Christmas is one of the holiest days of the year for Serbian Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar. It is preceded by 40 days of fasting during Advent to prepare for the birth of Christ.
And even though the Feast of St. Nicholas (when children receive presents from the kindly saint) falls on Dec. 19, and which happens to be many families' slava, or patron saint's day, there is no dispensation from the fast.
No meat, dairy or eggs are consumed, continuing through Christmas Eve night—badnje vece—on Jan. 6.
Christmas Eve Rituals
Years ago, on Christmas Eve morning (badnji dan) in Serbia, fathers would take their eldest son to the forest to chop down an oak tree branch, which would become their badnjak or Yule Log. Today, many Serbians buy their badnjak. Decorated Christmas trees are not traditional in Serbia although, due to Western influences, they are becoming more common. Straw is placed throughout the home to signify Christ's humble birth. Walnuts and wheat are strewn in the four corners of the dining room with a prayer for health and prosperity.
Christmas Eve Supper
The meatless Christmas Eve supper, depending on the family and the region, might consist of bakalar with potatoes (codfish), tuna salad, prebranac (a layered bean and onion dish), meatless sarma (stuffed cabbage), djuvece (a rice-and-vegetable casserole), nuts in the shell, fresh and dried fruits, and cookies made without dairy and eggs.
Christmas Day Rituals
Mir Boziji! Hristos se Rodi! is the greeting on Christmas Day, Jan. 7, which means "Peace of God! Christ is Born!." The response is Voistinu Hristos se Rodi! ("Indeed, He is born!").
Prayers and hymn singing precede the breaking of a bread known as česnica, which takes center stage on the Christmas table.
The word česnica is derived from the Serbian word čest, meaning "share." And that is how the bread is eaten—at a communal table where it is rotated three times counterclockwise before each person tears off a piece. In some homes, the host tears off a piece for every person present and one extra piece for the polozajnik (poh-loh-ZHAY-nik) or First Guest.
This ceremonial round bread varies by region and might be a simple peasant bread, a sweet bread, or even something akin to pogacha. What seems to remain constant is that a silver coin is baked inside, which will bring luck to the one who finds it.
Also on the table is a container of wheatgrass that was planted on St. Nicholas Day, symbolizing a good harvest, usually festooned with a ribbon and a lighted candle. After toasting with slivovitz (plum brandy) or warm vruca rakija (a potent blend of whiskey and slivovitz with honey and spices), wheat grains are sprinkled over the guests for luck and prosperity. Only then does the feasting begin.
The meal is lavish with pecenica (roast pork), meat sarma (stuffed cabbage), baked ham, sausage, roast potatoes, parslied potatoes, and desserts galore—nutroll, cheese strudel, apple strudel, drum torte—fresh and dried fruits and, of course, slivovitz and strong, dark Turkish coffee.
The Polozajnik—First Guest
After dinner, Christmas Day is spent receiving and visiting friends and family. The first visitor to one's home on Christmas Day is known as the polozajnik or poleznik. A special gift is prepared for this First Guest (in the old days in Serbia, it was a scarf or wool stockings) and he or she is given the reserved piece of česnica. The polozajnik, whether young or old, male or female, is said to come in the name of God with best wishes.
In the old days, the polozajnik would take a branch from the badnjak and stir up the fire in the hearth. The more sparks (representing God's blessings for the family) he or she created, the better.
Serbian Christmas Memories
Radmila Milivojevic, of Chesterton, Ind., grew up in Kučevo, in the northern part of Serbia, and came to the United States in 1957 to begin her life with her new husband. She has fond memories of Christmas in Serbia.
"On Christmas Eve night, my father would go outside and prepare a bundle of straw. My sisters and brother stood behind him as he knocked on our front door. My mother would ask, 'Who is this coming?' and father would say, 'I am the one bringing you health and happiness for the year.'
"My mother then would open the door and sprinkle him with wheat as a sign of luck and prosperity. Father would lay the straw on the floor, and we would cover it with a tablecloth and have our Christmas Eve dinner, but not before walnuts were tossed in the four corners of the room.
"After dinner, the tablecloth was removed and the children were allowed to lay their comforters and blankets on the straw to sleep on. "This was very exciting for a child. The straw would remain in the house for three days and on the fourth, it was swept up," Milivojevic says.
Because her father had a store in Serbia that sold ornaments, her family had a Christmas tree with real candles clipped to the branches, walnuts wrapped in colorful tinfoil, sugar cubes, and candies in the images of saints, in addition to the traditional badjnak.