Some people resignedly accept their fate, and others are born in the Balkans. The urge to control the future, defy misfortune and make hash reality more livable runs through the veins of Balkan people. These days, laughable superstitions used to be an efficient means of overcoming material, social and medical predicaments. Having accepted Christianity, Balkan people became devout followers of Christian traditions, meticulously nurturing ethical values and passing knowledge and reverence to younger generations. However, primordial human curiosity along with the fear of the unexpected gave rise to intricate superstitious rituals that were meant to ensure strong social relations, marital happiness, opulent yields, longevity and health. Besides its quintessential Christian essence, Orthodox Christmas in the Balkans was associated with a plethora of specificities that defy reason and sustain the primordial connection with pagan origins.
Before delving into metaphysical aspects of human behavior, certain factual aspects of Orthodox Christmas should facilitate better understanding of corresponding customs. Orthodox Christmas in the Balkans is celebrated on January the 7th according to the Julian calendar that is used in Orthodox churches. Although the daily life of people follows the worldwide Gregorian calendar, religious practices adhere to Julian one. The difference between the calendars is 13 days, hence the difference between the date of Christmas. Christmas is preceded by a six week lent during which Orthodox Christians should restrain from consuming dairy products, meat, eggs, sometimes even oil and fish as well as immoral and vicious thoughts and behavior. The period of lent is compensated for by lavish Christmas feasts that extend for over a week after Christmas day.
Strong social relationships and luck in households were considered achievable through proper acts on the day before Christmas. Initially, all debts have to be settled on the 6th of January at the latest, as being in debt on Christmas would mean bad luck and might cause financial troubles throughout the following year. Singing before Christmas was considered a sign of disrespect to the Virgin Mary who was in pain giving birth to baby Jesus. In order to protect households, on Christmas Eve people used to place a walnut in each corner of the living room. The walnuts were kept long after Christmas and thought to preserve household safety. Namely, if an object was stolen from the house, the Christmas walnut should be cracked at the place of the missing object and then the thief would willingly come and admit their guilt.
Marital happiness was another essential aspect of personal and social well-roundedness. There were several tricks to cure unrequited love and foretell a potential spouse. The day before Christmas, men used to obtain love by secretly tucking a needle into the clothes of a girl they liked. Conversely, girls who wanted to get married would, on Christmas Eve, go to the midden, step on a broom and listen for dogs’ barking. The future husband was expected to come from the same direction as the barking was heard. Additionally, women who could not get pregnant could simply boost their fertility. On the 6th of January, most women used to make special bread. Ladies who wanted to get pregnant had first to touch their foreheads while their hands were still smeared with dough and flour, and then to touch their husband’s nose. Properly conducted, this rite could, apparently, help couples conceive.
Farming and agriculture were the most widespread industries in the past. In that sense, people were trying by all means to ensure the prosperity of their farms and lands and, consequently, the profit for their families. For that reason, on Christmas Eve, family members used to sleep together on the hay with their heads and bodies turned in the same direction in order to prevent wheat from tangling. Dogs were not fed on the day before Christmas as that could make them wild during the next year. Women did not do crafts with needles because snakes could then bite them the following year. The dinner on Christmas Eve was usually served around the fire. Before dinner, a male family member would go out of the house with a bread and candle to invite foxes, wolves, bears and other beasts for dinner. This would prevent the attacks of wild animals over the year.
The Christmas fire has always been of immense significance. People used to sit around the fire and watch it all night. If a woman was the first to notice that the fire was extinguished, the household could expect a lot of female lambs the next year. Male lambs were, on the other hand, expected if a man first noticed the extinguished fire. In both cases, the head of the family had to gift the fire-guardian a sheep. Similarly, the quantity of the sparks from the Christmas fire was used to predict the quantity of bees and honey in a household, while the amount of the remnant ash was associated with the amount of snow during the winter.
The sustainability of a household was only possible through the longevity of family members. The fear of death has been permeating human existence for centuries. Our Balkan ancestors, however, had several techniques to defy their demise, or at least render death less surprising by observing particular signs. For instance, the crowing of a hen on the doorstep of a household in the morning before Christmas would mean the imminent death of a family member. The hen had to be slaughtered shortly, and family members had to eat a piece of its raw heart, so that no one would die. Furthermore, on Christmas Eve, a family would pray together. The barking of a dog or crowing of a hen during the prayer would also signify death. Likewise, during the traditional, candle-lit dinner on Christmas Eve, family members used to look for their shadows on the walls. The person whose shadow was missing was not expected to live long after. In the north-west of Serbia, for example, people used to melt a knob of lard in a pan and family members would then use the melted fat as a mirror. Those who failed to see their reflection were expected to die within the forthcoming year. Christmas cake had to be treated with special care, as well. The households where pieces of Christmas cake fell on the ground or were thrown away could not expect to live a long life or experience a good fate.
In relation to the desired longevity, people were also trying to provide their families with natural remedies for different ailments. A pig roasted on the spit has been an unavoidable Christmas dish in Orthodox Balkan families. The fat released from the meat was believed to cure skin diseases – wounds, cuts, scabs, dry hands, etc. The roasted pig was usually served with an apple in the mouth. The apple was used as a universal remedy. On the other hand, three cloves of garlic would be placed below the table cloth the day before Christmas and after a week the cloves would gain therapeutic qualities and cure neckache. Interestingly, spanking children on the 6th of January was dangerous as the person spanking a child could get ulcers on their body as a punishment. However, spanking kids on the 4th of January was more acceptable as it was thought to foster their obedience.
Adherence to Christian norms nowadays dominates over superstitious customs. Nevertheless, history is indelible, it quietly abides in us and occasionally leaks out. Orthodox Christmas in the Balkans used to encapsulate more customs and superstitions than any other holiday. Education and enlightenment irrevocably exposed the senselessness of past misconceptions, but there will always be regions and individuals within which the past is more present than in others.
Reminiscence of the forgotten practices is not meant to mock the lack of knowledge. History should be our teacher. Therefore, we need to rationalize and dismiss bizarre behavioral patterns as a part of our civilizational development, but the devotion of our ancestors to Christmas should make us reflect and prioritize domestic harmony, health and spiritual wellbeing above material pretensions that urban life imposes.