbian Orthodox Church. The difference of 13 days brings double joy to Serbia, especially during the winter – we celebrate two Christmases, two New Years… We will dedicate our article to the tradition of Serbian way of celebrating the joy of Christmas on January 07, so lean back, grab yourself a cup of tea; or even better – Shumadian tea, and enjoy…
Christmas Holidays – Family Time
As already mentioned before, Serbs nurture a very tight connection to the family – especially during holy days. As everywhere around the world Christmas represents time for the family gathering – Serbs are not expection. However, this is what differs us from the rest…
Serbian Orthodox Christmas holidays last for 6 weeks, preceding Christmas. During this period, Orthodox Serbs are commited to a Christmas Lent; but this period is full of the holy days which are completely dedicated to the family. There are numerous customs related to this period, but let us introduce you to just a couple of them.
The first Christmas-related holiday is DETINCI – the most accurate translation to English would be „The day of the children“, which is always on third Sunday before the Christmas. On this day parents tie-up their children with a piece of string, or rope. Yes, that’s correct, I am still being tied-up by my parents; and I will explain to you why we do it a little bit later. Don’t worry, nobody gets hurt, children even LOVE it. The only way to get „untied“ is to give your parents a treat – it doesn’t have to be anything big, but it merely symbolizes a token of gratitude for all the parenting efforts; and with this a child is starting to „buy“ its place in Heaven.
On the second week before Christmas begins „children’s retaliation“… On this day we celebrate MATERICE – or Mothers’ Day. This is one of those days when children are usually first to get up from their beds, as their goal is to get their mothers by surprise and tie their legs. Mothers are pretending to be sooo surprised, claiming that it’s not the Mothers’ Day; but this is, of course, just a usual play with us – their children. They get untied by giving cakes and candies to their children; or in the modern days – some other sorts of presents, like toys etc. In some churches women even organize the events with plays, after which they contribute to the gathered children.
Sunday prior to Christmas is when fathers get „vengence“ – this day we call „OCI“ – or Fathers’ Day. They get the same treatment as previous „victims“, they also claim that it’s not their holiday; but they always prepare gifts to the children.
Now, let me explain why we „tie up“ each others. These three holidays are exclusively reserved for the family. During these holidays our family relations are getting stronger, and tying up symbolizes tying up to family; making unbreakable bonds between family members. This is the first meaning of tying up. The second meaning one can find is directing people to make a sacrifise for their beloved ones. This is how our children learn to save a little bit in order to gladden their elders. Also, children are taught this way that by giving the others – they would receive greater reward. These three holidays are also known as the „Family foundation“.
Two days prior to Christmas, Orthodox Serbs begin serious preparations for the great holiday. This day, January 05, is called TUCINDAN. It is believed that this holiday is a remnant from the age of Old Slavic religion; and it is connected to making a ceremonial sacrifice.
Day before Christmas – Badnji Dan
Now we are getting closer to Christmas… The day prior to Christmas is called BADNJI DAN, or BADNJAK, and this is when the real ceremony begins. Christmas roast is made on this day (but we don’t eat it until Christmas – Banji dan is the last day of the Great Christmas Lent), women are very busy in preparing the feast for the Christmas, and men take out in search for Badnjak – a ceremonial tree, usually an oak, which is brought to the house, but not in the house. This represents the branches which sheperds brought to Joseph, and which he used to warm up the cave where Jesus Christ was born. There is even a special manner in cutting the branch, and a special pray dedicated to the Holiday and home.
All of the family members are involved in preparing the ceremony. House is decorated with straw, which depicts the cave in Betlehem where Jesus Christ was born. Family gathers around the table for the dinner, which still doesn’t contain any meat or dairy or animal products but fish; but yet is very rich: here you can find prebranac – specially baked beans; loads of different salads, fish stew…
Serbs believe that on the Christmas Eve and Christmas one can find the best omens. That’s why Christmas Eve supper is very rich; and family takes out on a table everything they can find – so these goods could multiply in the new year. The head of the family takes Badnjak, Christmas roast and straw in the house and wishes all the best to the family members and their home. Here are some of our Christmas-related beliefs:
- If it rains on Christmas – we believe that every work will be fruitful.
- If you owe anything to someone, you better settle this until Christmas Eve. Otherwise, you will owe in the next year.
- We believe that you mustn’t clean your house during the Christmas holidays, as you might „clean off“ the joy.
- During the Christmas holidays there must be no arguments heard. Otherwise, our work might not be prosperous.
MIR BOŽJI – HRISTOS SE RODI!
It’s Christmas! And this is how we greet each other. The proper way of replying to this greet (which means „Divine Peace – the Christ is born“) is VAISTINU SE RODI! (which means „Indeed He is born“). You already know that Serbs are loud by their genetics, but you cannot know how loud we can be until you visit us for Orthodox Christmas. It is customary not only to sing, but to be as cheerful as one can be. This is why our celebration of Christmas lasts for three days!
There is a belief that the first person who enters your home on Christmas will bring you your fortune for the next year. This is why usually we prefer to choose our first visitor, which is called „POLOŽAJNIK“ or „RADOVAN“. The most accurate meaning would be „one who brings joy and good luck“. It is customary that this person is male, healthy, strong, cheerful child or youth. His arrival at home signifies the arrival of new strenght and health to home and family; and he symbolizes the Three Wise Men who were the first to visit newborn Christ.
Položajnik or Radovan is very appreciated in hosts’ homes, as he is the one who will evoke blessings: by ceremonial burning of Badnjak, he is warming the house the same way that Joseph warmed up the cave for baby Christ. Sparks will fly all around the fireplace as he summons blessings: „Koliko varnica – toliko zdravica, koliko varnica – toliko srećica, koliko varnica – toliko parica… a najviše zdravlja i veselja, amin, Bože daj!“ meaning „As many sparks – as many toasts, as many sparks – as much happyness, as many sparks – as much money… and most of all health and joy, amen, bring us God!“ He will be the first to try the Christmas roast, and he will be served as the utmost guest.
Women make ceremonial Christmas bread, called ČESNICA. This bread will be served on family meal, and will be divided among family members. It is customary that a coin is hidden inside the bread, and it is believed that the one who finds it will have all the favors in that year.
I have already mentioned Serbian tendency to cheer and to toast, and Christmas is a perfect occasion for toasts. One of the most favorite toasts goes: „Daj, Bože, zdravlja i veselja u ovom domu; neka nam se radjaju zdrava dečica, nek’ nam radja žito i lozica, neka nam se uvećava dobro u polju, toru i oboru!“ which can be translated as: „Give us, Lord, health and joy in this home; may we have lots of leathy children, may we have lots of wheat and wine, may our goods in crops and in stables multiply!“
BOŽIĆ BATA vs. SANTA CLAUS
Yes, we do have our Santa Claus, but we call him Božić Bata. He is the one who sneaks up in our houses in Christmas Eve – Badnje veče and leaves presents to the kids, along with the blessings for the whole family. Yup, kids adore him; and some of them even leave him something for a treat, so he doesn’t get tired on his quest. And how strong those family bonds are is best shown with Božić Bata: it doesn’t matter how old you are. As long as you have someone who takes care of you or you take care of – Božić Bata will not stop visiting you. At least my parents claim so… Don’t yours, too?
Writen by Petar Živić / Serbia Incoming DMC Project Manager