Christmas is celebrated in memory of the birth of Christ and is the most joyous of all Christian holidays. Traditions for Christmas Eve and Christmas in the Orthodox world differ from country to country and every nation has brought something of its own tradition and heritage regarding the celebration of these holidays.
Orthodox Christians, who follow the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas on January 6th and 7th, although some countries such as Greece and Romania have adopted the new calendar, thus celebrating the Christmas season a little bit earlier. The birth of Christ is considered to be cheerful family holiday and in Serbian Christmas tradition there are many nice religious customs and practices.
The true spirit of Christmas is uphold by celebrating the Christian values of peace, kindness, generosity, forgiveness and reconciliation. In the period from Christmas to Epiphany people in Serbia greet by saying “Christ is Born” (“Hristos se rodi”). It should be responded to with “Truly He is Born” (“Vaistinu se rodi”). It is a tradition that all those who have been in any sort of fight or misunderstanding during the year should reconcile and forgive each other on this day.
Chistmas also represents the celebration of birth, children, childhood and parenthood. On the three Sundays before Chirstmas Day Orthodox Christians celebrate Detinjci, Materice and Oci. In the morning of Detinjci, adults use a belt, rope, or scarf to symbolically tie their children by their legs. With a kiss and a promise to be good and hardworking, children get untied. In the morning of Materice, children tie their mother in the same manner as they have been tied on Detinjci. The mother, as if surprised, asks why she has been tied. The children then wish a happy Feast of Materice to her, and she earnes “freedom” with walnuts, apples and prunes, after which they untie her. Mothers prepare a family feast for dinner on this day. In the morning of Oci, the Sunday immediately before Christmas Day, children tie their father, who also must give someting in order to get untied. Fathers usually give some money to children, and small gifts to the rest of the family. This whole tying tradition symbolizes strong family connections, unity and mutual help. Therefore, the true meaning of these holidays is to strengthen the family as a pillar of the society and the church. Although the gifts nowadays have been changed, children are still happy to find the most interesting way to tie their parents, and have fun.
The celebration of the birth of Christ begins the day before Christmas. Early in the morning, mostly in rural areas, the head of each family, with the gun fire in the background, goes to the forest to select the tree from which a log will be cut for the household. Before the cutting ritual, he throws a handful of grain and pours some wine on the tree. In most regions oak is the most popular species of tree selected for badnjak, since in the old Slavic mythology it represents the sacred tree. Those living in towns and cities can get their badnjak (a cluster of oak twigs with their brown leaves still attached) at marketplaces or in churches. After badnjak has been brought home, straw is placed on the floor resembling the cave in Bethlehem where Jesus Christ was born. There are bread, dried fruits, nuts, honey on the straw, and small gifts for the children to seek, while imitating chicks. Every year on Christmas Eve people gather in the church courtyards to attend public celebration, and place the badnjak on the fire to burn. Oak branches on the fire symbolize the light, and the whole scene in which people are brought together in front of this fire is truly magnificent. On such occassion mulled wine is served among the people.
Christmas Eve is a feast day. It is preceded by 40 days of feasting during Advent to prepare for the birth of Christ. Meals are prepared in accordance with that and no meat, dairy or eggs are consumed. Christmas Eve night connects Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Thus in Serbia there is a saying for very close friends that they are like “Christmas and Christmas Eve day”. During the Christmas Eve dinner cutlery is not used. Instead people usually eat with their fingers, as it is believed that by doing so they will not quarrel in the new year. The dinner should be delcious and rich, in order or the ensuring year to be fruitful. At the end of dinner, people eat dried fruits, honey and nuts. According to the tradition, the remaining food should not be removed from the table. Instead it is left on table for the night, for “happiness to stay inside the house”. On Christmas Eve people do not visit others but spend time at home, with their own family.
On Christmas Day, the church bells annonuce the celebration at dawn. Many believers go to church to attend the Morning Liturgy. The first visitor to one’s home on Christmas Day is known as the polozajnik. People expect that his visit will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuring year. After the Christmas greeting, he approaches the fireplace, takes a poker or a branch, and strikes repeatedly the burning badnjak to make sparks fly from it. At the same time he utters these words: “How many sparks, that much health, happiness, joy, money”. There is a belief that everything starts with Christmas and on this day many people begin with the work they would like to do throughout the year. One of the nicest Christmas decorations is wheat grass, which symbolizes life and revival of nature. On Christmas day the table is full with delicious meat dishes. Indispensable parts of Christmas table are cesnica (a round loaf of bread) and pecenica (a roasted pig or sheep). Cesnica is prepared on Christmas morning. A widespread custom is to put a coin into the dough, symbolizing the gift for Christ. Sometimes a small piece of tree from badnjak, dogwood blossoms, which symbolize health and seeds are put on the top of cesnica. Lunch begins when the head of the family raises the cesnica and rotates it three times counterclockwise. The cesnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his or her own share of loaf. The family member whose share contains the coin previously hidden in cesnica, will supposedly be lucky in the coming year. Traditional lunch includes some of the most delicious meat dishes: chicken soup, turkey with podvarak (stewed sauerkraut), roasted pig, gibanica (tasty Serbian pie made with phyllo, white cheese and eggs) and desserts. The second day of Christmas is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and on the third day badnjak and straw are removed from the house. It is believed that if the weather is foggy and cloudy on Christmas the following year will be fruitful.
Christmas is one of the greatest Christian holidays, representing lot of love and happiness among the people. It is a celebration of birth, children and parenting, a time when the whole family is together at home. Children are especially looking forward to Christmas Brother. He is believed to bring blessings for the families and gifts for the children. In Serbian Christmas tradition there are many nice and old customs that make this time of the year so special and beautiful. We wish all Orthodox Christians to spend this holiday with their loved ones in love, peace and prosperity. Peace from God! Christ is Born!