Contributors: Danica Petrović, Rada Živanović and Siniša Trkulja
The Serbian words, Badnje veče, mean an evening (veče) when you stay awake and wait (bdenje - the old Slavonic word), because it is the evening when the birth of Christ was expected. The Orthodox Church (in Serbia, Russia, Georgia and in Jerusalem) celebrates Christmas Eve on the 6th of January following not the Gregorian, but the Julian calendar. In rural areas, early in the morning, the day of Badnji dan, it is still the custom for the man of the house to go into the woods to find and bring back the Badnjak. What is a Badnjak? It is a branch of an oak tree. It symbolises the wood that Joseph burned to heat the cave where Jesus was born. In the towns, on the 6th of January, people all over Serbia can buy branches of oak and bring them into their homes. The Badnjak branch replaces the one from the previous year and it will stay there until the next year's Badnji dan day.
Christmas Eve is the last day of the fast which starts forty days before Christmas. So the Christmas Eve dinner is without meat or any products derived from animals (milk, eggs, etc.). The usual Christmas Eve's dinner would be beans (pasulj prebranac), fish, roast pumpkin, nuts, prunes and honey. At midnight it is time to go to church for the midnight service and to wait (bdenje).
The Christmas greeting is "Peace of God, Christ is born" (Mir Božji, Hristos se rodi). The answer is "It's true: He is born" (Vaistinu se rodi). Early in the morning, the special guest comes to the house (položajnik) - usually a respected young man. He should stir the fire saying "As many sparks, so many coins". The woman of the house gives him a symbolic present (a shirt, a cake, or such). The morning service in the church starts at 9 o'clock.
Typical of the Christmas Day lunch would be:
česnica - the typical Christmas unleavened bread
teleća supa - beef soup
sarma - cabbage (sauerkraut) stuffed with meat and rice
pečenica - roast pork meat
torta - a cake
The česnica is an important ritual bannock of unleavened bread. It is made of wheat flour with water and oil without yeast. A coin should be put into it. Its name is derived from the old word, čest, meaning part, because it is broken into as many parts as there are people in the house. The belief is that the one who gets the coin in his or her piece will be lucky throughout the whole year.
The main messages of Christmas are life, peace and the family.
* (c)Copyright 2008 Siniša Trkulja, Helen Macbeth. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute copies of this Introduction to recipes for Serbia solely for the purposes of non-profit domestic use or non-profit educational purposes in either case provided that copies are distributed at or below cost and that the author's source and copyright notice are included on each copy.