For me, Christmas first and foremost is where my wife and children are, and we have lived in many places. Christmas is also, for calendrical reasons, celebrated twice.
I am Greek Orthodox, my wife is Serbian Orthodox, we are a family divided by a common religion and Byzantine culture. Greeks, like Bulgarians and Romanians, by and large celebrate Christmas on December 25, whereas Serbs, Russians, Georgians, and other Eastern Christians celebrate on January 7. Wherever we have been, the holiday is twice.
When we lived in Greece (and then later in Serbia) we had the opportunity to celebrate both in the different venues, which allows for us to compare the different traditions of this common holiday. What follows is a composite of various times we celebrated between the two countries.
I must regret, as a Hydriot, never having celebrated Christmas on my beloved island; all my Greek Christmases have been Athenian, usually celebrated at my cousin’s house. Like so many Athenians, my cousin lives in a low rise polykatikia (apartment building). In this case, three of the four floors are members of the same family, so the vertical family membership would meet in her dining room.
Usually there would be a Christmas tree, though she might have sported the Christmas ship more authentically Greek. The whole extended family is largely of island and merchant marine background, so we all should be decorating ships rather than trees.
The Greek Christmas fare is probably well familiar to the reader, so I will now move forward thirteen days to the Old Calendar Christmas celebrated by Serbian Orthodox. The distance from Athens to my wife’s hometown of Sombor, in the extreme northwest of Serbia is about 800 miles, a quick flight and a two-hour drive from Belgrade if by plane.
The plane arriving in Belgrade is normally greeted by a thin coat of snow and temperatures easily twenty degrees colder than in Athens. The White Christmas that is rare in much of Greece is quite usual in Serbia.
Our ultimate destination, Sombor, is another 120 miles from Belgrade, north of the Sava and Danube Rivers, where the Byzantine domes and hills of the Balkans give way to the flatlands and baroque spires of Central Europe. This is Vojvodina Province, formerly part of Austria Hungary, so the culture and cuisine are a delightful mix of Byzantium and Austro-Hungarian. Serbians settled en masse here in the 1700s, defending the Austrian Empire against Turkish attacks, and building thriving communities in a very multiethnic mosaic. Vojvodina retains this kaleidoscope of cultures—two dozen nationalities live in an area the size of Massachusetts.
Christmas Eve, which might begin in the yard of Sveti Jovan (St. John) Church, herein pictured, includes the burning of a badnjak tree (analogous to a yule log), along with plenty of rakija, perhaps, given the season, rakija fortified with honey and served hot.
A Christmas Eve meal, likely as not at my mother-in-law’s house, would probably be a fish dish, perhaps a paprikash, a fish stew cooked, most traditionally, over a fire outside in a cast iron kettle, heavily laced with paprika, sweet or hot. In Sombor, about one fourth of the population is Hungarian, and its culinary influence is part of the local spice.
Christmas morning is usually spent in preparing a large meal, and in Serbia pork is usually preferred to the analogous lamb in Greece. Christmas trees are uncommon in homes, though municipal squares and buildings do have a standard-globalized array of Christmas decorations, including a large tree and plenty of baubles.
My wife remembers her grandparents, who celebrated Christmas in a more traditional way. Rising early, her grandmother and family would clean their faces with a fresh red apple, to foster a ruddy complexion symbolizing health. She would also bless her fields and flocks, using wine and wheat. Two Christmas breads would be baked, a large one called zdravlje (health) to be consumed with the Christmas meal, and a smaller bread with basil sprigs, saved to be cut and drank with wine a few days after Christmas.
The Christmas table would be set with the candle below the household icon, and the two freshly baked breads. The Christmas meal would begin with my wife’s grandfather saying a prayer, and at the same time tossing shelled walnuts, another symbol of prosperity and ubiquitous in any Serbian avlija (garden).
Like everywhere else, these older traditions have subsided to a more commercialized, some might say Americanized, form of Christmas. We exchanged gifts, an activity normally reserved in Serbia for New Years Day, and set forth to a meal.
Few can match my mother-in-law’s culinary expertise, with all ingredients locally sourced. We would start with Zuta Supa (literally translated as yellow soup) wherein two meats (usually pork and turkey both raised by my in-laws) would combine with parsnips, carrots, garlic, onion and potatoes for a hearty soup. My mother-in-law taught me to cut hot peppers into the soup, perfect for a cold day and a natural antibiotic. Whereas for Easter pork would usually be roasted on a spit, for Christmas it would be an oven roast, likely as not with potatoes and vegetables.
When all of this was over, it would be time for sweets, and Vojvodina’s position as a crossroads meant that it could be a mélange from baklava to the tortes favored by Austrians and Hungarians, often paired with multiple shots of rakija, ostensibly for digestive purposes. More plausible digestive arguments could be made for Serbian mineral water, plucked from spas known and celebrated since Roman times. Nobody leaves a Serbian meal anything but satisfied, and a draught of kisela voda is often just what is need to assist the stomach whose work has just begun.
After that, talk, fellowship, perhaps more rakija and the pleasures of warmth derived from woodburning stoves make our dual Christmases a double delight.
The treasure of celebrating two Orthodox Christmases, in two Orthodox countries, over the course of a few years is something that will remain with us always. Here, on this side of the Atlantic, we do our best to continue the traditions of our dual Orthodox Christmases.