Christmas in Belgrade

Like with many thing, I only became aware of the joys of Serbian Christmas (explainer of what that means, and why it is on Jan 7 here), when I could no longer enjoy them.

The day when it happened was 6 Jan 2008, at Heathrow,  and during the train trip to the outskirts of Coventry, UK where I was going for my second term at Warwick. Although I loved my university,  I still remember that empty, defeated feeling of having to spend Christmas without your family, alone, unfestively hauling bags from one place to another.

It was that awful, that I now wonder why I did not use the flexibility of student life to come back a few days later. It was probably because, having grown up in a very secular family where work ad travel trumped things like birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, I did not even register it as something that could matter to me a lot.

Nevertheless, a few years that I had to (or I guess, decided to) skip Christmas with my family, burned in me the desire to celebrate properly whenever I can.

For me, that starts with going to the burning of the Badnjak in front of St Sava Temple in Vracar with my friends on Christmas eve, and getting tipsy on mulled wine and rakija after (and occasionally before) the midnight liturgy. On Christmas morning I try to write and exercise to ensure writerly success and fitness in the coming year, and then head to my parents place for the traditional feast. Once there, after exchanging gifts, we collectively try to navigate all touchy subjects, before plunging into a pre-feast shouting match. Then I burn incense and recite the only prayer I know to give the air of religion.  After that, we burn the badnjak on our small terrace: every year, I try to make the flame more power but my mother panics and douses it with water just as soon I realise that I do not know how to control it properly.  During the meal, as we break cesnica, the ceremonial bread (or in our case pie), I try to fool my mother so she or my dad get the “prize” of an old coin, instead of me; I do that in equal measure to ensure their good luck in the coming year, but also to show to them that I am no longer a child who does not realise that the system is rigged.

If the weather is nice I try to beat the food and alcohol coma and go for a walk through deserted Belgrade. Walk or no walk, sweating from the amount of food I had, I have a nap, which kind of brings everything to a close.

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