In Serbia, the main church is the Orthodox Church and they still use the old ‘Julian’ calendar, which means that Christmas Eve is January 6 and Christmas Day is January 7.
The advent in the Orthodox Church begins on November 28 and lasts six weeks. During Advent, some people fast and do not eat food that comes from animals (meat, milk, eggs, etc.). The countries of Serbia and Montenegro share many Christmas traditions.
On Christmas Eve (called ‘Badnji dan’ during the day and ‘Badnje veče’ after sunset), families gather and many people fast and do not eat food that comes from animals. It is the last day of the Christmas fast. Christmas is a very religious holiday and most people go to the Christmas Services.
There are many ancient Serbian traditions associated with the countryside, which have now lost their meaning because more people live in towns and cities. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the father of the family used to go to the forest to cut a young oak called ‘Badnjak’ (Christmas tree), but today people only buy one. The Badnjak burns like a Yule log.
Sometimes there are large bonfires outside the churches where the oak and Badnjak branches are burned.
On Christmas day, the dawn is greeted with church bells and, sometimes, people firing guns into the air! The first person to enter a house on Christmas day is called polaznik and is believed to bring luck to the house and family. The polaznik is often pre-arranged. But if the family does not have a good year, they do not return the same person!
Early on Christmas morning, the girls traditionally collected water to bring their family. This was called ‘strong water’ and was meant to have special powers. People would drink some strong water and wash their faces before breakfast!
At Christmas you eat a special bread. It is called ‘cesnica’ and is made in round shape. Sometimes it is done using some ‘strong water’. Each member of the family receives a piece (and the house also does). There is a coin hidden in it and whoever gets the coin will be particularly lucky next year!
Other popular Christmas dishes include pecenica (roast pork), sarma (cabbage stuffed with rice and ground beef) and many cakes!
Under the dinner table there should be some straw as a symbol of the stable / cave where Jesus was born. When the straw is extended, some people make the noise of a chicken. Crowing like a chicken symbolizes that Jesus wanted people to follow him like a big family (like chickens get together!). It is also common for a handful of nuts to spread on the straw.
In Serbian Happy / Merry Christmas is Hristos se rodi (Христос се роди) – Christ is born Vaistinu se rodi (Ваистину се роди) – He is truly born (answer).
People in Serbia also celebrate St. Nicholas Day, but on December 19. During the time when Serbia was under communist control (after World War II until about 20 years ago), the communist government did not like Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, so they had their own version called Grandfather Frost (Дедa Мрaз / Deda Mraz) or the Christmas Brother (Божић Бата / Božić Bata), who came on New Year’s Eve.
Traditional Serbian customs have also been mixed with Western customs. For example, people also have Christmas trees, but they are decorated on New Year’s Eve, not Christmas!