Bonfire and eating on the floor are probably not your first associations with Christmas, unless you grew up in the Balkans. At a global level, the importance of Christmas is unquestionable from religious, social and even commercial perspectives. A less popularized tale of Christmas represents a unique cohesion of Slavic and Christian heritage that abounds in idyllic and pastoral elements. In addition to formal and religious specificities, the celebration of Orthodox Christmas in the Balkans has several distinguishable segments - starting from the morning before Christmas and including Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as such. The entire festive period is characterized by original household rituals and, unexceptionally, food.
Orthodox Christmas in the Balkans is celebrated on the 7th of January because Orthodox churches in the Balkans use the Julian calendar, while western Christian churches use the Gregorian calendar. The difference between the calendars is 13 days, hence the difference between Christmas dates. Christmas is preceded by a six-week lent which starts on the 28th of November. From that day until the 7th of January, Orthodox Christians should restrain from dairy products, meat, eggs and sometimes even oil, as well as immoral and vicious thoughts and behavior.
Before the era of consumerism and late-October Christmas hype, the preparations of food and decorations for the celebration of Christmas actually used to start the morning before Christmas — on the 6th of January. In terms of decoration, the Christmas tree was not a part of Balkan tradition, while oak trees were highly revered instead. The cult of the oak tree has a long history and multiple significance in Balkan cultures. Originally, the appreciation of oak dates back to pagan Slavic mythology, when it was associated with the God of Sun who protected families and households. On the other hand, according to Christian tradition, Joseph burnt oak trees to warm the cave in which Jesus was born. Therefore, on the 6th of January, early in the morning or even before dawn, male members of each household even today go to forests to cut oaks.
Tree-cutting remains an intricate ritual even now. Men typically carry from their homes a hatchet, wheat seeds and wine or honey. Once they find a nice oak tree, they greet it as they would greet a person, offer it wine or honey, cross themselves and then cut the tree. The oak tree should be approached and cut from the eastern side in complete silence, however, the last cut should be made from the west, so that the trunk falls on the eastern side. It was believed that luck, peace and opulence come from the east, as the sun does. Once the tree is cut, a man should plant the wheat seeds near the stump and take the oak home on his right shoulder.
The moment when the oak is brought into a home is solemn and accompanied by many customs. The man carrying the tree should enter the house with his right foot first and his wife or mother should throw wheat seeds on him and the tree, as well. In certain parts of Serbia, people also bring hay into their houses and scatter it all over the living and dining room. Hay is related to biblical tradition and meant to represent the hay and the atmosphere in which Jesus was born. The oak and hay stay in households for at least 3 days, which are considered a holiday period during which the house should not be cleaned. The cleaning-free period is even longer in certain regions.
Christmas Eve in Orthodox Balkan tradition is the time for family gathering and entertainment around a bonfire. The oak trees cut during dawn on the 6th of January are burnt the same evening. Centuries ago, when each house had a hearth, people used to burn oak trees in their houses. However, for practical and architectural reasons, people nowadays light fires in front of the houses or go to churches. In front of every Orthodox church in the Balkans there is always a bonfire on Christmas Eve and a lot of people. The tree is ritually burned and sprinkled with wine. This custom is another example of intertwined pagan and Christian heritage and has several interpretations. The burning of the tree during the night symbolizes death, while the dawn of the Christmas day symbolizes a new life, the birth of a deity.
Initially, oak was considered a deity who is reborn from the fire. In that regard, the burnt oak is also interpreted as the eradication of paganism and the victory of Christianity. Subsequently, the Christian meaning of oak and a fireplace became an inseparable symbol of the warm atmosphere in the birthplace of baby Jesus. All family members gather and poke the fire. It is believed that the more sparks one can strike, the more prosperous the next year will be. The fire should not be extinguished until the next morning and one family member needs to stay awake and watch the fire all night.
A more utilitarian and modern adaptation of this custom includes a lot of merrymaking and a pig on a spit that is roasted during the night. The dinner on Christmas Eve is served on the hay, on the floor. In some parts of Serbia, all chairs and tables are removed from houses because they did not exist in the cave where Jesus was born, either. Although the food served is typically lean in accordance with Christian fasting tradition, the practice of eating from the floor is considered another redux relation to the cult of the dead and the reverence of ancestors. Food eaten from the floor is meant to remind new generations of their roots and that the lives of younger generations are owing to deceased ancestors. The feast usually includes beans, fish, cabbage and other types of vegetables, bread and, without exception, nuts, dried figs, prunes, raisins, cranberries and honey. After dinner, mothers and grandmothers usually throw nuts or, nowadays, candies, on the floor into the hay while the kids have fun searching and collecting them. Carol singers were regular guests on Christmas Eve, but this tradition remains only in a minority of regions.
Christmas day in Orthodox Balkan tradition is characterized by distinguishable visits, greetings and food. Early in the morning, each household hosts a visitor called radovan, polaznik or položajnik. This guest is always male — a good friend, relative or godfather. He is supposed to enter the house with his right foot, bring gifts and receive more gifts in return. Položajnik greets the hosts with “Christ is born” while the hosts reply with “indeed, he is born.” Traditionally, on Christmas Day families should stay home together, so it was not common to receive guests other than the first visitor or to leave home except for the liturgy in the church. The Christmas liturgy in the church is attended by many believers. In accordance with the six-week lent, people fast until Christmas. If you want to receive communion on the liturgy, you should not eat or drink anything in the morning before the liturgy, while after the liturgy Christmas food becomes an ultimate pleasure and joy.
In some regions, it was believed that, regardless of the time of day, the first heavy food eaten at Christmas should be poultry. Since birds have wings and can fly, it was believed that eating them first will bring luck and prosperity. Typical Christmas lunch includes consommé and roasted pork, while salads and side dishes vary depending on the region. Česnica is an essential Christmas dish in all regions, although the recipe may vary. In central Serbia and Montenegro česnica is similar to bread, while in the north of Serbia it is like a cake with many crispy layers filled with walnuts and raisins. Regardless of the variations in the recipe, česnica always hides a coin. Each family member takes a slice of this dish and the one who finds a coin will be lucky and rich throughout the next year.
The synthesis of pagan Slavic practices and Christian doctrine gave rise to a plethora of extraordinary Christmas traditions that are preserved until today. In addition to the utmost religious importance, Christmas also unifies families making them healthy, wealthy and lucky. The less commercial version of Christmas teaches us that there are still many (offline) cultures to be explored and traditions to be saved from oblivion. The permanence of joyful customs proves that despite harsh times, life always finds a way. Finally, the solemn simplicity of ceremonies remind us that the celebration of life needs no funds and marketing, only a positive mindset and happiness that is just there, inside our households, inside us — find it, spread it, be merry!