Orthodox Christmas Eve

Thanks to the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 7. That means Christmas Eve, an even more important holiday to than to Protestants, falls on January 6.

Because Jordan and I were in Belgrade, Serbia we got to celebrate Christmas Orthodox-style! We were both so excited to experience Christmas in a way so different than our own.

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Belgrade has their own small Christmas market, which we strolled through ever day on the way to volunteering. I admired the candy stalls and mulled wine stands, wishing we had more money and time to enjoy them.

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And finally, Christmas Eve came at last.

Christmas has only been celebrated publicly since the fall of Communism, and so isn’t as commercialized or shown at large. They have Santa, of course, as well as Mariah Carey playing over the PA system in stores, but it’s not as big as what you’ll find further west, like North America. In some ways, I thought this was better.

Christmas is celebrated at home, sometimes at church, with a few gifts exchanged and a hearty breakfast with family. Christmas Eve can be spent with friends or extended family members.

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Around 11 pm on Christmas Eve Jordan and I went to St. Sava’s Temple, one of the oldest and most famous Orthodox churches in Belgrade. Attending midnight mass is a time-honored tradition among Serbians, as well as burning badnjak in a community bonfire.

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Traditionally, each family has an oak log or branch chosen for their holiday tradition. In Belgrade, where few families have forests to walk through, nor fireplaces or bonfires, families typically pick branches up at the supermarket and burn them at the bonfire at St. Sava’s. The badnjak is very similar to the yule log  of other European lore.

Jordan and I hadn’t bought a badnjak, so we enjoyed the heat of the bonfire while everyone else threw their branches in, laughing and singing and joking loudly.

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Firecrackers and little fireworks went off everywhere. The loud noises and pops so close to the ground alarmed me at first, especially when I saw one firework spraying sparks into the nearby hedge. But no one else seemed to care. I think it was a combination of holiday cheer, beer, and the nonchalance leftover from wartime.

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We wanted to attend Orthodox mass at midnight, but the line to get into the church was already long, and I was sick and probably shouldn’t have been out in the weather at all. So we instead looked up and enjoyed the fireworks.

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It was a lot of fun. Upon returning home we realized the music and firecrackers weren’t going to stop until late into the night. I think I finally fell asleep around three, when things quieted down. The next morning, Orthodox Christmas Day, everything was peaceful and sleepy as you could imagine.

Next time we celebrate Orthodox Christmas, I’m getting a badnjak for us.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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