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Serbian Christmas Traditions

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Serbian cesnica or Christmas money bread.

Cesnica or Serbian Christmas Bread

© 2009 Barbara Rolek licensed to About.com, Inc.

Mir Bozji, Hristos Se Rodi

Christmas is one of the holiest days of the year for Serbian Orthodox Christians who follow the Julian calendar. It is preceded by 40 days of fasting during Advent to prepare for the birth of Christ.

And even though the Feast of St. Nicholas (when children receive presents from the kindly saint) falls on Dec. 19, and which happens to be many families' slava, or patron saint's day, there is no dispensation from the fast.

No meat, dairy or eggs are consumed, continuing through Christmas Eve night -- (badnje vece) -- on Jan. 6. View these videos of a 2010 badnje vece vespers service at St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Merrillville, Ind.

Serbian Christmas Eve

Years ago, on Christmas Eve morning (badnji dan) in Serbia, fathers would take their eldest son to the forest to chop down an oak tree branch, which would become their badnjak or Yule Log. Today, many Serbians buy their badnjak. Decorated Christmas trees are not traditional in Serbia although, due to Western influences, they are becoming more common. Straw is placed throughout the home to signify Christ's humble birth. Walnuts and wheat are strewn in the four corners of the dining room with a prayer for health and prosperity.

Serbian Christmas Eve Supper

The meatless meal, depending on the family and the region, may consist of bakalar with potatoes (cod fish), tuna salad, prebranac (a layered bean and onion dish), meatless sarma, djuvece (a rice-and-vegetable casserole), nuts in the shell, fresh and dried fruits, and cookies made without dairy and eggs.

Christmas Day

The greeting on Christmas Day, Jan. 7, is Mir Bozji! Hristos se Rodi! (Peace of God! Christ is Born!). The response is Voistinu Hristos se Rodi! (Indeed, He is born!).

Prayers and hymn singing precede the breaking of a bread known as cesnica, which takes center stage on the Christmas table. This bread varies by region and may be a simple peasant bread, a sweet bread or even something akin to baklava. What seems to remain constant is that a silver coin is baked inside, which will bring luck to the one who finds it. The bread is torn, not cut, into as many pieces as there are guests, with one extra for the polozajnik (poh-loh-ZHAY-nik) or First Guest (see below).

Also on the table is a container of wheat grass that was planted on St. Nicholas Day, symbolizing a good harvest, usually festooned with a ribbon, and a lighted candle. After toasting with slivovitz (plum brandy) or warm vruca rakija (a potent blend of variously whiskey and slivovitz with honey and spices), wheat grains are sprinkled over the guests for luck and prosperity. Only then does the feasting begin.

The meal is lavish with spit-roasted pig (pecenica), meat sarma, baked ham, sausage, roast potatoes, parslied potatoes, and desserts galore -- nutroll, cheese strudel and apple strudel, log torte, drum torte -- fresh and dried fruits and, of course, slivovitz and strong, dark Turkish coffee.

Polozajnik

After dinner, Christmas Day is spent receiving and visiting friends and family. The first visitor to one's home on Christmas Day is known as the polozajnik or poleznik. A special gift is prepared for this First Guest (in the old days in Serbia, it was a scarf or wool stockings) and he or she is given the reserved piece of cesnica. The polozajnik, whether young or old, male or female, is said to come in the name of God with best wishes.

In the old days, the polozajnik would take a branch from the badnjak and stir up the fire in the hearth. The more sparks (representing God's blessings for the family) he or she created, the better.

Radmila Milivojevic's Christmas Memories

Radmila Milivojevic, of Chesterton, Ind., grew up in Kucevo, in the northern part of Serbia, and came to the United States in 1957 to begin her life with her new husband. She has fond memories of Christmas in Serbia.

"On Christmas Eve night, my father would go outside and prepare a bundle of straw. My sisters and brother stood behind him as he knocked on our front door. My mother would ask, 'Who is this coming?' and father would say, 'I am the one bringing you health and happiness for the year.' My mother then would open the door and sprinkle him with wheat as a sign of luck and prosperity. Father would lay the straw on the floor, and we would cover it with a tablecloth and have our Christmas Eve dinner, but not before walnuts were tossed in the four corners of the room."

After dinner, the tablecloth was removed and the children were allowed to lay their comforters and blankets on the straw to sleep on.

"This was very exciting for a child. The straw would remain in the house for three days and on the fourth, it was swept up," Milivojevic says.

Because her father had a store in Serbia that sold ornaments, her family had a Christmas tree with real candles clipped to the branches, walnuts wrapped in colorful tinfoil, sugar cubes, and candies in the images of saints, in addition to the traditional badjnak.
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