In most Slavic languages, word for ‘Christmas’ is Božić, which translated means young God, or little God. It is the day that celebrates the birth of God, in Slavic tradition, the young Sun, son of Perun, or in Christianity, Jesus. Celebration of Christmas goes way back, long before omnipresent Christianity, and with that ancient traditions are still present (sometimes hidden in details). What changed, and what remained? See below…
Date of Christmas
Back then, the most important festivities were held on the first days of spring, summer, fall and winter. Christmas was always on the first day of winter, 21st of December, but preparations started on the day before, in the crack of dawn. Today, Christmas is vastly celebrated on the 25th of December, according to Christian Christmas.
Day before Christmas
In this territory, often called Badnjak or Badnja večer, was extremely important. Ritual/ceremonial preparations started with sunrise. One specific thing about this day is that there was strict rule of lent, which lasted all day, until sunset. All household members gathered around table, had a cup of lent, black coffee and a shot of rakia, and it was allowed to eat only nuts and dried fruits. After breakfast, household members (girls and boys) divided into groups, and each group had specific tasks which had to be done before sunset. Girls stayed at home cooking traditional meals (and believe me, that is pretty hard considering we cannot try ANY of the food we make, because lent). Girl’s task was also decorating the house.
Men, on the other hand, are off to the forest to find ‘badnjak‘, a big piece of wood which was also tho most fruitful one during that year. They also must supply decorations for the house. Today, in some houses, lent is kept as a tradition, but in minor way than before. Mostly, there is lent dinner, but as I said, most common today is not to have lent at all. On day before Christmas the main thing is to decorate the Christmas tree.
Back then, there were no Christmas lights or various generic snowman decorations. Instead, house was decorated with nature provided decorations, like ivy garlands, apples, beeswax candles etc. Also, there was no Christmas tree custom, but instead evergreen branch, most often pine tree, was decorated with apples and put in the top corner of the room where festivity was held. Also, in the evening, before dinner, main rooms floor was covered with hay (maybe today we ditched that custom because, I don’t know, a cat may shat in it or something. Just a guess.).
Today, we embraced the tradition of decorating Christmas tree (also – pine). The decor is depending on aesthetic preference of the decorator, of course, but in many houses is still on ‘the bigger, the better’ rule, so besides Christmas balls, you can see Christmas lights, pearl chains, fake snow, glitter, and those tacky gold/silver plastic tassels distributed on the branches. You can often see Christmas wreath hanging on the main doors, with of course bells hanging from it.
Food and drinks
In the older days, there was no Christmas dinner, but dinners, precisely, three of them. Right after sunset, it was time for the first dinner, which was still a lent one. That means no sugar of meat. Girls also made 3 breads, each specifically made for each dinner. Most common first dinner meals were various cold salads (like potato and onion salad), parents etc. Second dinner was held somewhere between first and midnight, and it wasn’t lent. Sometimes called sweet dinner, because it consisted of cakes, and sweets, like walnut strudel, pies, cookies etc. Third one was in midnight, and true festive one, with roasted meat with potato, sarma etc. As far as drinking goes, most often was wine and rakia.
I think today the most common slav Christmas food is french salad. Ok I see it when I put it like that… But seriously, boiled veggies, sour pickles and mayo combined is ultimate slav food. It is often served with bread (because we eat bread with everything), cheese, ham, and meat. Meals vary from country to country, but meat is the most common Christmas meal (chicken or pork).
It was custom that on the morning of Christmas, the first guest who enters was covered with barley or corn, as a sing of frutile year to some. Guest must drink rakia with every house member, and for food, it was served the remained food from dinners night before. Today, on Christmas, families often travel to visit their grandmas and grandpas (because the common thing today is the family lives in the city and grandparents won’t let go of the village). Vice versa is also a possibility of course, so family welcomes the guests and they all have lunch together.
It was allowed to give presents all day before Christmas, but official time for presents was after third dinner, in other words, after midnight. The most traditional present was apple with coins such into it: this was rather symbolic present, apple meant love, and coins wealth.
Today that is also the case in some households. Some like to give presents on Christmas Eve, and some on the Christmas morning.
Games and entertainment
As the celebration started officially with first dinner, it was forbidden to leave the house because that was, it was believed, the night of chaos, the peak of it before the new sun (re)birth. With that said, house hold members had to remain inside, and entertain themselves, most commonly with stories.
Today, the most common thing to do for Christmas is to watch movies (Home alone is the new tradition). How do you celebrate Christmas in your family? Do you see any of the old traditions that you still practice?