Thursday Thirteen

13 things about my beautiful Orthodox Christmas:

OK I just came back from my Christmas “vacation” (I’ve spent Christmas with my family) and thought to write about how we celebrate Christmas here.

1. First to explain why Orthodox Christians are celebrating Christmas 7th January? It’s simple: four Orthodox Churches (Russian Church, monasteries on Holly Mount Athos, Jerusalem Patriarchy and Serbian Church) are following Julian calendar (which is 13 days behind Gregorian calendar (which is official one) so actually we are celebrating Christmas on 25th December as well 🙂
The Gregorian reformation of the calendar came into force in 1582. It made corrections to the Julian calendar. Like everybody else, we fully accepted the new calendar, but all of our holidays are still celebrated according to the Julian calendar.

2. It’s stupid to say that Christmas is very religious holiday. But here, Christmas is probably the most religious holiday of all. It’s not about shopping but about feelings and tradition. It’s very spiritual and not material holiday. There is no shopping fever at all (except for Christmas traditional dinner)

3. Something that is typical and very important in Orthodox Christianity is Lent.
There are few important Lents during the year (also each Wednesday and Friday with few exceptions are Lent days) but Christmas (and Easter) Lents are the biggest ones.
Christmas Lent lasts 40 days and during that period people should purify their bodies as well as souls. In practice that means:
You should eat ONLY vegetables and fruits (and their products), fish and honey. Meat, milk (and dairy products), eggs, lard and other animal products are forbidden.
And unfortunately that is where is frontier for majority.
Equally (and probably more) important part of Lent is that spiritual. Lent is period of forgiveness and positive thoughts (and works) etc.
(of course, having sex is part of meaty and milky menu)

4. Very important thing during the Lents is confession.
If someone is preparing for confession s/he has to obey more strictly Lent: Food prepared ONLY on water without any vegetable that contains oil (olive, sunflower, walnut, fish too etc). The most common (or at least that’s what I’m doing) people are having strict Lent one week (usually first one) and at the end of that week they make confessions. After it they eat either usual food (meat) except Wednesday and Fridays and last Lent’s week, or eat food for normal Lent (not strict).

5. Day before Christmas (6th Jan) is Badnje Veče (Christmas Eve) and it’s very important and full of specific customs (even more than Christmas). The name for our Christmas Eve actually got its name from the badnjak tree (Yule log). Badnjak is branch of an oak.

Oak is holly tree for Serbs and roots of that custom is probably from the pagan times. Later that belief has been Christianized. Each village in Serbia has on its periphery one (or one on each four sides) huge oak as a protector.
It is a custom that the father and the oldest son of a household go out on the morning of January 6 in search of the right 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.
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 nock on the door of their home. Mother opens the door. Entering, they should say to the mother: “Welcome to you Badnje Veče! (“Christmas Eve”)” and take the badnjak to the fireplace and place it on the fire to augur good fortune.

The burning of the badnjak is a ritual which is as I wrote most certainly of pagan origin and it is considered a sacrifice to God so that the coming year may bring plenty of food, happiness, love, luck and riches.

Today, as most Serbs live in cities, badnjak could be bought at a marketplace like Christmas tree, or is sometimes received in church after church service. Often just a little oak branch, badnjak is lit at home symbolically.

6. The custom is also to put straw around the fireplace (or somewhere in the living room), to simulate the connection with the earth. Usually, we put coins, walnuts, almonds, dry figs on the straw, all the gifts for the children. That’s very fun since the children suppose to chirp like chicken while they searching gifts in a straw.

This is my niece in the straw last Christmas (don’t have photos from this year)

7. 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, dried figs, dried plums and apples.

For example the most common dish is “Pijani Šaran” (Drunken Carp):
Carp (2kg weight) should be prepared for baking; put salt on/into the carp; make several cuts from head to the tail and in those cuts put sliced garlic. Carp in covered dish put in heated oven. Bake 40 min and every 5-10 min pour it over with “sauce” prepared from white wine, tiny sliced garlic, sliced leaves of parsley and celery and 7-8 spoons of vegetable oil. Serve with lemon and potato salad.

8. 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.

9. Also day before Christmas is the day for prepare so called ”pečenica which is piglet roasted over the fire of oak tree logs
Of course it will be eaten tomorrow on Christmas.

10. In the morning of January 7th, Christmas, the first person that enters the home is called “položajnik”. 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 Položajnik is then offered the “zito” (boiled wheat Christmas speciality) and red (black)wine. The guest makes the sign of the cross and eats a bit of the “zito” and drinks some wine.

11. 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” (peace of God). 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: “Hristos se rodi” (Christ is born!) and as greeting in reply: “Vaistinu se rodi” (“Really born!” or “He has been born indeed!”). Nowadays it’s a habit to call relatives or friends by phone and instead of saying a classic “good morning”, we say: “Hristos se rodi!”
It might sound silly to you but we are actually doing this.

12. On Christmas day, lunch gets underway earlier than usual and lasts longer. The menu is very rich. 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 “česnica”.

It is prepared using stalk of the last wheat harvest filling them with kernels of different grains. However in part where I live it’s more like some kind of pie with dry fig, raisins, honey and walnuts.
Anyhow a solid silver coin along with wood and a bean for health and good luck is placed into česnica. family members break the česnica and the one who finds the coin in it is considered to be most fortunate that year; however, the head of the family has to buy the coin so it stays in the house. Sometimes, there are other things put in česnica, like piece of badnjak (that’s what I found) ,– good luck , hazelnut – health, plum – traveling, etc

Families in the cities almost always order their Christmas pork roast from bakers who exclusively use oak for the roasting fire.

Symbolicly 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.

13. In Serbia Christmas is celebrating three days and during those days we are saying traditional Christmas greeting “Hristos se rodi”; “Vaistinu se rodi”.
It’s also great custom which gathers whole family because tradition says that you should spend Christmas Holidays in your home with your family.

I hope this TT was interesting to you (in spite its length)