Serbian Christmas traditions

Serbian Christmas traditions
An icon representing the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the traditional Julian Calendar. From 1900 until 2100, the Julian calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian and therefore Serbian Christmas Day falls on 7 January of the Gregorian calendar. Note "Christmas Day" is in fact only the first day of Christmas, as the festival is celebrated for three consecutive days.

The Serbian name for Christmas is Božić (Cyrillic: Божић, [ˈbɔʒitɕ]), which is the diminutive form of the word bog, meaning 'god'.

There are many, complex traditions associated with the Christmas holidays. They are most likely to be seen in their purest form in large, extended families in the country. They vary from place to place, and in many areas have been updated or watered down to suit modern living.


Christmas Eve

The Serbian name for Christmas Eve during the day is Badnji dan. After sunset it becomes Badnje veče.[note 1] On this day the family makes preparations for the oncoming celebration.

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, congratulating the holiday, singing, and making performances; this continues through the next three days.


The badnjak is a log brought into the house and placed on the fire on the evening of Christmas Eve, much like a yule log in other European traditions. There are many regional variations surrounding the customs and practices connected with the badnjak.[1]

Early in the morning the head of each family, usually accompanied by several male relatives, selects and fells the tree from which the log will be cut for their household. The group announces its departure by firing guns or small celebratory mortars called prangija.[2][3] The Turkey oak is the most popular species of tree selected in most regions, but other oaks, or less frequently other kinds of tree, are also chosen.[1] Generally, each household prepares one badnjak, although more are cut in some regions.[3][4]

When the head of household finds a suitable tree, he stands in front of it facing east. After throwing grain at the tree, he greets it with the words "Good morning and happy Christmas Eve to you", makes the Sign of the Cross, says a prayer, and kisses the tree.[4][5] He then cuts it slantwise on its eastern side, using an axe. Some men put gloves on before they start to cut the tree, and from then on never touch the badnjak with their bare hands. The tree should fall to the east, unhindered by surrounding trees.[3] Its top is removed, leaving the badnjak of such a length that allows it to be carried on a man's shoulder, up to about 2.5 meters (8.2 ft) long.[5] Once in the home, each badnjak is leaned vertically against the house beside the entrance door.[3] In some areas, the badnjak is cut into three logs.[4]

In the evening, a man of the family brings their badnjak into the house. If there is more than one badnjak, the thickest of them is regarded as the main one, and is brought in first. Stepping across the threshold, right foot first, the man greets his gathered family with the words "Good evening and happy Christmas Eve to you." The woman of the house greets him back, saying "May God give you well-being, and may you have good luck", or "Good luck to you, and together with you for many years to come [may we be]", or similar, before throwing grain from a sieve at the man and the badnjak he carries.[3]

Upon entering the house the man approaches the fireplace, called ognjište ([ˈɔɡɲiːʃtɛ])—the hearth of an ognjište is similar to a campfire, in that it has no vertical surround. He lays the badnjak down on the fire and moves it a little forward, to summon prosperity for the household.[3] Any other logs are brought in by other males and laid on the fire parallel or perpendicular to the first.[5] The head of the household takes a jug of wine and pours some on the badnjak; in some regions, he may strew wheat grains over the logs.[2][5] He then proposes a toast: "Grant, O God, that there be health and joy in this home, that our grain and grapevines yield well, that children be born healthy to us, that our property increase in the field, pen, and barn!" or similar.[3] The head drinks a draught of wine from the jug, after which it is passed to other members of household.[6]

The moment when the badnjak burns through may be marked with festivities, such as the log being kissed by the head of household,[1] and wine being poured over it accompanied by toasts.[6] A reward may be given to the family member who was the first to notice the event, and in the past the men would go outside and fire their guns in celebration. Once the log has burnt through, some families let the fire go out, while in others the men keep watch in shifts during the night to keep the badnjak burning.[3]

Photograph of a young woman in winter clothes arranging variously sized oak tree branches laid out around two sides of a small square. The square is surrounded by a row of trees through which large buildings of a city can be seen.
Badnjaks on sale at Kalenić Market, Belgrade

Another type of the badnjak that has developed among the Serbs has mostly replaced the traditional log, whose burning is usually unfeasible in modern homes. It is a cluster of oak twigs with their brown leaves still attached, with which the home is decorated on the Eve. This cluster is also called the badnjak, and it is usually kept in the home until next Christmas Eve. For the convenience of those living in towns and cities, such little badnjaks can be bought at marketplaces or distributed in churches. In a common arrangement, the cluster of oak twigs is bound together with twigs of European Cornel and several stalks of straw.[3]

Since the early 1990s the Serbian Orthodox Church has, together with local communities, organized public celebrations on Christmas Eve. There are typically three elements to such celebrations: the preparation, the ritual, and the festivity. The preparation consists of 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 Vespers, 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 gathering around the fire and socializing. Each particular celebration has its own specific traits however, reflecting the traditions of the local community.[7]

The laying of a badnjak on the fire was considered the least a Serbian family could do to show their devotion to Serbian tradition. In Petar II Petrović-Njegoš's poem The Mountain Wreath, the plot of which takes place in 18th-century Montenegro, Voivode Batrić urges converts to Islam to return to Christianity and Serbdom: "[...] Lay the Serbian Christmas-log [badnjak] on the fire, paint the Easter eggs various colours, observe with care the Lent and Christmas fasts. As for the rest, do what your heart desires!"[8]

In old Christmas songs, the badnjak and Christmas are referred to as male personages, with an opposition made between the former, described as old, and the latter, described as young. The Serbian name for Christmas is Božić, the diminutive form of the noun bog, meaning 'god'; Božić can be thus translated as Young God.[9]

Christmas straw

Immediately after the badnjak has been brought in, or immediately before in some places, an armful of straw is spread over the floor. The straw is usually brought in with the same greetings and throwing of grain as the badnjak. The person spreading it may imitate a hen clucking to call her chicks, "Kvo, kvo, kvo", with the family's children imitating chicks, "Piju, piju, piju", while they pick at the straw.[3] In Čečava, northern Bosnia, the children then lie down on the straw, before closing their eyes and picking a stalk with their lips: the child that picked the longest stalk will supposedly be the luckiest in the following year.[10] In the Bay of Kotor, the ceremony is accompanied by the words "Kuda slama, tuda slava"—"Whither straw, thither celebration." A common custom is to scatter a handful of walnuts over the straw.[6] It will be collected and taken out of the house on the morning of the second day after Christmas. Some of the straw may be set aside and used in apotropaic practices in the coming year.[3]

Petar II Petrović-Njegoš describes the holiday atmosphere on Christmas Eve through the words of Abbot Stefan, a main character of The Mountain Wreath:

Ватра плама боље него игда,
прострта је слама испред огња,
прекршћени на огњу бадњаци;
пушке пучу, врте се пецива,
гусле гуде, а кола пјевају,
с унучађу ђедови играју,
по три паса врте се у кола,
све би река једногодишници;
све радошћу дивном наравњено.
А што ми се највише допада,
што свачему треба наздравити![11]

The fire's burning brighter than ever,
the straw is spread in front of the fire,
Christmas logs are laid on the fire crossways;
the rifles crack, and roasts on spits do turn,
the gusle plays, and the dancers sing,
grandfathers dance with their young grandchildren,
in the kolo join three generations,
it seems they're almost of the same age;
everything is filled with bright mirth and joy.
But what I like best of all, so help me,
one has to drink a toast to everything![8]

Christmas Eve Dinner

Once the badnjak and straw have been taken into the house, the Christmas Eve dinner may begin. The head of household makes the Sign of the Cross, lights a candle, and censes the whole house. In some regions it is a custom that he then goes out into the yard, calls by name pest animals (e.g. wolves, foxes, and hawks) and his personal enemies, inviting them, "Come to dinner now and again in a year, God willing." This is intended to protect the household from them for a year.[3]

Until the beginning of the 20th century in the Pirot District, south-eastern Serbia, the head of household would go out to his woodpile,[note 2] where he would invite German (pronounced [ˈɡerman]) – a male mythological being associated with bringing rain and hail. He would take with him a loaf of bread called good luck, prepared particularly for this ritual, rakia, wine, and a wax candle. At the woodpile, he would shout three times, "German, German, wherever you are, come to dinner right now, and in the summer do not let me see your eyes anywhere!" He would then light the candle, take a sip of rakia, taste some bread, drink wine, and go back into his house. Asked what happened with German, he would answer, "He came, so we dined and drank amply of rakia and wine, and then we parted." This ritual was intended to prevent summer hailstorms.[12]

Before the table is served, it is strewn with a thin layer of straw and covered with a white cloth. The family members sit down at the table. Prior to tucking in, they all rise and a man or boy among them says a prayer, or they together sing the Troparion of the Nativity in Church Slavonic language:[13]

Troparion of the Nativity.png

Your birth, O Christ our God,
dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth.
For by Your birth those who adored stars
were taught by a star
to worship You, the Sun of Justice,
and to know You, Orient from on High.
O Lord, glory to You.[14]

Christmas Eve being a fast day, the dinner is prepared in accordance with that, but it is copious and diverse in foods. Besides a round unleavened loaf of bread called badnjački kolač, and salt, which are necessary, this meal may comprise e.g. roast fish, cooked beans, sauerkraut, noodles with ground walnuts, honey, and wine.[15] It used to be served in some villages on a sack filled with straw, with the family seated around it on the floor.[3] In the north Dalmatian region of Bukovica, a part of food that remained after the dinner used to be put on a potsherd, and taken to the rubbish heap.[note 2] Wolf was there invited for dinner, "My dear wolf, do not slaughter my sheep, here you are groats! Here you are yours, and leave mine alone!"[16]

Following dinner, young people visit their friends, a group of whom may gather at the house of one of them. The elderly narrate stories form the olden times. Christmas songs are sung, in which Christmas is treated as a male personage. An old Christmas song from the Bay of Kotor has the following lyrics:[5]

Božić zove svrh planine, one visoke:
„Veselite se, Srbi braćo, vrijeme vi je!
Nalagajte krupna drva, ne cijepajte!
Sijecite suvo meso, ne mjerite!
Prostirite šenič' slamu mjesto trpeze,
a po slami trpežnjake, svilom kićene!
A odaje i pendžere lovoričicom!
A ikone i stolove masliničicom!
Utočite rujna vina, rujna crvena,
i rakije lozovače prve bokare!
Vi, đevojke i nevjeste, kola igrajte,
a vi, staro i nejako, Boga molite!“

Christmas calls from top of mountain, of that lofty one,
“Be rejoicing, O Serbs, brothers, it's time for you to!
Replenish the fire with large logs, do you not chop up!
Cut off slices of the dried meat, do you not measure!
Spread bundles of the wheaten straw instead of tables,
and over the straw – tablecloths, embellished with silk!
And the chambers and the windows – with the laurel twigs!
And the icons and the tables – with the olive twigs!
Fill glasses of the ruby wine, of the ruby red,
and the first pitchers of lozovača rakia!
You, girls and newly-wed women, do the kolo dance,
and you, old and infirm people, make prayers to God!"

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, some Christmas songs are sung during days close to Christmas Eve, others on that day, and still others on Christmas Day itself. The following song is one of those sung in the evening before Christmas Day:[17]

Божић сједи у травици,
у црвеној кабаници.
Божић виче иза воде:
„Пренес'те ме преко воде;
не шаљ'те ми старе бабе,
старе бабе темрљаве,
превалиће ме;
не шаљ'те ми дјевојака,
дјевојке су ђаволасте,
бациће ме;
не шаљ'те ми невјестице,
невјестице везиљице,
убошће ме;
већ ми шаљ'те домаћина
да ме превезе,
домаћин ће славити ме
довијека свог.“

Christmas is seated in the grass,
clothèd in a red overcoat.
He calls from across the water,
"Carry me over the water;
do not send me old grandmothers,
old grandmothers are feeblish,
they will let me fall;
do not send me youthful damsels,
youthful damsels are frolicsome,
they will throw me;
do not send little brides to me,
little brides are embroiderers,
they will prick me;
but send me a head of household
to take me across,
household head will celebrate me
as long as he lives."

It is a custom in Banat that, after Christmas Eve dinner, groups of children go from house to house of their neighborhood and sing to neighbors. This custom is called korinđanje, and the children who participate in it are called korinđaši. They knock on a neighbor's door or ring the doorbell; when the neighbor comes out they greet him, and ask if they are allowed to sing. If the answer is affirmative, they sing a children's ditty or the Troparion of the Nativity. As a reward, the neighbor gives them candies or even money; more traditional gifts include walnuts, prunes, apples, and cakes. Not only can Serbian children be korinđaši, but also Romanian and Hungarian ones.[18]

Once the household members have gone to bed, an elderly woman of the family sticks a knife into the house door from the inside. Alternatively, she puts a hawthorn stake by the door, hanging a wreath of garlic on it. This is done as a protection against curses, witches, and demons. For the same reason, children are rubbed with garlic on the palms, armpits, and soles before going to bed. In some regions, men keep watch in shifts by the ognjište during the night, to keep the fire burning.[3][6]


Christmas Day is in fact only the first day of Christmas. The celebration is announced at dawn by church bells, and by shooting from guns and prangijas. The head of household and some of the family go to church to attend the Morning Liturgy. No one is to eat anything before tasting the prosphora, which the head of household will bring from church for those who stay at home to do domestic tasks for this morning.[6][19]

The Serbs native to the Slovenian region of White Carniola try to see only healthy and prosperous people on this day.[20] The Serbs of Timiş County in Romania have since the interwar period adopted the custom of erecting in their homes a Christmas tree, which they call krisindla, after the German Christkindl.[18] On Christmas Day children sing little songs, at the beginning of which Christmas is said to knock or tread loudly. This may be understood as a theophany: by the sound, Young God makes his arrival known to people.[21][22] The following are the lyrics of two of such songs:

Божић штапом бата,
носи сува злата
од врата до врата.
На чија ће врата
дат' благослов, злата?
На наша ће врата
просут' шаку злата.[23]

Christmas knocks with a stick,[note 3]
he carries solid gold
from a door to a door.
Upon whose door will he
give his blessing and gold?
Upon our door he will
spill a handful of gold.
Божић, Божић бата,
носи киту злата
да позлати врата,
и од боја до боја,
и сву кућу до крова![4]
Christmas, Christmas treads loud,[note 3]
carries a clump of gold
to make golden the door,
and also, from floor to floor,
all the house to the rooftop!

Strong water

A girl or woman goes early in the morning to a resource of water, as a well, spring, or stream. Putting by the resource an ear of maize and a bunch of basil which she has brought from home, she collects water with a bucket, and takes it home to her family. This water collected on early Christmas morning is called strong water, believed to possess a special beneficial power. Each member of the family washes the face with it, and drinks it before breakfast; infants are bathed in it. On her way back home, the girl who carries strong water picks several cornel or willow twigs, with which children are gently struck that morning. This is intended to strengthen their health.[note 4][19]


A polažajnik, called also polaženik, polaznik, or radovan, is the first person who visits a family during Christmas. This visit may be fortuitous or pre-arranged. People expect that it will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuing year. A family often picks in advance a man or boy, and arranges that he visit them on Christmas morning. If this proves to be lucky for the family, he is invited again next year to be the polažajnik. If not, they send word to him not to come any more in that capacity.[2][6][19]

A polažajnik steps into the house with his right foot first, greeting the gathered family, "Christ is Born, Happy Christmas." He carries grain in his glove, which he shakes out before the threshold, or throws at the family members. "Truly He is Born," they respond throwing grain at him.[2] The polažajnik then approaches the ognjište, takes a poker or a branch, and strikes repeatedly the burning badnjak to make sparks fly from it. At the same time he utters these words (or similar):[19]

Колико варница, толико среће у овој кући.
Колико варница, толико у домаћинском џепу новаца.
Колико варница, толико у тору оваца.
Колико варница, толико прасади и јагањаца.
Колико варница, толико гусака и пилади,
а највише здравља и весеља.

How many sparks, that much happiness in this house.
How many sparks, that much money in the household head's pocket.
How many sparks, that many sheep in the pen.
How many sparks, that many pigs and lambs.
How many sparks, that many geese and chickens,
and most of all, health and joy.

Having said that, he moves the log a little forward and throws a coin into the fire. The woman of the house puts a woolen blanket on the polažajnik's back, and seats him on a low stool by the ognjište. In the moment when he sits down, they try to pull away the stool beneath him, as if to make him fall on the floor. The polažajnik goes out into the yard, and throws grain inside a circle made with the rope with which Christmas straw has been tied, calling chickens. When they gather in the circle he catches a rooster, whose head is then cut off by him or the head of household on the house's threshold. The rooster will be roasted on a wooden spit as a part of Christmas dinner. A polažajnik usually stays for dinner at his hosts' home. He is gifted a round cake with an embedded coin, and a towel, shirt, socks, or some other useful thing.[19]

A modern version of the custom to make sparks fly from the badnjak is adapted to houses without an ognjište. Several oak twigs, which symbolically represent a badnjak, are put on fire in a wood-burning kitchen stove. The polažajnik stirs them with a poker saying the aforementioned words.[3]

A custom to use a domestic animal as a polažajnik was kept in some regions until the first half of the 20th century. A sheep, ox, swine, or calf was led into the house on Christmas morning.[19] In the west Serbian region of Rađevina, centered in the town Krupanj, the head of household would place a sheep between himself and the ognjište, and pronounce the aforementioned words while striking the badnjak with a branch cut from it.[4] In the region of Bihor, north-eastern Montenegro, a round loaf of bread with a hole in its center was prepared; four grooves were impressed into its surface along two mutually perpendicular diameters of the loaf. After an ox was led into the house, the loaf was put on his horn, and some grain was thrown on him. Yanking his head, the ox would throw off the loaf; having fallen down, it would break into four pieces along the grooves. The pieces were picked up and distributed among the family members. This custom was preserved up to the 1950s even in some Muslim families of the region.[24] Ethnologists consider that the animal polažajnik is more ancient than the human one.[25]


In the morning of Christmas Day, or more often Eve, men build a fire in the house yard, and roast a pig, or more rarely a sheep (pečenica) on a long wooden spit. People who raise their own swine dedicate one for the pečenica a month or two before, and feed it with better fodder. It used to be killed on Tucindan, the day before Christmas Eve, by hitting on the head with a lump of salt. Its throat was then cut, the blood being collected and mixed with fodder. Feeding cattle with this mixture was believed to make them thrive. The name Tucindan is derived from the verb tući, meaning 'to beat'. The pig is now usually slaughtered on the same day when it will be cooked. Those who roast the pečenica on Christmas Eve, bring it after the roasting into the house with the ritual similar to that of bringing in the badnjak.[4][6][26]

Christmas loaves

An essential feature of Christmas dinner is a česnica, which is a round loaf of bread. Dough for a česnica is made with strong water. While it is kneaded, a golden or silver coin is put into it. Some people put also little objects made of cornel wood, representing chickens, oxen, cows, swine, bees, etc.[6][19]

In addition to a česnica, other kinds of Christmas loaves may be regionally baked, each with its specific name and purpose within the celebration. A božićni kolač, meaning Christmas cake, is despite its name a round loaf of bread. Before baking, a Christogram is impressed on its upper side with a wooden seal. For each male member of the family a round loaf named ratarica is made – the biggest one for the head, and the smallest one for the youngest boy. As for the female members, for each of them a pletenica is prepared, a loaf shaped like a three-strand braid – the biggest one for the woman of the house, and the smallest one for the youngest girl.[19] A set of little loaves is baked with a different symbol inscribed on the upper side of each of them, representing: a vineyard, barrel, hoof, ox, cow with a calf, sow with a piglet, ewe with a lamb, mare with a foal, hen with chicks, plow, hand of a sower, goose, or pigeon.[27]

Christmas dinner

Family members break a česnica at the beginning of Christmas dinner.

Christmas dinner is the most celebratory meal a family has during a year. In the early afternoon the family members sit down at the table. When the head of household gives a sign, all rise. He lights a candle, incenses his family and house, and prays the Lord's Prayer. After that, they all kiss each other on the cheek saying, "The peace of God among us, Christ is Born." They together hold the česnica and rotate it three times counterclockwise, singing the Troparion of the Nativity.[13] They then break the česnica among themselves, a piece of which is set aside for absent family members, another piece for a stranger who might become their guest, and the rest is used during the dinner. It is said that the one who finds the coin hidden in the česnica will have an exceptionally good luck in the ensuing year. In some regions, a half of this festive loaf is set aside and eaten on New Year's Day as per Julian calendar, i. e. January 14 on the Gregorian calendar. The main course of Christmas dinner is roast pork of the pečenica. During the dinner, the head of household proposes a toast to his family with a glass of wine several times.[6][19] The verbalization of these toasts is usually traditional, for example this one from Herzegovina and Montenegro:[28]

Сјај Боже и Божићу,
кућњем шљемену и сјемену,
волу и тежаку, козици и овчици,
путнику намјернику, рибици у водици, птици у горици!
Сјај Боже и Божићу,
Мени домаћину и моме племену и шљемену!

Shine, O God and Christmas,
on rooftop and children of house,
on ox and farmer, goat and sheep,
on traveler, fish in water, bird in mountain!
Shine, O God and Christmas,
on me, head of household, and on my family and rooftop!

After Christmas dinner, the remaining food should not be removed from the table – only the used tableware is taken away. The food is covered with a white cloth, and eaten in the evening as supper.[19]


The koleda is a custom that a group of young men, masked and costumed, goes from house to house of their village singing special koleda songs and performing acts of magic to summon health, wealth, and prosperity for each household.[29] The members of the group are called koledari. The koleda is carried out from the Feast of Saint Ignatius Theophorus (five days before Christmas) up until the Epiphany.[30] This custom is best preserved in the upper Pčinja District, and in the region around the River South Morava in the Jablanica District, south-eastern Serbia. Regarded as pagan and discouraged by the Serbian Orthodox Church, the koleda ceased to be performed among most of the Serbs during the 19th and 20th centuries.[31]

Koledari prepare themselves during several days before the start of the koleda: they practice the koleda songs, and make their masks and costumes.[29] The masks can be classified into three types according to the characters they represent: the anthropomorphic, the zoomorphic (representing bear, cow, stag, goat, sheep, ox, wolf, stork, etc.), and the anthropo-zoomorphic.[32] The main material from which they are produced is hide. The face, however, may be made separately out of a dried gourd shell or a piece of wood, and then sewn to hide so that the mask can cover all the head. The moustache, beard, and eyebrows are made with black wool, horsehair, or hemp fibers, and the teeth with beans. Zoomorphic and anthropo-zoomorphic masks may have white, black, or red painted horns attached to them. The costumes are prepared from ragged clothes, sheepskins with the wool turned outside, and calf hides. Strings of little bells and ratchets are fastened around the waist and the knees of the costumes. An ox tail with a bell fixed at its end may be attached at the back of them.[29]

The leader of the group is called Grandpa. The other koledari gather at his house on the eve of koleda, and at midnight they all go out and start their activities. Walking through streets of the village they shout and make noise with bells and ratchets. Most are armed with sabers or clubs. One of them, called Bride, is masked and costumed as a pregnant woman. He holds a distaff in his hand and spins hemp fibers. The koledari tease and joke with Bride, which gives a comic note to the koleda. Several of them are called alosnici (s. alosnik), representing men possessed by the demon ala. There may be other named characters in the group.[29][31]

The koledari sing special songs, in which the word koledo, the vocative case of koleda, is inserted in the middle and at the end of each verse. Grandpa initiates each song, determining which one will be sung at a given time. His choice depends on whether they are in a street, or coming in front of, entering, staying in, or leaving a house: there is a separate set of the songs for each of these situations. Vuk Stefanović Karadžić recorded in the 19th century the lyrics of a number of the koleda songs, including the following one, which koledari sung while entering a house:[9]

Добар вече, коледо, домаћине, коледо!
Затекосмо где вечера,
на трпези вино пије,
твој говедар код говеда.
Краве ти се истелиле,
све волове витороге;
кобиле се иждребиле,
све коњице путоноге;
овце ти се изјагњиле,
све овчице свилоруне.
Чобанин се наслонио
на гранчицу ораову.
Туд пролази млада мома,
да поткине ту гранчицу.
Проговара чобанине:
„Девојчице, бело лице,
ко ти реза борну сукњу,
у скутови разбориту,
у појасу сабориту?“
„Имам брата баш-терзију,
те ми реза борну сукњу,
у скутови разбориту,
у појасу сабориту.“

Good evening, koledo, head of household, koledo!
We've found him eat the evening meal,
and drink of wine at a table,
your cow herder, by your cattle.
May all of your cows be calving
nothing but the twist-horned oxen;
may all of your mares be foaling
nothing but the colts with stockings;
may all of your ewes be lambing
nothing but the silken-wooled sheep.
A sheep herder has leaned himself
on a slender stick of walnut.
There passes by a young damsel
to pull away that slender stick.
The sheep herder begins to speak,
"Little damsel with a white face,
who has fashioned your pleated dress,
along the skirt, with spreading pleats,
at the waistline, with gathered pleats?"
"My brother is tailor-in-chief,
he has fashioned my pleated dress,
along the skirt, with spreading pleats,
at the waistline, with gathered pleats."

In the following song, also recorded by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, the badnjak and Christmas are referred to as male personages. An opposition is made between the former, described as old, and the latter, described as young. Koledari sung it to the household head in whose home they came:[9]

Домаћине, коледо, господине, коледо!
Застасмо те за вечером,
где вечеру ти вечераш,
белим грлом вино пијеш,
и очима бисер бројиш,
и рукама гајтан плетеш.
Додај нама крај гајтана,
на чем ћемо Бога молит
за старога - за Бадњака,
за младога - за Божића.

Head of household, koledo, honored master, koledo!
We've found you at the evening meal:
you are eating your evening meal,
with the white throat drinking of wine,
and with the eyes counting up pearls,
and with the hands knitting ribbon.
Pass the end of ribbon to us,
on which we will pray to the God
for the old one - for the Badnjak,
for the young one - for the Christmas.

Besides the singing, the koledari also chase away demons from the household. First they search the house to find out where the demons hide. They look everywhere, at the same time shouting, dancing, jumping, knocking on the floor and walls with sticks, and teasing Bride. When they find the demons, they drive them out of the hiding place, and fight with them swinging their sabers and clubs. After the demons are chased away, the koledari briefly dance the kolo, and then bless the household. As a reward, they receive a loaf of bread which the family prepared specially for them, and other food gifts.[29][31]


On Christmas Eve and Day, a group of boys dressed in variegated costumes goes from house to house of their village carrying a vertep—a litter constructed as a wooden model of a house or a church. The name vertep comes from the Church Slavonic вєртє́пъ ([ʋerˈtep]), meaning cave, referring to the cave that housed the manger in which newborn Jesus Christ was laid. There are two dolls inside the litter: one represents the Theotokos, and the other, laid in a model of a manger, represents the Christ Child; the floor is spread with straw.[18] This custom is called vertep, and the boys participating in it are the vertepaši. In front of each house they sing Christmas songs, and recite poems that praise the birth of Christ. Similarly to koledari, vertepaši are armed with wooden swords and fence with each other in front of houses.[30] Vertep could be regarded as a Christianized form of the koleda. This custom is mainly present among the Serbs of Vojvodina.[33]

Second and third day of Christmas

On the second day of Christmas, families visit each other at their homes. On the third day, Christmas straw is taken out of houses. Little bundles are made with it, and hung on fruit trees to make the fruit better. A bigger bundle of it is stored in a dry place: it will be burned on St. George's Day, as a protection of fields against hail. Another bundle is taken away across the nearest stream – a symbolic elimination of all the vermin that may be present in the house. Men make crosses from the remnant of the thicker side of badnjak, and stick them under eaves, on fields, meadows, vineyards, and apiaries. It is believed this will help that the ensuing year be happy and fruitful. A good sign that this will be the case is when there is a lot of snow on Christmas Day.[19]

The third day of Christmas coincides with St. Stephen's Day, which is the slava of many Serbian families. It is also the slava of Republika Srpska. In this way, many Serbs celebrate two important holidays, Christmas and slava, within three days.[19]

Twelve Days of Christmas

During the Twelve Days of Christmas (January 7 – January 18 on the Gregorian calendar), one is to greet another person with "Christ is Born," which should be responded to with "Truly He is Born."[note 5]

January 14 (of the Gregorian calendar) is New Year's Day or Mali Božić – Little Christmas. The head and the right Boston butt of pečenica, from the Christmas dinner, are served for dinner on this day. A part of this meal consists of little round loaves made with cornmeal and cream. They are named vasilica after Saint Basil the Great, because January 1 is also the feast day of this saint. People versed in scapulimancy used the shoulder blade of the Boston butt to foretell events concerning the family in the ensuing year.[34] The snout cut from the head of pečenica could have been used in love magic. If a girl looked stealthily through the snout at a boy she loved, but who did not care for her, he would supposedly go mad about her.[35]

On the day before Little Christmas, especially in south-eastern Serbia, a group of young unmarried men goes through streets of their village and chase away demons by making a deafening noise. Sirovari, as these men are called, shout as loud as possible two words, "Sirovo burovo!" accompanied by the noise made with bells, ratchets, and horseshoes strung on a rope. The group consists of seven, nine or eleven members; it is said that if there were an even number of sirovari, one of them would die within a year. Moving through the village, they try to make it impossible for anyone to count them. They constantly change positions in the group, hide and suddenly reappear. Villagers are glad to receive them in their homes, and treat them with food and drink.[36]

The following custom was recorded at the end of the 19th century in the north Dalmatian region of Bukovica. Early in the morning of Little Christmas, children of a family would spread Christmas straw from their house around the stake in the center of their village's threshing floor. The use of this stake was to tether a horse to it; the animal was then driven around to thresh grain by treading with its hooves. The woman of the house would bake a big round unleavened loaf of bread with a hole in its center, inscribed with circles, crosses, hooks, and other symbols on its surface. The loaf would be taken to the threshing floor, and fixed round the stake. The oldest man of the family would hold the stake with his right hand above the loaf. As for his left hand, the next oldest man would hold it with his right hand, and so on to the youngest boy who could walk steadily. Holding hands in this manner, they would run around the stake three times. During the running they would shout in unison as loud as possible, "Ajd ajde, koba moja!" meaning "Giddy-up, my mare!" – except for the man holding the stake, who would shout, "De! De! De!" meaning "Go! Go! Go!" They would after that take the hollow loaf back home, and put it near the ognjište beside the remnant of badnjak. The woman of the house would "feed them fodder", i.e. prepare a meal for them, consisting of đevenica (a sort of dried sausage), roast pork, and the hollow loaf, plus rakia for adults. Having eaten, they would go back to the threshing floor and repeat the whole ritual, only this time without the loaf. In the end, they would collect Christmas straw from the threshing floor; it was put in hens' nests to prevent them from laying eggs outside the nests. This custom was considered as especially joyful for children.[16]

The last of the Twelve Days of Christmas, January 18 (January 5 on the Julian calendar), is the eve of the Epiphany. Its folk name is Krstovdan[note 6] – the Day of the Cross. This is a strict fast day; the adults should eat almost nothing. It was believed that the north, south, east, and west winds crossed each other on Krstovdan. The wind that overpowered the other three, would be dominant in the ensuing year.[34]

This twelve-day period used to be called the unbaptized days, during which demonic forces of all kinds were considered to be more than usually active and dangerous. People were cautious not to attract their attention, and did not go out late at night. The latter precaution especially applied to the demons called karakondžula, imagined as heavy, squat, and ugly creatures. When a karakondžula found someone outdoors during the night of an unbaptized day, it would jump on his back, and make him carry it wherever it wanted. This torture would end only when roosters announced the dawn; at that moment the creature would release its victim and run away.[34]


Gift giving during Christmas is not a Serbian tradition - instead, gifts are given on the three Sundays before Christmas Day - Detinjci or Djetinjci, Materice, and Oci. Children give gifts on Detinjci, married women on Materice, and married men on Oci. The best presents are exchanged between parents and their children.[26]

The gifts are given in the form of a ransom. In the morning of Detinjci, adults use a belt, rope, or scarf to tie their and neighbors' children. A child is tied by its legs – to one another if it stands, or to a chair if it sits. Children have already prepared presents for this event, with which they "pay the ransom" to their parents or neighbors who have tied them, and get untied. In the morning of Materice, a child or siblings suddenly tie their mother in the same manner as they have been tied on Detinjci. The mother, as if surprised, asks why she has been tied. The children then wish a happy Feast of Materice to her, and she pays the "ransom" with prepared presents, after which they untie her. They may do the same with married women from their neighborhood, receiving from them usually some smaller gifts, as candies and fruits. Mothers prepare a family feast for dinner on this day. In the morning of Oci, the Sunday immediately before Christmas Day, a child or siblings together tie their father and married men from their neighborhood, who too must pay the "ransom" to get untied. Women as well may be the tying ones on Oci. Instead of actually tying a child, woman, or man, it is often sufficient just to show them a rope to receive a present from them. Out of these three holidays, Materice is the most festive. It is sometimes celebrated even among those who do not celebrate Detinjci and Oci.[26]

List of terms

The following is a list of Serbian terms related to Christmas, written in the Serbian Latin alphabet and the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, with pronunciations transcribed in the IPA (see WP:IPA for Serbo-Croatian).

Serbian Latin alphabet Serbian Cyrillic alphabet IPA Explanation
badnjačar бадњачар [ˈbadɲat͡ʃaːr] The man who takes the badnjak into house on Christmas Eve
badnjački kolač бадњачки колач [ˈbadɲaːt͡ʃkiː ˈkolaːt͡ʃ] A loaf necessary for Christmas Eve dinner
badnjak бадњак [ˈbadɲaːk] The oak log that burns on an ognjište during Christmas Eve and Day, or in church yard on Christmas Eve; leaved oak twigs burnt instead of the whole tree, or used as an ornament in house during Christmas
Badnje veče Бадње вече [ˈbadɲeː ˈʋet͡ʃeː] Christmas Eve after the sunset
Badnji dan Бадњи дан [ˈbadɲiː ˈdaːn] Christmas Eve before the sunset
Božić Божић [ˈboʒit͡ɕ] Christmas
božićni kolač божићни колач [ˈboʒit͡ɕniː ˈkolaːt͡ʃ] A kind of Christmas loaf
česnica чесница [ˈt͡ʃeːsnit͡sa] A Christmas loaf, necessary for Christmas dinner
Detinjci, Djetinjci Детињци, Дјетињци [ˈdetiːɲt͡si][ˈdjetiːɲt͡si] The third Sunday before Christmas, when children give presents
German Герман [ˈɡerman] A spirit with an influence on rain and hail
karakondžula караконџула [karaˈkond͡ʒula] A demon
koleda коледа [ˈkoleda] A Christmas custom
koledari коледари [ˈkoledaːri] Participants in the koleda
korinđanje коринђање [koˈrind͡ʑaɲe] A Christmas custom
korinđaši коринђаши [korinˈd͡ʑaːʃi] Participants in the korinđanje
Krstovdan Крстовдан [ˈkrs.toʋ.daːn] The day before the Epiphany
Mali Božić Мали Божић [ˈmaːliː ˈboʒit͡ɕ] A folk name for New Year's Day according to the Julian Calendar, literally Little Christmas; coincides with the Feast of Saint Basil the Great
Materice Материце [ˈmaterit͡se] The second Sunday before Christmas, when married women give presents
Oci Оци [ˈot͡si] The Sunday immediately before Christmas, when married men give presents
ognjište огњиште [ˈoɡɲiːʃte] An indoor fireplace without a vertical surround, so the fire burning on it is similar to a campfire.
pečenica печеница [peˈt͡ʃenit͡sa] A whole pig roasted for Christmas dinner
pletenica плетеница [pleˈtenit͡sa] A kind of Christmas loaf
položajnik полoжајник [ˈpoloʒaːjnik] The first person who visits a family during Christmas
prangija прангија [ˈpranɡija] A small celebratory mortar
ratarica ратарица [raˈtarit͡sa] A kind of Christmas loaf
sirovari сировари [ˈsirovaːri] A Christmas custom, and its participants
Tucindan Туциндан [ˈtuːt͡sindaːn] The day before Christmas Eve, when the pig for a pečenica used to be slaughtered
vasilica василица [ʋaˈsilit͡sa] A little round loaf made with cornmeal and cream, eaten for dinner on Mali Božić
vertep вертеп [ˈʋertep] A Christmas custom
vertepaši вертепаши [ʋerteˈpaːʃi] Participants in the vertep


  1. ^ For the pronunciation of Serbian terms, see the section "List of terms".
  2. ^ a b The woodpile and the rubbish heap, among others, are the border zones between the human and inhuman worlds in the mytho-magical world view of South Slavs. They can be used in the communication with spiritual beings and demons. See Trebješanin, Žarko. "Sorcery practise as the key to the understanding of the mytho-magical world image" (PDF). University of Niš. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-12-08. 
  3. ^ a b The first verse of both of these songs includes the word бата (bata), 3rd person singular present of the verb батати (batati), rarely used in modern Serbian. This verb can mean 'to knock', 'to bang' (see Čajkanović), or 'to tread loudly' (see Dimitrijević). This word is a homograph with the word бата (bata), a hypocoristic of the word брат (brat) which means brother and so sometimes the two could be mistaken.
  4. ^ There is a Serbian saying for a healthy person: zdrav kao dren, "as healthy as cornel".
  5. ^ These greetings in Serbian: „Христос се роди“ (pronounced [ˈxristɔs.sɛ ˈrɔdi]) – „Ваистину се роди“ ([ˈʋa.istinusɛ ˈrɔdi]).
  6. ^ This Krstovdan should not be confused with the Feast of Exaltation of the Cross, whose folk name in Serbian is also Krstovdan.


  1. ^ a b c Čajkanović, Veselin (1994). "Бадњак" (in Serbian). Речник српских народних веровања о биљкама [Dictionary of Serbian folk beliefs about plants]. Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga. pp. 268–71. 
  2. ^ a b c d Miles, Clement A. (2008). "The Yule Log". Christmas in Ritual and Tradition. Forgotten Books. pp. 192–99. ISBN 978-1605068145. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Vuković, Milan T. (2004). "Божићни празници" (in Serbian). Народни обичаји, веровања и пословице код Срба [Serbian folk customs, beliefs, and sayings] (12 ed.). Belgrade: Sazvežđa. pp. 77, 81–85. ISBN 86-83699-08-0. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Đurđev, Aleksandar (1988). "Годишњи обичаји" (in Serbian). Рађевина: обичаји, веровања и народно стваралаштво [Rađevina: customs, beliefs, and folk creativity]. Krupanj: Aleksandar Đurđev. pp. 79–90. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Vukmanović, Jovan (1962). "Božićni običaji u Boki Kotorskoj [Christmas traditions in the Bay of Kotor]" (in Serbian). Zbornik za narodni život i običaje Južnih Slovena (Zagreb: The Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts) 40: 491–503. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović (2005). "Нарави и обичаји у Црној Гори" (in Serbian). Живот и обичаји народа српскога [Life and customs of the Serbian people]. Belgrade: Politika: Narodna knjiga. pp. 323–26. ISBN 86-331-1946-3. 
  7. ^ Vučinić-Nešković, Vesna (January 2009). "Јавна прослава Божића [Public celebration of Christmas]" (in Serbian). New Review (Belgrade: Jat Airways). ISSN 0354-6705. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  8. ^ a b Petrović-Njegoš, Petar II (1986). Vasa D. Mihailovich. ed. The Mountain Wreath; translated and edited by Vasa D. Mihailovich. Irvine, California: C. Schlacks, Jr. verses 859–62, 2459–69. LCCN 86-021998. Retrieved 2009-09-05.
  9. ^ a b c Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović (1841). "Пјесме од коледе" (in Serbian). Српске народне пјесме. 1. Vienna: Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. pp. 120–121. 
  10. ^ Perić, Branko (1996). "Божићни обичаји" (in Serbian). Чечава: село у Републици Српској [Čečava: village in Republika Srpska]. Novi Sad: Papirus. p. 103. ISBN 86-82197-02-2. 
  11. ^ Petrović-Njegoš, Petar II (1990). Горски вијенац [The Mountain Wreath] (6th ed.) (in Serbian). Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga. verses 2459–69. ISBN 86-379-0134-4.
  12. ^ Janićijević, Jovan (1995) (in Serbian). U znaku Moloha: antropološki ogled o žrtvovanju. Belgrade: Idea. p. 186. ISBN 86-7547-037-1. 
  13. ^ a b "Божићни празници и обичаји" (in Serbian). Retrieved 2008-12-08. 
  14. ^ "Hymns of the Feast". Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-27. 
  15. ^ "Трпеза за Бадње вече" (in Serbian). Кувар. Krstarica. January 4, 2008. Retrieved 2008-12-08. 
  16. ^ a b Ardalić, Vladimir (March 1999). "Годишњи обичаји" (in Serbian). Буковица, Народни живот и обичаји. Project Rastko. Retrieved 2008-12-08. 
  17. ^ Petranović, Bogoljub (1989). "Божићне пјесме" (in Serbian). Српске народне пјесме из Босне и Херцеговине. 1. Sarajevo: Svjetlost. pp. 36–37. 
  18. ^ a b c Pavlović, Mirjana (2006). "Божићни обичаји Срба у Темишвару" (in Serbian). Glasnik Etnografskog instituta SANU (Belgrade: The Ethnographic Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts) 54 (1): 339–340. ISSN 0350-0861. 
  19. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Vuković, pp. 87-93
  20. ^ Filipović, Milenko S. (1970). "Srpska naselja u Beloj Krajini" (in Serbian). Radovi (Sarajevo: The Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Department of Social Sciences) (35): 224. 
  21. ^ Čajkanović, Veselin (1973). "Божић и Ђурђевдан" (in Serbian). Мит и религија у Срба: изабране студије. Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga. 
  22. ^ Dimitrijević, Vladimir (2006). "Деда Мраз и Божић Бата" (in Serbian). Црква и време (2nd ed.). Belgrade: The Holy Monastery of Hilandar. ISBN 86-84747-18-6. 
  23. ^ Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović (1866). "Пјесме божићне" (in Serbian). Српске народне пјесме из Херцеговине (женске). Vienna: Anna Karadžić. p. 340. 
  24. ^ Zirojević, Olga (2003). "Slava i praznici" (in Serbian). Islamizacija na južnoslovenskom prostoru. Belgrade: Srpski genealoški centar. ISBN 86-83679-12-8. 
  25. ^ Janićijević, p. 211
  26. ^ a b c Vuković, pp. 78-80
  27. ^ Janićijević, p. 221
  28. ^ Vuković, p. 252
  29. ^ a b c d e Kulišić, Špiro; Petar Ž. Petrović, Nikola Pantelić (1998). "Коледа" (in Serbian). Српски митолошки речник (2 ed.). Belgrade: The Ethnographic Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts: Interprint. ISBN 86-7587-017-5. 
  30. ^ a b Vuković, pp. 145-146
  31. ^ a b c Nedeljković, Mile (2000). "Коледа" (in Serbian). Српски обичајни календар за просту 2001. годину. Belgrade: Čin. ISBN 9788673740102. 
  32. ^ Marjanović, Vesna (September 2005). "Маске и ритуали у Србији" (in Serbian). Exhibitions. Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade. Retrieved 2009-03-30. 
  33. ^ Kulišić, Špiro; Petar Ž. Petrović, Nikola Pantelić (1998). "Вертеп" (in Serbian). Српски митолошки речник (2 ed.). Belgrade: The Ethnographic Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts: Interprint. ISBN 86-7587-017-5. 
  34. ^ a b c Vuković, pp. 94-95
  35. ^ Vuković, p. 222
  36. ^ Nedeljković, Mile (January 1998). "Srpski običajni kalendar proste 1998. godine" (in Serbian). Srpsko nasleđe (Belgrade: NIP Glas) 1 (1). ISSN 1450-6130. 

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