Christmas Eve Service: A Serbian Orthodox Tradition


St. Sava’s Cathedral, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

Last night we went to Saint Sava’s Cathedral here in Belgrade for the burning of the badjnak and the Christmas Eve Service. As you can see from the photos, it was a beautiful and culturally enriching night for my family.

Each of the kids had a “badnjak” which is like a yule log. The word badnjak may be derived from the verb, bdeti, which means to stay awake or keep the vigil. The tradition stems from pagan times and the man of the house (domaćin) or sons on Christmas morning went into the woods and cut down a young Oak tree. The yule log is kind of like a ceremonial sacrifice to bring health and happiness to the family for the coming year. The log was burnt over the family hearth. Today, an assembly of twigs with Oak leaves, corn, pine sprigs, and straw is tied together with a red ribbon and sold in markets and street corners around Belgrade. Every church has a bonfire on its grounds where people can come and throw their badnjaks in the flames.

There were hundreds of people there and outside the church a mini-market was set up selling religious and holiday crafts and mulled wine. We went inside the massive cathedral to watch a bit of the service and light candles in memory of lost family members. The service, shown below, had a lot of priests singing and waving incense. There were also lines of people waiting to kiss various icons.

Afterwards we went to have some Lebanese appitizers at the Byblos Restaurant and the kids played in the park.

Family Journal: Serbian Christmas 2010

We enjoyed celebrating as a family the Serbian Orthodox Christmas yesterday. The Serbs celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Here is a link to a great blog post on the traditions of Serbian Christmas. We tried to do some of them yesterday. On Christmas instead of the usual greetings of hello or how are you (caio, kako ste?) Serbs say “Hristos se rodi” which means Christ is born. The person receiving the salutation then replies, “Vaistinu se rodi” which means, “Yes, indeed, he has been born.” I tried this a several times and I always got a surprised look and a smile, and an immediate response. They do this for the two days after Christmas, so I hope to do this some more in the next couple of days.

The other tradition we did was to burn the badnjak (yule log). On Christmas morning, the father and eldest son are supposed to fell a young oak tree and put it on the family fire. This dates back to pre-Christian times, so I told the boys the story of the Slavic god Perun and his battles with the underworld god, Veles. We’ve been listening to podcasts on about the Greek myths. The site is great for kids and I highly recommend it. If I have the time, I would like to make one for the boys on Perun.
Burning of the Badnjak
The weather has been horrible. Lots of rain and grey. I would prefer either snow or sunshine and I don’t like this in-between stuff. It has been limiting our outdoor activity so I took the boys to the ISB gym yesterday to play soccer and tennis. Great fun.
I said “Hristo se rodi” (Christ has risen) to every Serb I met.

Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve

Parishioners Gather Collectively Burn the Badnjaks
Parishioners Gather Collectively Burn the Badnjaks

Yesterday we participated in a Serbian Christmas tradition. The Serbs celebrate Christmas today, January 7th, because they still use Julius Cesear’s originally calendar. It was replaced by the modern Gregorian calendar because the Julian calendar required too many adjustments through the years to keep it accurate. One of the remnants of the old Slavic religion is the custom of the burning of the “badnjak” on Christmas Eve (January 6th).

In earlier times when most Serbs lived in the countryside, the father used to head into the woods and fell a young oak tree. The badnjak was a big log that was then thrown onto the fire in the hearth of the home.Today, most Serbs live in the cities and the tradition has changed a bit. The log (kind of like a yule log) is represented by these thin branches arranged like a bouquet of flowers. They sell them all over the city and that is what first got us interested in the custom. We were wondering, what were these dead leaf arrangements?I took the photo below while we were running errands. We bought a couple and found that attached to the bottom was a plastic bag of sunflower seeds and corn kernels with a ribbon.

A large badnjak market in downtown Belgrade, near the Kalenica Market.
A large "badnjak" market in downtown Belgrade, near the Kalenica Market.

Another change in modern times is the badnjaks are burned collectively in a church yard instead of the family fireplace. Our nanny Vera, invited us to attend the mass and ceremony at the St. Trifun Church located in Topčider Park near our house. It was a bitterly cold night but we managed to get all the kids out. We first lit candles in a little side house next to the church. The bottom shelf where the candles were placed in sand was for souls of the dead and the top shelf for the living. The boys said a short prayer for their all of their grandparents. The church was too full to attend the mass. I was raised Catholic and am very curious to attend an Orthodox service. We did see the interior of the church and it was much different than a Catholic church.

We did join in the procession following the short service. It wound its way around the church and then into the front yard. It was led by the priest and several altar boys and men carrying banners and incense. After a few words, the bales of hay were ignited and people began throwing their badnjaks on the fire. It is supposed to bring health, wealth, happiness, money, etc. in the upcoming year. Owen and Oliver were thrilled with the large fire and the opportunity to throw in their badnjaks. Owen and I hung out by the fire as we are both pyromaniacs. Nadia, Oliver, and Ocean were cold and went straight back to the car.

Saint Trifun Church

The ceremony for me had a greater significance than just experience Serbian culture and an Orthodox church ritual. In the old Slavic religion, trees were sacred. The Serbs today hold a great reverence for trees as I do. It harks back to original Slavic religious thought. In burning of the log,it represents a sacrifice to the gods, and the fire also represents sunshine. With today’s temperature of -7 C and icy fog limiting visibility, I can understand the Slavic tribes reliance on the spring sun. I can also imagine what it was like for them before modern heating and home construction.

I facilitated a course last year for a student at my school in Venezuela (Evan Huff). He was interested in Vikings and we did a Teaching Company course on the history of the Vikings. Part of the lectures dealt with Norse religion. It made me wonder what the world and Europe would be like without Christianity. A part of me is disappointed that a Middle Eastern religion conquered the world. It would be interesting to see what would have happened if the Slavs and other peoples of Europe never converted to Christianity. The preferred tree for the badnjak is the Oak Tree, which is strongly associated with the supreme Slavic god, Perun. Perun is similar to the Norse god Thor.

Saint Trifun Church