Probably the most confusing thing about Serbia to foreigners —after the fact that it is not Siberia— is that Christmas is celebrated on 7 January. Technically, however, it is not.
It is celebrated on 25 December according to the Julian calendar, which is still in use by the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, this calendar is 13 days out of sync with the more commonly used Gregorian one, making the Christmas season a bit longer in Serbia.
For the Serbian diaspora, this creates some inconvenience, as they have to work over their Christmas given that many countries don’t follow the Serbian practice of providing days off for one’s own religious festivals. However, for the rest of us there are some upsides.
Firstly, as Orthodox Christmas is almost equidistant from excesses of the New Year’s Eve and Serbian New Year’s Eve (on January 13) and falls in the brief window when New Year’s resolutions are still upheld, people tend to be on their best behaviour.
Secondly, given New Year’s Eve in Serbia took on many attributes of Western (or rather, Anglo-American) Christmas, including the Christmas tree, frenzied consumerism and Santa (here called Deda Mraz -Grandpa Frost), Serbian Christmas benefits from the lack of stress related to gift-giving and home decorating.
However, we have a whole bunch of weird and wonderful traditions of our own, some drawing from pre-Christian times.
The days leading up to Christmas are rather jolly. In the three consecutive Sundays before Christmas, each family member has a turn— first children, then mothers, then fathers (detinici, materice and ocevi) —at being tied up and ransoming themselves. Then there is Tucindan, falling two days before Christmas, when animals who will end up as the Christmas roast are first hit in the head with a bag of salt and then slaughtered.
The celebrations proper begin on Badnji Dan (Christmas Eve), named after badnjak, an oak branch that is the local variant of the Christmas tree. In the olden days badnjak was ceremoniously harvested from a nearby forest at the crack of dawn by the men of the household, but now most people get it from a church or the market. To those who want to make home resemble a manger, some families throw hay, coins and corn around their dining rooms on Badnji dan. However, most just leave out the leftover decorations from the New Year’s Eve.
At dusk on Christmas Eve, badnjak is taken inside and set alight. Those wary of indoor pyrotechnics can skip the indoor pyrotechnics and go out to a public badnjak burning instead.
The largest pyre in Belgrade is by St. Sava Temple in Belgrade, but beware of the mischievous youths who throw firecrackers into the blaze. After the log burning is done, many head to church for the midnight service and/or get mulled wine or rakija with friends.
As January 7 marks the end of the 40-day long Nativity fast, during which Serbs are meant to abstain from eating meat and dairy products, Orthodox Christmas lunch is usually a lavish affair only rivalled by Slavas in opulence.
The centrepiece is a pork roast, as pigs have historically been a big deal in Serbia. In the Ottoman times, pigs were the only animals that could not be forcibly seized due to their impure status in Islam, which led to the meat becoming a mainstay of Serbs diets. Indeed, pigs became so popular that a boar’s head was even used as an emblem of Serbia until the mid-19th century.
Another traditional dish is cesnica, a bread made especially for Christmas. People living in different regions of Serbia use different ingredients – my personal favourite is the honey and walnut variant from the Vojvodina region – but all have one thing in common: a coin is hidden inside and whoever finds it in their slice will have good fortune for the year ahead.
For some reason, children of the family tend to win at this game. After the feast, in more magically inclined families, elders use the leftover pork shoulder blades to make out what the future holds.
The remainder of the day is usually spent digesting the feast or doing things one intends to do in the coming year, as starting things on Christmas is considered very auspicious.
After a day of family bonding, everybody looks forward to drinks on Serbian New Year’s Eve, which is the last flash of the festive season in Serbia.