Christmas for Serbs who are Christian Ortodox, 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. 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.
The Serbian name for Christmas is Božić.
The Serbian name for Christmas Eve during the day is Badnji dan. After sunset it becomes Badnje veče. 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. Groups of young people go from house to house, congratulating the holiday, singing, and making performances; this continues through the next three days.
Early in the morning the head of each family, usually accompanied by several male relatives, selects and fells the tree from whicha 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 are also chosen. Beech, pear, quince, hornbeam, and plum trees are used in eastern Serbia, although less frequently than oak trees. Once in the home, each badnjak is leaned vertically against the house beside the entrance door.
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.
Once 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.
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:
Christmas Eve being a fast day, the dinner is prepared in accordance with that, but it is copious and diverse in foods. Besides a round unleavened loaf of bread called badnjački kolač, and salt, which are necessary, this meal may comprise e.g. roast fish, cooked beans, sauerkraut, noodles with ground walnuts, honey, and wine. It used to be served in some villages on a sack filled with straw, with the family seated around it on the floor
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.
It is a custom in Banat that, after Christmas Eve dinner, groups of children go from house to house of their neighborhood and sing to neighbors. This custom is called korinđanje, and the children who participate in it are called korinđaši. They knock on a neighbor’s door or ring the doorbell; when the neighbor comes out they greet him, and ask if they are allowed to sing. If the answer is affirmative, they sing a children’s ditty or the Troparion of the Nativity. As a reward, the neighbor gives them candies or even money; more traditional gifts include walnuts, prunes, apples, and cakes.
Christmas Day is in fact only the first day of Christmas. 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 will bring from church for those who stay at home to do domestic tasks for this morning.
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:
A polažajnik, called also polaženik, polaznik, or radovan, is the first person who visits a family during Christmas. 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 polažajnik. If not, they send word to him not to come any more in that capacity.
A polažajnik 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. “Truly He is Born,” they respond throwing grain at him. The polažajnik then approaches theognjište, 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):
Pečenica. Having said that, he moves the log a little forward and throws a coin into the fire. The woman of the house puts a woolen blanket on the polažajnik’s back, and seats him on a low stool by the ognjište. In the moment when he sits down, they try to pull away the stool beneath him, as if to make him fall on the floor. The polažajnik goes out into the yard, and throws grain inside a circle made with the rope with which Christmas straw has been tied, calling chickens. When they gather in the circle he catches a rooster, whose head is then cut off by him or the head of household on the house’s threshold. The rooster will be roasted on a wooden spit as a part of Christmas dinner. A polažajnik usually stays for dinner at his hosts’ home. He is gifted a round cake with an embedded coin, and a towel, shirt, socks, or some other useful thing.
A modern version of the custom to make sparks fly from the badnjak is adapted to houses without an ognjište. Several oak twigs, which symbolically represent a badnjak, are put on fire in a wood-burning kitchen stove. The polažajnik stirs them with a poker saying the aforementioned words.
A custom to use a domestic animal as a polažajnik 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 in the town Krupanj, the head of household would place a sheep between himself and the ognjište, 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 him. Yanking his head, the ox would throw off the loaf; having fallen down, it 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.
In the morning of Christmas Day, or more often Eve, men build a fire in the house yard, and roast a pig, or more rarely a sheep (pečenica) on a long wooden spit. 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, meaning ‘to beat’. The pig is now usually slaughtered on the same day when it will be cooked. Those who roast thepečenica on Christmas Eve, bring it after the roasting into the house with the ritual similar to that of bringing in the badnjak.
An essential feature of Christmas dinner is a česnica, which is a round loaf of bread. Dough for ačesnica is made with strong water. While it is kneaded, a golden or silver coin is put into it. Some people put also little objects made of cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, etc. In addition to a česnica, other kinds of Christmas loaves may be regionally baked, each with its specific name and purpose within the celebration. A božićni kolač, meaning Christmas cake, is despite its name a round loaf of bread. Before baking, a Christogram is impressed on its upper side with a wooden seal. For each male member of the family a round loaf named ratarica is made – the biggest one for the head, and the smallest one for the youngest boy. As for the female members, for each of them apletenica is prepared, a loaf shaped like a three-strand braid – the biggest one for the woman of the house, and the smallest one for the youngest girl. A set of little loaves is baked with a different symbol inscribed on the upper side of each of them, representing: a vineyard, barrel, hoof, ox, cow with a calf, sow with a piglet, ewe with a lamb, mare with a foal, hen with chicks, plow, hand of a sower, goose, or pigeon.
Family members break a česnica at the beginning of Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner is the most celebratory meal a family has during a year. In the early afternoon the family members sit down at the table. When the head of household gives a sign, all rise. He lights a candle, incenses his family and house, and prays the Lord’s Prayer. After that, they all kiss each other on the cheek saying, “The peace of God among us, Christ is Born.” They together hold the česnica and rotate it three times counterclockwise, singing the Troparion of the Nativity. They then break the česnica among themselves, a piece of which is set aside for absent family members, another piece for a stranger who might become their guest, and the rest is used during the dinner. It is said that the one who finds the coin hidden in the česnica will have an exceptionally good luck in the ensuing year. In some regions, a half of this festive loaf is set aside and eaten on New Year’s Day as per Julian calendar, i. e. January 14 on the Gregorian calendar. 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.
After Christmas dinner, the remaining food should not be removed from the table – only the used tableware is taken away. The food is covered with a white cloth, and eaten in the evening as supper.
The koleda is a custom that a group of young men, masked and costumed, goes from house to house of their village singing special koleda songs and performing acts of magic to summon health, wealth, and prosperity for each household. The members of the group are called koledari. The koleda is carried out from the Feast of Saint Ignatius Theophorus (five days before Christmas) up until the Epiphany. This custom is best preserved in the upper Pčinja District, and in the region around the River South Morava in the Jablanica District, south-eastern 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 prepare themselves during several days before the start of the koleda: they practice the koleda songs, and make their masks and costumes. The masks can be classified into three types according to the characters they represent: the anthropomorphic, the zoomorphic (representing bear, cow, stag, goat, sheep, ox, wolf, stork, etc.), and the anthropo-zoomorphic. The main material from which they are produced is hide. The face, however, may be made separately out of a dried gourd shell or a piece of wood, and then sewn to hide so that the mask can cover all the head. The moustache, beard, and eyebrows are made with black wool, horsehair, or hemp fibers, and the teeth with beans. Zoomorphic and anthropo-zoomorphic masks may have white, black, or red painted horns attached to them. The costumes are prepared from ragged clothes, sheepskins with the wool turned outside, and calf hides. Strings of little bells and ratchets are fastened around the waist and the knees of the costumes. An ox tail with a bell fixed at its end may be attached at the back of them.
The leader of the group is called Grandpa. The other koledari gather at his house on the eve of koleda, and at midnight they all go out and start their activities. Walking through streets of the village they shout and make noise with bells and ratchets. Most are armed with sabers or clubs. One of them, called Bride, is masked and costumed as a pregnant woman. He holds a distaff in his hand and spins hemp fibers. Thekoledari tease and joke with Bride, which gives a comic note to the koleda. Several of them are called alosnici (s. alosnik), representing men possessed by the demon ala. There may be other named characters in the group.
The koledari sing special songs, in which the word koledo, the vocative case of koleda, is inserted in the middle and at the end of each verse. Grandpa initiates each song, determining which one will be sung at a given time. His choice depends on whether they are in a street, or coming in front of, entering, staying in, or leaving a house: there is a separate set of the songs for each of these situations. 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:
Vertep Besides the singing, the koledari also chase away demons from the household. First they search the house to find out where the demons hide. They look everywhere, at the same time shouting, dancing, jumping, knocking on the floor and walls with sticks, and teasing Bride. When they find the demons, they drive them out of the hiding place, and fight with them swinging their sabers and clubs. After the demons are chased away, the koledari briefly dance the kolo, and then bless the household. As a reward, they receive a loaf of bread which the family prepared specially for them, and other food gifts
The Vertep is a Serbian Orthodox Christmas custom.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a group of boys dressed in variegated costumes goes from house to house of their village carrying a vertep – a litter that represents the manger in which newborn Jesus Christ was placed. In front of every house they sing Christmas songs, and recite poems that praise the birth of Christ. This custom is called vertep, and the participants in it – vertepaši. The name vertep comes from the Church Slavonic вєртє́пъ (meaning cave, referring to the cave where the manger was sited. Similarly to koledari, vertepašiare armed with wooden swords and fence with each other in front of houses.