EASTERN EUROPEAN CHRISTMAS
Estonia – In the weeks preceding Christmas, children place a slipper in their windows and receive a piece of candy or some other sweets from visiting elves. Estonians celebrate Christmas on December 24th, which is referred to as jõululaupäev (“Christmas Saturday and is by act of Parliament a public holiday in Estonia). Each year on this day, the President of Estonia declares the Christmas Peace and attends a Christmas service. The tradition was initiated by the order of Queen Christina of Sweden in the 17th century. Estonian children are visited by “Old Man Christmas” on Christmas Eve and must sing songs or recite Christmas poems before receiving their gifts.
The evening meal typically includes pork with sauerkraut or Estonian sauerkraut, baked potatoes, white and blood sausage, potato salad with red beet, and pate. For dessert, Estonians eat gingerbread and marzipan. The most highly regarded drinks during this time have been beer and mulled wine or glogi and “glowing wine”. Estonians leave the leftover food from Christmas dinner on the table overnight, in hopes that the spirits of family, friends, and loved ones will visit and also have something to eat. It is also customary to visit graveyards and leave candles for the deceased.
Christmas is a public holiday in Albania, a nation with significant Muslim and Christian populations, and is celebrated by both Orthodox and Catholic Albanians. However, even some non-Christian Albanians celebrate them. The Albanian wish is “Gëzuar Krishtlindjet!” People go to church at midnight on December 24th or December 25th. The Christmas atmosphere is felt not only in the capital city, Tirana, but also in many other cities, the rituals and traditions are very similar to those practiced by the other European Christian nations.
Christmas in Romania is on December 25th and is generally considered the second most important religious Romanian Holiday after Easter. In Moldova, although Christmas is celebrated on December 25th as in Romania, January 7th is also recognized as an official holiday. Celebrations begin with the decoration of the Christmas tree during daytime on December 24th, and in the evening Father Christmas delivers the presents.
The singing of carols is a very important part of Romanian Christmas festivities. On the first day of Christmas, many carolers walk through the streets of the towns and villages, holding a star made of cardboard and paper on which are depicted various scenes from the Bible. Romanian tradition has the smallest children going from house to house, singing carols and reciting poems and legends during the whole Christmas season. The leader of the group carries with him a star made of wood, covered with metal foil and decorated with bells and colored ribbons. An image of the Nativity is painted on the star’s centre, and this piece of handiwork is attached to the end of a broom or other long stick.
Romanian food served during the holidays is a hearty multi-coursed meal, most of which consists of pork.
Serbia celebrates Christmas for three consecutive days, beginning with Christmas Day. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the traditional Julian calendar, per which Christmas Day (December 25th) falls on January 7th. This day is called the first day of Christmas, and the following two are accordingly called the second, and the third day of Christmas. During this festive time, one is to greet another person with “Christ is Born,” which should be responded to with “Truly He is Born.” The Serbian name for Christmas is young or little God.
This holiday surpasses all the others celebrated by Serbs, with respect to the diversity of applied folk customs and rituals. These may vary from region to region, some of them having modern versions adapted to the contemporary way of living. The ideal environment to carry them out fully is the traditional multi-generation country household. In the morning of Christmas Eve a young, straight oak tree is selected and felled by the head of the household. A log is cut from it and is referred to as the badnjak. In the evening, the badnjak is ceremoniously put on the domestic fire that burns on the house’s fireplace called ognjište, whose hearth is without a vertical surround. The burning of the badnjak is accompanied by prayers to God so that the coming year may bring much happiness, love, luck, riches, and food. Since most houses today have no ognjište on which to burn a badnjak, it is symbolically represented by several leaved oak twigs. For the convenience of people who live in towns and cities, they can be bought at marketplaces or received in churches.
The dinner on this day is festive, copious and diverse in foods, although it is prepared in accordance with the rules of fasting. Groups of young people go from house to house of their village or neighborhood, congratulating each other, singing, and making performances; this continues through the next three days. The Serbs also take a bundle of straw into the house and spread it over the floor, and then put walnuts on it. Before the table is served for the Christmas Eve dinner, it is strewn with a thin layer of straw and covered with a white cloth. The head of household makes the Sign of the Cross, lights a candle, and censes the whole house. The family members sit down at the table, but before tucking in they all rise and a man or boy among them says a prayer, or they together sing the Troparion of the Nativity. After the dinner young people visit their friends, a group of whom may gather at the house of one of them. Christmas and other songs are sung, while the elderly narrate stories from the olden times.
On Christmas Day, the celebration is announced at dawn by church bells and by shooting. A big importance is given to the first visit a family receives that day. People expect that it will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuing year; this visit is often pre-arranged. Christmas dinner is the most celebratory meal a family has during a year. A special, festive loaf of bread is baked for this occasion. The main course is roast pork of a pig which they cook whole by rotating it impaled on a wooden spit close to an open fire. It is not a part of Serbian traditions to exchange gifts during Christmas. Gift-giving is, nevertheless, connected with the celebrations, being traditionally done on the three consecutive Sundays that immediately precede it. Children, women, and men, respectively, are the set gift-givers on these three days.
Since the early 1990s, the Serbian Orthodox Church has, together with local communities, organized public celebrations on Christmas Eve. The course of these celebrations can be typically divided into three parts: the preparation, the ritual, and the festivity. The preparation consists of going and cutting down the tree to be used as the badnjak, taking it to the church yard, and preparing drink and food for the assembled parishioners. The ritual includes Vesoers placing the badnjak on the open fire built in the church yard, blessing or consecrating the badnjak, and an appropriate program with songs and recitals. In some parishes they build the fire on which to burn the badnjak not in the church yard but at some other suitable location in their town or village. The festivity consists of getting together around the fire and socializing. Each particular celebration, however, has its own specificities which reflect traditions of the local community, and other local factors.
In Bulgaria, Christmas (The Nativity of Jesus) is celebrated on December 25th and is preceded by Christmas Eve. Traditionally, Christmas Eve would be the climax of the Nativity Fast, and thus only an odd number of Lenten dishes are presented on that evening. On Christmas, however, meat dishes are already allowed and are typically served.
Among the Bulgarian Christmas traditions is boy carolers visiting the neighboring houses starting at midnight on Christmas Eve, wishing health, wealth and happiness a. Another custom is the baking of a traditional round loaf. The pita is broken into pieces by the head of the family and a piece is given to each family member, a valuable possession, and a piece for God. A coin is hidden inside the pita and whoever gets the coin, he or she will have the luck, health and prosperity in the coming year.
As in other countries, a Christmas tree is typically set up and the entire house is decorated. The local name of Santa Claus is Grandfather Christmas, with Grandfather Frost being a similar Russian-imported character lacking the Christian connotations and thus popular during the Communist rule.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, Christmas is celebrated mainly as a religious holiday. The festivities begin on St. Nicholas’s Day on December 6th or St. Lucy’s on December 13th depending on what region. St. Lucy or St. Nicholas brings children presents, and St. Nicholas is said to be accompanied by Krampus who steals away the presents of bad children. In Croatia on St. Lucy’s, families will plant wheat seeds in a bowl of shallow water, which will grow several inches by Christmas and are then tied together with a red, blue and white ribbon called trobojnica.
On Christmas Eve three candles representing the Trinity are lit and placed in the middle of the wheat, the glow symbolizes the soul of each person. On this day, the tree is decorated; the home is decked with greenery and the women already beginning to prepare the Christmas meal. They also bake special types of bread: one is round inscribed with a cross on top known as the cesnica; another is made with honey, nuts and dried fruit called the Christmas Eve Bread. In many villages, straw (which symbolizes Christ’s birth in the manger) is spread around the floors of the home for the Christmas Eve dinner. As is customary with Catholic people, meat is not consumed in Croatia, while in Slovenia is. Instead of meat in Croatia and with other food in Slovenia, salad and fish is served, many choosing to eat the Dalmatian specialty bakalar, dried cod fish. The family then sprinkles holy water on their Yule log which they light and watch. In villages, the badnjak is freshly cut that very morning by the father of the household while reciting traditional prayers. At the end of the meal, a piece of the cesnica is cut and dipped in wine and used to sprinkle on the candles to extinguish them, while reciting the “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen”.
Many families will go to a midnight mass on Christmas Eve and often another on Christmas Day. It is common for Christmas presents to be placed under the tree, to suggest that the Angel or the Baby Jesus leaves them there while others are attending midnight mass. Presents are opened after the mass. Christmas is a day of celebrating with family; a large feast is prepared and traditional foods such as stuffed cabbage, turkey, pot roast, pita and smoked meat are served, along with various desserts such as fruit, strudel, and cookies.
Slovenes are also visited by another one of their three good guys, who bring presents in December: Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus and Grandfather Frost. Families mostly celebrate New Year’s Eve at home with extended family members, friends, and sometimes neighbors. Women prepare cabbage sarma, which they will eat on January 1st to symbolize good fortune, and steak tartar, which they eat on New Year’s Eve on toast with butter. At midnight, people go outdoors to watch fireworks, while Grandfather Frost leaves presents under the tree. Epiphany on January 6th marks the end of the Christmas season.