Most Serbians are Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar, with, Christmas Eve celebrated on January 6 and Christmas on January 7. In the old days, on Christmas Eve morning, Serbian fathers took their eldest son to chop down (or in more recent times, buy) a young oak tree called a badnjak.
Families celebrate Christmas with a festive badnjak burning at night followed by a meatless meal that varies from family to family. Typically, though, wheatgrass planted on St. Nicholas Day, symbolizing a good harvest, and česnica, a sweet bread for Christmas morning, are on the table.
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The česnica or božićna kolač, also known as "money bread," goes out on the table on Christmas Eve, but no one can eat it until Christmas morning, when everyone breaks off a piece, saving one for the polozajnik or first guest to visit. Tradition says whoever finds the coin baked inside their piece gets good luck for the rest of the year.
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Sometimes a dried fruit compote, or suvo voće, gets eaten before the meal begins—sometimes afterward as dessert. It can contain any combination of dried fruit, though it usually contains prunes, that have been cooked in water and sugar until they turn tender. The cooking liquid is as prized as the fruit. In Polish, this is known as kompot, and the same recipe works for a Serbian Christmas Eve.
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Since Serbians fast during Advent, meaning no eggs, dairy, or butter, the bread served at the Christmas Eve dinner must be free of these ingredients. This Lenten or fasting pogacha is used to sop up the soup course and to enjoy with ajvar, an eggplant-pepper spread. For non-fasting occasions, you can use a different pogacha recipe.Continue to 5 of 8 below.
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For cabbage lovers, these vegetable sarma allow indulgence in a favorite food while still following the church's fasting rules. They're also a great meat alternative for vegetarians at other meals.
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For dessert, along with dried fruit compote, fruit, and nuts, some families serve Lenten or fasting cookies—so named because they contain no eggs, milk, or butter, which are prohibited during Advent (and Lent).
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It wouldn't be Christmas Eve without vruca rakija, a potent hot drink made with whiskey, water, and sugar. Families guard their secret recipes for this traditional welcome drink at Christmas dinner and the Nativity of Christ. Some recipes call for spices to be added to the brew.