Beginner’s guide to the traditional Serbian Christmas
Belgrade : Serbs will be clucking at their menfolk on Christmas Eve, counting the sparks flying from burning oak branches and searching for coins in their Christmas Day loaves. We introduce you to the delights of a traditional Serbian Christmas.
While much of the world will have already celebrated the birth of Jesus on December 25th, Christmas in Serbia is yet to come. Ringing bells in churches across the country will mark the beginning of the three-day feast on January 7.
For Serbs, however, preparations for Christmas start much earlier. Many Orthodox Christians will have begun fasting on November 28th. For 40 days, those observing the fast do not eat meat, dairy products or eggs. Restaurants, bakeries and cake shops around the city have special menus offering dishes that do not include these ingredients.
You would be wrong to assume that 50 years of communism means all Serbs are fully signed-up atheists. Quite the opposite, many are devoted to the church and Christmas traditions, and so are willing to undergo this particular fast.
For those less devoted, Christmas starts on the day of Christmas Eve and even those who did not subject themselves to 40 days of abstinence will fast on January 6th.
In the early morning of Christmas Eve, the whole of Serbia is searching for Badnjak, an oak tree branch with golden leaves that is vital for a proper Serbian Christmas.
While in the countryside villagers go to the woods and cut branches themselves, in the city the search for the perfect branch is somewhat easier, beginning and ending on the nearest market.
Badnjak plays a few roles in the traditional Serbian Christmas. Before the family dinner is served on Christmas Eve, the men bring the Badnjak, straw and pecenica – a traditional pork meat dish that will be served on Christmas Day – into the house.
While the men are covering the floor with straw to make the family home resemble the stable where Jesus was born, mother and children greet them by making clucking sounds.
It is believed that the clucking sound is a symbol of Jesus’s wish to gather all people in one community and spread love among them, just as a hen gathers her chicks underneath her wings to keep them warm.
Before the family dinner, part of the Badnjak is burned, just as the three shepherds brought Joseph items to warm the stable where he was born.
According to the Church, the burning Badnjak warms the family with love, sincerity and harmony, while the light from the fire dispels the darkness of ignorance and superstition.
However, the roots of the Badnjak ritual go back far beyond Christian times. Some say ancient Serbs believed in a god called Badnja, but that they threw their beloved deity on the fire once they converted to Christianity. However, such was their love for Badnja, Serbs could not forget him and each year repeat their act of farewell.
The family then gathers around the table and fish, beans, potatoes and dried or fresh fruit are served. After dinner they go to church, where Badnjak is burned on a huge bonfire at midnight.
On Christmas Day the Church bells start ringing at dawn and families impatiently await their first visitor, the polozajnik.
Instead of greeting each other with the usual ‘hello’ or ‘good day’, Serbs use the traditional festive greeting of ‘Christ is born, happy Christmas’ for all three days of Christmas. The appropriate response is ‘Truly, he is born’.
The polozajnik is the person who first enters a house on Christmas Day and the tradition symbolises the three wise men from the East who came to worship the baby Jesus.
As he/she is supposed to bring the family good luck in the year to come, most families agree with someone close to them to be the first to cross their threshold. The polozajnik must step into the house with the right leg first.
The polozajnik must then re-ignite the badnjak and make sparks fly from it. It is believed that the more sparks from the fire; the richer, healthier and happier the family will be. When the polozajnik leaves, he (traditional Serbs believe it is better if it is a male) receives gifts, marking how special he is to the family.
The Serbian Christmas roast
Christmas Day lunch is the centrepiece of the day. Before the meal begins, the family share a special loaf of bread, the cesnica, which is baked with a coin inside. Every member of the family gets a piece of bread and starts searching for the coin inside. Good luck for the coming year is granted to whoever finds the coin in their piece of bread.
After the coin is found and prayers are said, the lunch starts. The main course is pecenica – roasted pork – which is cooked over a fire for the entire day. The way the pork is prepared is also rooted in pre-Christian rituals.
Traditionally, the pig should be slaughtered on the morning of Christmas Eve and roasted for the whole day over an open fire. In these modern times, given the lack of open fires and dwindling demand for whole pigs, the pork is more commonly prepared in an oven when the host has time.
Although only pecenica is obligatory, the Christmas feast must be a rich and sumptuous affair. After prsuta (smoked ham), cheese and pies for appetizers, there should be, soup, sarma (cabbage stuffed with meat and rice) and several kinds of cake.
As it is believed that everything a person starts on Christmas will be blessed with good luck, when the meal is finished everyone should begin the work that they will be doing throughout the year.
However, some say that whatever you do on Christmas you will be doing for the year to come. Unsurprisingly, most Serbs believe it is best that they don’t just work at Christmas, but also spend the day doing the things they like best with the people they love the most.