Христос се роди!
I attended a Serbian Christmas Eve celebration for the first time this year. Following the vespers service for the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, some men brought a small oak tree (or very large branch) still laden with its dried leaves into the nave. The Serbs call this form of the yule log “badnjak.” During the procession of the tree inside the nave, women threw hay, grain, and nuts all over the floor along the route. In front of the bema (the raised platform around the altar), the priest blessed the tree and read more prayers about the shepherds around Bethlehem who came to worship the Christ Child and, as a practical matter, prepared a fire for the holy family’s warmth. After the short post-service service ended, we all received a small bough of oak leaves as we waited to venerate the cross. At this time, I noticed that the small boys of the parish started collecting the nuts that had been thrown on the floor. Later on, I discovered why—patience, folks. The whole congregation then proceeded to a bonfire already burning outside on the temple lawn. The tree-porting men brought the badnjak to the fire. After another brief set of prayers, they placed the tree on the fire, and it went up in flames. It was a jolly sight on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve night. I then found out what those nut stealing boys were up to . . . they started to throw the gathered nuts into the fire, whereupon they popped or exploded. I wonder whether the Serbs have any biblical symbolism for that puerile mischief.
When I recounted the story to my sister, she said that it sounded odd. I told her that many of our customs would seem quite queer to a foreigner, too. Imagine just how bizarre our birthday cake ritual is. We bake a cake for someone’s birthday, set it on fire, sing while gathering around the birthday holder, and then expect that special person to blow out the candles, whereupon we applaud as if he had just accomplished a real feat. It would look ridiculous to an outsider.
Here is some footage of the badnjak outside the Belgrade Church of Saint Sava:
Enjoy the feast!