Published in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin

December 17, 1999

A Serbian Christmas

Celebrating according to Old World custom.

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
Drawing: Jeff Stern

When my parents left Yugoslavia after World War II to build a new life in Baltimore, they wanted to assimilate, but also to pass along the culture they left behind. So each year, we  celebrated Christmas twice: American-style, on Dec. 25, with presents, a tree and stories of Santa Claus, and on Jan. 7, according to Old World custom.

Slavs who are Eastern Orthodox (including Serbs, Ukrainians, and Russians) clock religious days by the ancient calendar devised by Julius Caesar. The Julian-reckoned December 25 falls on the modern Gregorian calendarís January 7. We didnít do everything required by custom on Serbian Christmas, but I heard a lot of stories.

To practice the full complement of Serbian Christmas rites, youíd need a whole Serbian village around you, and five days off from work. Full time preparations and festivities traditionally began two days before Christmas, and involved dozens of people: a crew of boys to bring in your Badnjak (a massive oak Yule log) while you toss handfuls of rice, wheat, and oats at them; more boys carrying a creche and men dressed as the Three Kings to sing carols and recite the story of the Nativity; a man to knock on your door at 2 a.m. on Christmas morn to wish you a happy one; and assorted groups of folk popping in here and there on this day and that, for snacks of figs, prunes, flatbread, and cheese, and plum brandy boiled with water and honey. But we didnít have access to the required cast of characters in Baltimore.

Even without celebratory rifles fired in the air and roast suckling pig (whose severed head is displayed on a platter on the dining room table till itís finally eaten on the third day of Christmas), there was plenty left for us to do--including some customs you might enjoy trying for yourself this year. You donít even have to wait till January 7.

One tradition definitely went beyond how far my modern mother was willing to go for the sake of heritage, but it's always intrigued me as being Fellini-esque: the whole family walks three times around the table, then throughout the house, imitating chickens. The father crows like a rooster, the mother clucks like a hen, and the children follow behind, peeping and cheeping. Dad-as-rooster liberally strews hay and straw in every room. Depending on the source, this custom is said to bring happiness and prosperity in the year ahead, or symbolize Christís birth in a manger.

Later, the father throws a nut in every corner of the dining room. No sweeping is allowed till the three days of Christmas have passed. Let me know how it works out for you.

More sedate is the custom of sprouting wheatgrass on a plate. By the time itís about six inches high, it makes a striking solstice statement: new, green life growing lush during the darkest days of the year. With a red votive candle in the middle and a red ribbon tied around the outside, this mini meadow glows splendidly in a softly-lit room.

To grow your wheat, or zito (pronounced zhee-to), soak half a cup of whole wheat berries in water for a day. Rinse well and spread out on a large dinner plate, one or two berries thick. Sprinkle water on them a few times a day, or keep them covered with a damp paper towel. Balance the moisture carefully: if the berries stay too damp, theyíll begin to grow mold. Too dry, and theyíll wither. I wish I had more masterful instructions on this point, but itís an annual struggle for me, too. Sometimes I have to start over. Itís worth it. Insert the votive candle on about the fourth day. Itís supposed to take three weeks to grow, but Iíve gotten pretty crops within a week.

The Bozicni kolac (pronounced bo-zheech-nee kolach), or Christmas bread, is not like any other bread Iíve ever seen or eaten. Itís gloriously decorative: tall, cylindrical, and rounded on top, like a crown, and decked out on top with tiny sculptures made from dough. Itís firm, yellow, crumbly, and slightly sweet, with a thick, tasty crust. Even if you skip the dough sculptures, itís a wonderful, rich bread.

Traditionally, the kolac is baked on Christmas Eve, which is a day of fasting from animal products. Because the kolac is made with eggs and milk, it canít be eaten on that day. I part from tradition by waiting until Christmas Day to bake it--because it tastes best on the day itís baked.

My mother cut the bread in wedges, but my husband and I like to slice off rounds from the bottom instead. That way, the dough decorations are preserved for as long as possible.

Every familyís kolac is decorated a little differently. My mother and grandmother made wine barrels and bunches of grapes, representing the old family vineyard. Following this custom, I fashion four barrels from bread dough, and stick on hoops and nails made from the special sculpting dough (see recipe below). My own additions include a computer, a silhouette of a ferret (we have three), and a frying pan.

Customarily, thereís an emblem in the center, engraved with letters written in Old Church Slavonic, the language customarily used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy among Slavic peoples. Itís made by pressing a carved wooden stamp into a square of sculpting dough. Fashion a central emblem thatís of special significance to you, spiritual or otherwise.




A Serbian Christmas

...each year, we  celebrated Christmas twice: American-style, on Dec. 25, with presents, a tree and stories of Santa Claus, and on Jan. 7, according to Old World custom.

Copyright 1999, 2000 by Vesna Vuynovich Kovach. All rights reserved.