Christmas for Serbs who are Christian Orthodox, comes two weeks later than that of Roman Catholics. Serbs do not celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but on January 7th, while they celebrate New Year on January 13th rather than on December 31st. This is because the Serbs follow the Julian calendar, while Roman Catholics follow the Gregorian calendar.
The Gregorian reformation of the calendar came into force on 1582. It made corrections in the Julian calendar, the ten days from October 5th to 14th were canceled. Of course, not all countries changed over to the Gregorian calendar at that time. Germany, for instance, didn’t accepted the Gregorian calendar until 1775, while Bulgaria didn’t do so until 1917!
Serbs, like the most other people, accepted officially the Gregorian calendar, but all holidays, specially of cultural or religious contents, were celebrated according to the Julian calendar.
Badnje Vece – Christmas Eve: January 6th
On the day before Christmas, the 6th of January, Serbs celebrate Badnje Vece. It is necessary to prepare badnjak (yule log) in advance. The Christmas Eve got its name from the badnjak tree. Actually badnjak is the most beautiful young oak that one can find in the woods.
The 6th of January, in the morning, the habit is to go in search of badnjak (oak branches with leaves). When the right one is found, it is necessary to cut it and bring it to the door of the home and to leave it there.
Kissing the Badnjak
In the villages, where one still can find homes with old-fashioned hearths, the custom is that the father and the oldest sun go out to pick up the badnjak and to knock on the door of their home. Mother opens the door. Entering, they should say to the mother: "Welcome to you Badnje Vece! ("Christmas Eve")" and take the badnjak to the fireplace and place it on the fire to augure good fortune.
The custom is also to put straw around the fireplace, to simulate the connection with the earth. Usually, Serbs put coins, walnuts, almonds, dry figs on the straw, all the gifts for the children.
The traditional January 6th supper for Serbs is religious dietary meals, usually fish.
Christmas Eve supper is very interesting. It is very rich even if it is always meatless meal. Symbolically the food is always related to the world of death – baked beans, fish, dryed figs, dryed plums and apples.
At the end of supper, all the rests of the food should be left on the table and covered with a tablecloth, until Christmas morning. The belief is that during the night the spirits of the dead come to eat the food left for them. This way Christmas Eve has the character of All Souls’ Day.
Before going to bed it is very important to cover the badnjak with hot ash so it will burn slowly to the following morning.
Christmas and the Polozajnik
In the morning of January 7th, Christmas, the first person that enters the home is called "polozajnik". This person should stoke the fire in the fireplace and say the following:
"How many sparks, that much sheep. How many sparks, that much money. How many sparks, that much health!"
The Polozajnik is then offered the "zito" (boiled wheat Christmas speciality) and black wine. The guest makes the sign of the cross and eats a bit of the "zito"and drinks some wine.
Before lunch, while the fire is burning, the tradition is to place the pork or turkey to roast slowly for Christmas dinner.
Breakfast and the cicvara
For breakfast the habit is to prepare "cicvara" (a dish made of flour, eggs, butter and cheese). On the table are served also small dry cakes, dry figs and the famous plum brandy called "Sljivovica". Usually the "Sljivovica" served is home made and at least ten years old! Another custom is to prepare a bowl in which young wheat is planted to grow during the forth coming year. The meaning is should be fertile and that the family will have luck.
All persons gather around the table, family and guests, while the father lights the candle. That moment marks the start of "mirbozenje" (peace and reconciliation). Participants than kiss one another at Christmas time while saying: "Mir Bozji". If there were any disagreement, all are forgotten.
During the entire Christmas day a custom is to replace a classic: "Hello" or "Good day" with "Christ is born!":
"Hristos se rodi"
And to reply the greeting with "Really born!":
"Vaistinu se rodi"
Nowadays it’s a habit to call relatives or friends by phone and instead of saying a classic "good morning", one says:
"Hristos se rodi!".
Lunch and the Cesnica
On Christmas day, lunch gets underway earlier than usual and lasts longer. The menu is very rich (see recipes). In contrast to Christmas Eve that relates to All Souls’ Day, Christmas relates to the cult of agriculture.
Nowadays, in the cities, before lunch the family throws the straw under the table (man’s relation to the earth).
Traditionally essential part of the Christmas dinner is a type of flat, round Christmas bread called "cesnica".
It is prepared using stalk of the last weat harvest filling them with kernels of different grains.
Christmas bread is made of flaky dough in which a gold or silver coin is imbedded. In ancient times it was a ducat, nowadays a coin of great value.
"Cesnica" is always very nicely decorated with braids, birds or roses made of dough.
Christmas roast pork
The traditional Christmas day menu must include a piglet roasted over the fire of oak tree logs!
As this is possible only in the villages, families in the cities almost always order their Christmas pork roast from bakers who exclusively use oak for the roasting fire.
Symbolically the Christmas day meal marks the end of the period of abstinence as well as a ritual in which the food and the pork is considered a sacrifice made to god. All the members of the family must taste the roast pork and cesnica.
Other traditional Christmas table foods include "sarma" made of stuffed sauerkraut leaves, the soup and, in the area of serbia once ruled by the Austo-Hungarian Empire, a dense soup dish called "corba".
The desserts usually include three kind of cakes and small cookies.
The candle that burns all day is blown out in the evening with red wine.