Serbian Christmas traditions are customs and practices of the Serbs associated with Christmas and a period encompassing it, between the third Sunday before Christmas Day and Epiphany. There are many, complex traditions connected with this period. They vary from place to place, and in many areas have been updated or watered down to suit modern living. The Serbian name for Christmas is Božić (Cyrillic: Божић, pronounced [ˈbɔ̌ʒitɕ]), which is the diminutive form of the word bog "god", and can be translated as "young god". Christmas is celebrated for three consecutive days, starting with Christmas Day, which the Serbs call the first day of Christmas.[note 1] On these days, one is to greet another person with "Christ is Born," which should be responded to with "Truly He is Born," or in Serbian: „Христос се роди“ [ˈxristɔs sɛ ˈrɔdi] – „Ваистину се роди“ [ˈʋaistinu sɛ ˈrɔdi].
Christmas EveThe Serbian name for Christmas Eve during the day is Badnji dan. After sunset it becomes Badnje veče.[note 2] On this day the family makes preparations for the oncoming celebration. The dinner on this day is festive, copious and diverse in foods, although it is prepared in accordance with the rules of fasting.
BadnjakThe badnjak is an oak log or branch brought into the house and placed on the fire on the evening of Christmas Eve, much like a yule log in other European traditions. There are many regional variations surrounding the customs and practices connected with the badnjak.
Early in the morning the head of each family, usually accompanied by several male relatives, selects and fells the tree from which the log will be cut for their household. The group announces its departure by firing guns or small celebratory mortars called prangija. The Turkey oak is the most popular species of tree selected in most regions, but other oaks, or less frequently other kinds of tree, are also chosen. Generally, each household prepares one badnjak, although more are cut in some regions.
When the head of household finds a suitable tree, he stands in front of it facing east. After throwing grain at the tree, he greets it with the words "Good morning and happy Christmas Eve to you", makes the Sign of the Cross, says a prayer, and kisses the tree. He then cuts it slantwise on its eastern side, using an axe. The tree should fall to the east, unhindered by surrounding trees. Its top is removed, leaving the badnjak of such a length that allows it to be carried on a man's shoulder, up to about 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) long. Once in the home, each badnjak is leaned vertically against the house beside the entrance door. In some areas, the badnjak is cut into three logs.
In the evening, a man of the family brings their badnjak into the house. If there is more than one badnjak, the thickest of them is regarded as the main one, and is brought in first. Stepping across the threshold, right foot first, the man greets his gathered family with the words "Good evening and happy Christmas Eve to you." The woman of the house greets him back, saying "May God give you well-being, and may you have good luck", or "Good luck to you, and together with you for many years to come [may we be]", or similar, before throwing grain from a sieve at the man and the badnjak he carries.
Upon entering the house the man approaches the fireplace, called ognjište ([ˈɔɡɲiːʃtɛ])—the hearth of an ognjište is similar to a campfire, in that it has no vertical surround. He lays the badnjak down on the fire and moves it a little forward, to summon prosperity for the household. Any other logs are brought in by other males and laid on the fire parallel or perpendicular to the first. The head of the household takes a jug of wine and pours some on the badnjak; in some regions, he may strew wheat grains over the logs. He then proposes a toast: "Grant, O God, that there be health and joy in this home, that our grain and grapevines yield well, that children be born healthy to us, that our property increase in the field, pen, and barn!" or similar. The head drinks a draught of wine from the jug, after which it is passed to other members of household. When the log has burnt through, some families let the fire go out, while in others the men keep watch in shifts during the night to keep the badnjak burning.
Another type of the badnjak that has developed among the Serbs has mostly replaced the traditional log, whose burning is usually unfeasible in modern homes. It is a cluster of oak twigs with their brown leaves still attached, with which the home is decorated on the Eve. This cluster is also called the badnjak, and it is usually kept in the home until next Christmas Eve. For the convenience of those living in towns and cities, such little badnjaks can be bought at marketplaces or distributed in churches. In a common arrangement, the cluster of oak twigs is bound together with twigs of European Cornel and several stalks of straw.
Since the early 1990s the Serbian Orthodox Church has, together with local communities, organized public celebrations on Christmas Eve. There are typically three elements to such celebrations: the preparation, the ritual, and the festivity. The preparation consists of cutting down the tree to be used as the badnjak, taking it to the church yard, and preparing drink and food for the assembled parishioners. The ritual includes Vespers, placing the badnjak on the open fire built in the church yard, blessing or consecrating the badnjak, and an appropriate program with songs and recitals. In some parishes they build the fire on which to burn the badnjak not in the church yard but at some other suitable location in their town or village. The festivity consists of gathering around the fire and socializing. Each particular celebration has its own specific traits however, reflecting the traditions of the local community.
Christmas strawImmediately after the badnjak has been brought in, or immediately before in some places, an armful of straw is spread over the floor. The straw is usually brought in with the same greetings and throwing of grain as the badnjak. The person spreading it may imitate a hen clucking to call her chicks, "Kvo, kvo, kvo", with the family's children imitating chicks, "Piju, piju, piju", while they pick at the straw. A common custom is to scatter a handful of walnuts over the straw.
In Petar II Petrović-Njegoš's poem The Mountain Wreath, the plot of which takes place in 18th-century Montenegro, the holiday atmosphere on Christmas Eve is described through the words of Abbot Stefan, a main character of the poem:
|Ватра плама боље него игда,
прострта је слама испред огња,
прекршћени на огњу бадњаци;
пушке пучу, врте се пецива,
гусле гуде, а кола пјевају,
с унучађу ђедови играју,
по три паса врте се у кола,
све би река једногодишници;
све радошћу дивном наравњено.
А што ми се највише допада,
што свачему треба наздравити!
Christmas Eve DinnerOnce the badnjak and straw have been taken into the house, the Christmas Eve dinner may begin. The head of household makes the Sign of the Cross, lights a candle, and censes the whole house. In some regions it is a custom that he then goes out into the yard, calls by name pest animals (e.g. wolves, foxes, and hawks) and his personal enemies, inviting them, "Come to dinner now and again in a year, God willing." This is intended to protect the household from them for a year.
Until the beginning of the 20th century in the Pirot District, south-eastern Serbia, the head of household would go out to his woodpile,[note 3] where he would invite German (pronounced [ˈɡerman]) – a male mythological being associated with bringing rain and hail. He would take with him a loaf of bread called good luck, prepared particularly for this ritual, rakia, wine, and a wax candle. At the woodpile, he would shout three times, "German, German, wherever you are, come to dinner right now, and in the summer do not let me see your eyes anywhere!" He would then light the candle, take a sip of rakia, taste some bread, drink wine, and go back into his house. Asked what happened with German, he would answer, "He came, so we dined and drank amply of rakia and wine, and then we parted." This ritual was intended to prevent summer hailstorms.
Before the table is served, it is strewn with a thin layer of straw and covered with a white cloth. The family members sit down at the table. Prior to tucking in, they all rise and a man or boy among them says a prayer, or they together sing the Troparion of the Nativity in Church Slavonic language:
Following dinner, young people visit their friends, a group of whom may gather at the house of one of them. The elderly narrate stories form the olden times. Christmas songs are sung, in which Christmas is treated as a male personage. The Serbian name for Christmas is Božić, which is the diminutive form of the noun bog "god", and can be translated as "young god". An old Christmas song from the Bay of Kotor has the following lyrics:
|Božić zove svrh planine, one visoke:
„Veselite se, Srbi braćo, vrijeme vi je!
Nalagajte krupna drva, ne cijepajte!
Sijecite suvo meso, ne mjerite!
Prostirite šenič' slamu mjesto trpeze,
a po slami trpežnjake, svilom kićene!
A odaje i pendžere lovoričicom!
A ikone i stolove masliničicom!
Utočite rujna vina, rujna crvena,
i rakije lozovače prve bokare!
Vi, đevojke i nevjeste, kola igrajte,
a vi, staro i nejako, Boga molite!“
|Божић сједи у травици,
у црвеној кабаници.
Божић виче иза воде:
„Пренес'те ме преко воде;
не шаљ'те ми старе бабе,
старе бабе темрљаве,
не шаљ'те ми дјевојака,
дјевојке су ђаволасте,
не шаљ'те ми невјестице,
већ ми шаљ'те домаћина
да ме превезе,
домаћин ће славити ме
In central Serbia, once the household members have gone to bed, an elderly woman of the family sticks a knife into the house door from the inside. Alternatively, she puts a hawthorn stake by the door, hanging a wreath of garlic on it. This is done as a protection against curses, witches, and demons. For the same reason, children are rubbed with garlic on the palms, armpits, and soles before going to bed. In some regions, the men keep watch in shifts by the fireplace during the night, to keep the fire burning.
ChristmasOn Christmas Day, the celebration is announced at dawn by church bells, and by shooting from guns and prangijas. The head of household and some of the family go to church to attend the Morning Liturgy. No one is to eat anything before tasting the prosphora, which the head of household brings from church for those who stay at home to do domestic tasks for this morning.
The Serbs native to the Slovenian region of White Carniola try to see only healthy and prosperous people on this day. The Serbs of Timiş County in Romania have since the interwar period adopted the custom of erecting in their homes a Christmas tree, which they call krisindla, after the German Christkindl. On Christmas Day children sing little songs, at the beginning of which Christmas is said to knock or tread loudly. This may be understood as a theophany: by the sound, Young God makes his arrival known to people. The following are the lyrics of two of such songs:
|Божић штапом бата,
носи сува злата
од врата до врата.
На чија ће врата
дат' благослов, злата?
На наша ће врата
просут' шаку злата.
PolaznikA polaznik, polažajnik, polaženik, or radovan, is the first person who visits the family on Christmas Day. This visit may be fortuitous or pre-arranged. People expect that it will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuing year. A family often picks in advance a man or boy, and arranges that he visit them on Christmas morning. If this proves to be lucky for the family, he is invited again next year to be the polaznik. If not, they send word to him not to come any more in that capacity.
A polaznik steps into the house with his right foot first, greeting the gathered family, "Christ is Born, Happy Christmas." He carries grain in his glove, which he shakes out before the threshold, or throws at the family members. They respond with "Truly He is Born," and throw grain at the polaznik. He then 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 (or similar):
|Колико варница, толико среће у овој кући.
Колико варница, толико у домаћинском џепу новаца.
Колико варница, толико у тору оваца.
Колико варница, толико прасади и јагањаца.
Колико варница, толико гусака и пилади,
а највише здравља и весеља.
A custom to use a domestic animal as a polaznik was kept in some regions until the first half of the 20th century. A sheep, ox, swine, or calf was led into the house on Christmas morning. In the west Serbian region of Rađevina, centered on the town of Krupanj, the head of household would place a sheep between himself and the fireplace, and pronounce the aforementioned words while striking the badnjak with a branch cut from it. In the region of Bihor, north-eastern Montenegro, a round loaf of bread with a hole in its center was prepared; four grooves were impressed into its surface along two mutually perpendicular diameters of the loaf. After an ox was led into the house, the loaf was put on his horn, and some grain was thrown on the ox. Yanking his head, the ox would throw off the loaf; having fallen down, the loaf would break into four pieces along the grooves. The pieces were picked up and distributed among the family members. This custom was preserved up to the 1950s even in some Muslim families of the region. Ethnologists consider that the animal polažajnik is more ancient than the human one.
Strong waterA girl or woman goes early in the morning to a resource of water, as a well, spring, or stream. After she puts by the water an ear of maize and a bunch of basil which she has brought from home, she collects water with a bucket, and takes it home to her family. This water collected on early Christmas morning is called the strong water, and is believed to possess a special beneficial power. Each member of the family washes the face with it, and drinks it before breakfast; infants are bathed in it. On her way back home, the girl who carries the strong water picks several cornel or willow twigs, with which children are lightly struck that morning. This is intended to strengthen their health.[note 5]
ČesnicaAn indispensable part of Christmas dinner is the česnica, a round loaf of bread. The preparation of this bread may be accompanied by various rules and rituals. The dough for it is sometimes prepared with the strong water. A widespread custom is to put a coin into the dough; regionally, little objects made of cornel wood may be inserted, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, etc.
In addition to the česnica, other kinds of Christmas loaves may be baked, each with its specific name and purpose within the celebration. The božićni kolač is a round loaf with a Christogram impressed with a wooden seal on its upper surface. For each male member of the family a round loaf named ratarica may be prepared – the biggest one for the head, and the smallest one for the youngest boy. For each female member a pletenica may be baked, a loaf shaped like a three-strand braid
PečenicaOn Christmas Eve, the men of the family build a fire in their house yard, and roast a pig, or a sheep in some areas, on a long wooden spit. The whole roasted pig or sheep, called pečenica, is a traditional part of Christmas dinner. People who raise their own swine dedicate one for the pečenica a month or two before, and feed it with better fodder. It used to be killed on Tucindan, the day before Christmas Eve, by hitting on the head with a lump of salt. Its throat was then cut, the blood being collected and mixed with fodder. Feeding cattle with this mixture was believed to make them thrive. The name Tucindan is derived from the verb tući "to beat". The roasted pečenica may be brought into the house with a ritual similar to that of bringing in the badnjak.
Christmas dinner is the most celebratory meal a family has during a year. Аbout noon, or even earlier, the family members sit down at the table. When the head of household gives a sign, all rise. He lights a candle, censes his family and house, and prays the Lord's Prayer. After that, the family members kiss each other on the cheek saying, "The peace of God among us, Christ is Born." The head and another man of the family hold the česnica between themselves, rotating it three times counterclockwise. The česnica is then carefully broken among the relatives, so that each of them gets his or her own share of the loaf. The family member whose share contains the coin hidden in the česnica, will supposedly be exceptionally lucky in the coming year. The main course of Christmas dinner is roast pork of the pečenica. During the dinner, the head of household proposes a toast to his family with a glass of wine, several times. A traditional toast from parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina goes like this:
|Сјај Боже и Божићу,
кућњем шљемену и сјемену,
волу и тежаку, козици и овчици,
путнику намјернику, рибици у водици, птици у горици!
Сјај Боже и Божићу,
Мени домаћину и моме племену и шљемену!
KoledaThe koleda was a custom that a group of young men, masked and costumed, went from house to house of their village singing special koleda songs and performing acts of magic intended to summon health, wealth, and prosperity for each household. The members of the group were called koledari. The koleda was carried out from the Feast of Saint Ignatius Theophorus (five days before Christmas) up until the Epiphany. This custom was best preserved in the upper Pčinja District, and in the region around the River South Morava in the Jablanica District, southeastern Serbia. Regarded as pagan and discouraged by the Serbian Orthodox Church, the koleda ceased to be performed among most of the Serbs during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Koledari prepared themselves during several days before the start of the koleda: they practiced the koleda songs, and made their masks and costumes. The masks could be classified into three types according to the characters they represented: the anthropomorphic, the zoomorphic (representing bear, cow, stag, goat, sheep, ox, wolf, stork, etc.), and the anthropo-zoomorphic. The main material from which they were produced was hide. The face, however, could be made separately out of a dried gourd shell or a piece of wood, and then sewn to hide so that the mask could cover all the head. The moustache, beard, and eyebrows were made with black wool, horsehair, or hemp fibers, and the teeth with beans. Zoomorphic and anthropo-zoomorphic masks might have white, black, or red painted horns attached to them. The costumes were prepared from ragged clothes, sheepskins with the wool turned outside, and calf hides. An ox tail with a bell fixed at its end was sometimes attached at the back of them.
The leader of the group was called Grandpa. The other koledari gathered at his house on the eve of koleda, and at midnight they all went out and started their activities. Walking through the streets of the village they shouted and made noise with their bells and ratchets. Most were armed with sabers or clubs. One of them, called Bride, was masked and costumed as a pregnant woman. He held a distaff in his hand and spun hemp fibers. The koledari teased and joked with Bride, which gave a comic note to the koleda. Some of them were called alosniks, the men possessed by the demon ala. There could have been other named characters in the group.
The koledari sung special songs, in which the word koledo, the vocative case of koleda, was inserted in the middle and at the end of each verse. Vuk Stefanović Karadžić recorded in the 19th century the lyrics of a number of the koleda songs, including the following one, which koledari sung while entering a house:
|Добар вече, коледо, домаћине, коледо!
Затекосмо где вечера,
на трпези вино пије,
твој говедар код говеда.
Краве ти се истелиле,
све волове витороге;
кобиле се иждребиле,
све коњице путоноге;
овце ти се изјагњиле,
све овчице свилоруне.
Чобанин се наслонио
на гранчицу ораову.
Туд пролази млада мома,
да поткине ту гранчицу.
„Девојчице, бело лице,
ко ти реза борну сукњу,
у скутови разбориту,
у појасу сабориту?“
„Имам брата баш-терзију,
те ми реза борну сукњу,
у скутови разбориту,
у појасу сабориту.“
|Домаћине, коледо, господине, коледо!
Застасмо те за вечером,
где вечеру ти вечераш,
белим грлом вино пијеш,
и очима бисер бројиш,
и рукама гајтан плетеш.
Додај нама крај гајтана,
на чем ћемо Бога молит
за старога - за Бадњака,
за младога - за Божића.
VertepOn Christmas Eve and Day, a group of boys dressed in variegated costumes goes from house to house of their village carrying a vertep—a litter constructed as a wooden model of a house or a church. The name vertep comes from the Church Slavonic вєртє́пъ [ʋerˈtep] "cave", referring to the cave that housed the manger in which newborn Jesus Christ was laid. There are two dolls inside the litter: one represents the Theotokos, and the other, laid in a model of a manger, represents the Christ Child; the floor is spread with straw. This custom is called vertep, and the boys participating in it are the vertepaši. In front of each house they sing Christmas songs, and recite poems that praise the birth of Christ. Similarly to koledari, vertepaši are armed with wooden swords and fence with each other in front of houses. Vertep could be regarded as a Christianized form of the koleda. This custom is mainly present among the Serbs of Vojvodina.
Second and third day of ChristmasChristmas is celebrated for three days. On the second day of Christmas, neighbors visit each other. On the third day, Christmas straw is taken out of the house. Little bundles are made with it, and hung on fruit trees to make them fruit better. A bigger bundle may be stored in a dry place: it will be burned on St. George's Day, as a protection of fields against hail. Another bundle is taken away across the nearest stream – a symbolic elimination of all the vermin that may be present in the house. Men make crosses from the remnant of the thicker side of badnjak, and stick them under eaves, on fields, meadows, vineyards, and apiaries. It is believed this will help that the ensuing year be happy and fruitful. A good sign that this will be the case is when there is a lot of snow on Christmas Day.
The third day of Christmas coincides with St. Stephen's Day, which is the slava of many Serbian families. It is also the slava of Republika Srpska. In this way, many Serbs celebrate two important holidays, Christmas and slava, within three days.
Twelve Days of ChristmasDuring the Twelve Days of Christmas (7 January – 18 January on the Gregorian calendar), one is to greet another person with "Christ is Born," which should be responded to with "Truly He is Born," or in Serbian: „Христос се роди“ (pronounced [ˈxristɔs.sɛ ˈrɔdi]) – „Ваистину се роди“ [ˈʋa.istinusɛ ˈrɔdi].
January 14 on the Gregorian calendar corresponds to January 1, New Year's Day, on the Julian calendar; this holiday is also called Mali Božić "Little Christmas". In some regions, the head and the right Boston butt of the pečenica are set aside at the Christmas dinner, and are served for dinner on this day. A part of this meal may consist of little round loaves made with cornmeal and cream. The loaves are named vasilica after Saint Basil the Great, because January 1 is also the feast day of this saint. People versed in scapulimancy used the shoulder blade of the Boston butt to foretell events concerning the family in the ensuing year. The snout cut from the head of pečenica could have been used in love magic. If a girl looked stealthily through the snout at a boy she wanted, who was not interested in her, he would supposedly go mad about her.
On the day before Little Christmas, especially in south-eastern Serbia, a group of young unmarried men went through the streets of their village and chased away demons by making a deafening noise. Sirovari, as these men were called, shouted as loud as possible two words, "Sirovo burovo!" accompanied by the noise made with bells, ratchets, and horseshoes strung on a rope. The group consisted of seven, nine or eleven members; it was said that if there were an even number of sirovari, one of them would die within a year. Moving through the village, they tried to make it impossible for anyone to count them. They constantly changed positions in the group, hid and suddenly reappeared. Villagers were glad to receive them in their homes, and treated them with food and drink.
The following custom was recorded at the end of the 19th century in the north Dalmatian region of Bukovica. Early in the morning of Little Christmas, children of the family spread Christmas straw from their house around the stake in the center of their village's threshing floor. The use of this stake was to tether a horse to it; the animal was then driven around to thresh grain by treading with its hooves. The woman of the house baked a big round unleavened loaf of bread with a hole in its center, inscribed with circles, crosses, hooks, and other symbols on its surface. The loaf was taken to the threshing floor, and fixed round the stake. The oldest man of the family would take hold of the stake with his right hand above the loaf. With his left hand he held the right hand of the next oldest man, and so on to the youngest boy who could walk steadily. Holding hands in this manner, they would run around the stake three times. During the running they would shout in unison as loud as possible, "Ajd ajde, koba moja!" meaning "Giddy-up, my mare!" – except for the man holding the stake, who would shout, "De! De! De!" meaning "Go! Go! Go!" They would then take the hollow loaf back home, and put it near the fireplace beside the remnant of badnjak. The woman of the house would "feed them fodder", i.e., prepare a meal for them, consisting of đevenica (a sort of dried sausage), roast pork, and the hollow loaf, plus rakia for the adults. Having eaten, they would go back to the threshing floor and repeat the whole ritual, only this time without the loaf. In the end, they would collect Christmas straw from the threshing floor; it was put in hens' nests to prevent them from laying eggs outside the nests. This custom was considered as especially joyful for children.
The last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, January 18 (January 5 on the Julian calendar), is the eve of the Epiphany. Its folk name is Krstovdan[note 6] – the Day of the Cross. This is a strict fast day; the adults should eat almost nothing. It was believed that the north, south, east, and west winds crossed each other on Krstovdan. The wind that overpowered the other three, would be dominant in the ensuing year.
This twelve-day period used to be called the unbaptized days, during which the demonic forces of all kinds were considered to be more than usually active and dangerous. People were cautious not to attract their attention, and did not go out late at night. The latter precaution was especially because of the demons called karakondžula, imagined as heavy, squat, and ugly creatures. When a karakondžula found someone outdoors during the night of an unbaptized day, it would jump on his back, and make him carry it wherever it wanted. This torture would end only when roosters announced the dawn; at that moment the creature would release its victim and run away.
GiftsGift giving on Christmas is not a Serbian tradition—instead, gifts are given on the three Sundays before Christmas Day. These three holidays are called Detinjci or Djetinjci, Materice, and Oci. Children give gifts on Detinjci, married women on Materice, and married men on Oci. The best presents are exchanged between parents and their children.
The gifts are given in the form of a ransom. In the morning of Detinjci, the adults use a belt, rope, or scarf to tie their and neighbors' children, binding their legs. The children have already prepared presents for this event, with which they "pay the ransom" and get untied. In the morning of Materice, the children suddenly tie their mother, who asks, as if surprised, why she has been tied. The children then wish a happy Feast of Materice to her, and she pays the ransom with the prepared presents. They may do the same with married women from their neighborhood. Mothers prepare a family feast on this day. In the morning of Oci, the Sunday immediately before Christmas Day, the children tie their father. Out of these three holidays, Materice is the most festive. It's worth noting that majority of Serbian population however does not follow the traditions of "Detinjci, Materice and Oci". Churches in small rural villages will usually provide local children with gifts before Christmas.
A wonderful serbian Christmas song. Lyrics by st. Nikolai Velimirovich (more songs here)