Remembering my Serbian Christmas Tradition

Badnjak

Every year at this time I’m reminded of how we used to celebrate Christmas in the “Old Country”.  I grew up as a Serbian Orthodox, so Christmas for us comes two weeks later than that of Roman Catholics on December 25th. Serbian Orthodox Christmas is always on January 7th. This is because the Serbs follow the Julian calendar, while Roman Catholics follow the Gregorian calendar, so while most of the world welcomes New Year December 31st, Serbs welcome it on January 13th.

Cesnica

In the morning of January 6th, Grandpa would get my dad to go with him and together they would choose our Yule log (badnjak) which actually is a young oak branch with leaves.  Cut “Badnjak” is then brought to the house, where mom and Grandma would welcome them back with the gift of “Badnjak”, and place it around the home as well as put some on the fire for good luck.

As evening approached, Grandpa would gather us all and together we would head to the stables where we’d gather straw, so we would place it on the floor of our rooms. Our traditional Christmas Eve supper was usually fish, baked beans, dried figs, dried plums and apples. Grandma used to call that “Posna Vecera” (Lent Dinner).  After dinner, the neighborhood kids with their parents would head out to “Korindju” (Caroling). We would go from house to house of our small village and wish all a “Sretan Badnjak” (Happy Christmas Eve). Afterwards we’d get home and while we’d be getting ready for bed in anticipation of “Deda Mraz’s” coming, dad would cover the Yule Log with hot ashes so it would still be burning in the morning.  

Koljivo

On Christmas Day, the first person that enters our house was called “polozajnik”.  For this day people are greeted with “Hristos se rodi” (Christ is born!) to which you must reply:  “Vaistinu se rodi” (Indeed he is born!).  He is offered my Grandma’s Christmas specialty “zito” (which is actually a boiled wheat and sugar) and red wine. For breakfast we eat a dish made of flour, eggs, butter and cheese (“cicvara”).  That is accompanied with cakes, figs and “Sljivovica“, which is Serbian homemade plum brandy. It is also a custom to prepare a bowl where young wheat is planted to grow during the coming year.  Before lunch, women of the house are getting everything ready for dinner, as Lent is officially over. Men are all outside slowly roasting the pork

Christmas Cake

After a very rich and heavy lunch, which starts early and can stretch well into the afternoon, mom would bring her “cesnica” (Christmas bread). Our Christmas bread is made of  lightly sweetened pastry filled with cream cheese, raisins, and pecans where a coin is hidden and us kids would always wait in anticipation of who would be the lucky recipient of this coin as that would mean prosperity into New Year. Serbian women are all very proud of their “cesnica” as it’s nicely decorated with braids, birds and roses made of dough.  Christmas day meal marks the end of the lent period and  for three consecutive days, Christmas is celebrated. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone through this tradition, but I still remember it fondly. What are yours?

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About Bookworm

I'm married, working, and have grown and independent kids. I love gardening, reading and painting. My favorite TV show is Dancing With the Stars! Television shows have gone to the crap house. My favorite movie of all time is "Last of the Mohicans" with Daniel Day Lewis. Second best is "Titanic" and third "Passion of the Christ". I am an avid reader and I love talking about the books I’ve read, especially romance novels. I will warn you though: I am prone to rants and raves about a lot of things!

19 thoughts on “Remembering my Serbian Christmas Tradition

    • Zdravo Sestro!

      VAISTINU SE RODI!

      Nego sta?! Nasi roditelji su nas lepo vaspitali, pa moramo da ih slusamo :)

      Nadam se da ti je Bozic lepo prosao :)

      Mel

  1. Thanks for posting such a fascinating article about your Serbian traditions. Your “Cesnica” with the hidden coin sounds a lot like our English Christmas Pudding that my Mum used to make. She would put in “sixpences” and we would all be praying that we would find one for ourselves.

    Do you make any of the foods that you’ve posted pictures of?

    • Hey Di!

      You’re welcome!

      I think you just might be right! The Christmas Pudding you guys would be in the kitchen mixing it while it’s cooking and wishing upon it, yes?
      I do make cesnica (it’s very similar to baklava) but the rest just kind-a-went away….

      Mel

  2. I loved reading this. While my grandparents emigrated from Yugoslavia, my mom and her siblings were born in MT. They tried to keep as many traditions from the old country as possible, but it looks like they missed a lot. My aunt used to make great (I don’t know the real spelling, so I’m going phoenetically), pitha, which sounds like your Christmas bread, but was a rolled dough with cinnamon and walnuts in it. Thank you for writing this — I’m going to show it to my mom, who I’ll be seeing for Serbian Christmas!

    • Hey Mo!

      Thanks for stopping by, Chick :)

      I’m still in awe that you’re Serbian (well 50% at least)! It’s PITA and we have them all sorts like BUREK sa SIROM (which is the Phyllo dough filled with cheese/ground beef/apples-that’s either or, not all together) The thing you’re describing is CESNICA or BAKLAVA :) I make both, but not often now that the kids are on their own, no more parents around and mostly American friends.

      How was your Christmas with your mom? What did she make? Do you like Sarma (that’s the sauerkraut leaves with ground beef and rice)?

      • My mom would make sarmas with a combination of ground beef and ground pork (not pork sausage). My American husband loved it also…my son dislikes cabbage and would only eat the filling. Even tastier the next day.

  3. Mel, I, too am Serbian Orthodox. As my birthday is January 7th, there were some HUGE family celebrations. I remember potica, sarmas, and the grown ups getting louder as the night wore on. Church services were not in English, and I speak no Serbian (or Latin), but I remember the pageantry of the service. Thanks for posting…reading this post brought back wonderful memories.

    • Ellie C how cool!

      You’re welcome :)

      You hit the nail on the head! The pageantry of the tradition is just breathtaking :)
      Sarma is the best in the winter and I still make a lot of it. My American DH loves it. Kids, not so much…

      I’m not in touch with many of my Serbian friends any more and the Tradition is mainly now in my memories :)

      Mel

  4. Mel, thank you for the wonderful text! My Cesnica is in the oven right now! :) Braking the Christmas bread is the most interesting part of the day in my home,as well! A specially for kids! :)
    Mir Boziji, Hristos se rodi! Srecan Bozic, draga Ceco!
    Peace of God, Christ Is Born! Merry Christmas!

  5. Thanks for sharing your family traditions, Mel. One of my college friends is Serbian Orthodox and I remember being fascinated by all the stories she shared with us regarding her family’s traditions.

    That Cesnica looks (and sounds) delicious. I think I need to find a recipe for that!

    ~PJ

  6. Thanks for sharing the tradition you following as a child. I think it’s wonderful to learn how others do things in different countries. Too often, we here in the U.S. tend to forget that there are other traditions!

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