My mother, born in Yugoslavia in 1920, was never a big fan of folk customs, which she saw as more antiquated than quaint. She was a twentieth-century teen who preferred swing music and Sinatra to kolo circle dances. Reading Tolstoy to practicing her embroidery.
But when she and my father were building a new, post-WWII life in Baltimore, a city with no Serbian-American community to speak of, she wanted to pass on some appreciation of the culture left behind. And so I grew up among a set of annual traditions that were different from those of all the other kids at school, especially around Christmas time.
My parents, forging new customs for their growing family, decided to celebrate Christmas on December 25, American-style, with presents and a tree, and even the myth of Santa for the little ones. But January 7 would be Christmas, too: Serbian style. Slavs who are Eastern Orthodox (including Serbs, Ukrainians, and Russians) clock religious days by the ancient calendar devised by Julius Caesar in the year 46 C.E. Its reckonings are offset by about two weeks from that of the Gregorian calendar, adopted by Great Britain and her American colonies in 1752. So by the Julian calendar, December 25 falls on the Gregorian January 7.
To practice the full complement of Serbian Christmas customs, you’d need a whole Serbian village around you, and five days off from work. Full time festivities traditionally began the day before Christmas Eve, and involved much community involvement: a crew of boys to bring in your Badnjak, or oaken Yule log; another crew of boys carrying a creche and men dressed as the Three Kings to sing carols and tell the story of the Nativity; a man to knock on your door at 2 a.m. on Christmas morn to wish you a happy one; and assorted groups of folk popping in here and there on this day and that, for boiled plum brandy with water and honey, and for snacks of figs, prunes, flatbread, and cheese. We didn’t have access to the required cast of characters in Baltimore.
I grew up hearing about another tradition that would have been doable, but was definitely beyond what my mother was willing to do for the sake of heritage. This one involved the whole family walking through the house imitating chickens. The father crows like a rooster, the mother clucks like a hen, and the children follow behind, peeping and cheeping. Dad the rooster, leading this noisy parade, strews hay and straw in every room. Later, he throws a nut in every corner of the dining room. No sweeping is allowed till the three days of Christmas have passed. I was never sure of the connection of these rituals to Christmas, but they sounded like fun.
Even without the celebratory rifles fired in the air and the roast suckling pig (whose severed head is displayed on a platter on the dining room table till it’s finally eaten on the third day of Christmas, and nobody gets sick from it, I’m told), there was plenty left for us twentieth century Americans — even some customs you might enjoy trying for yourself. You don’t even have to wait for January 7.
One of my favorites is the tradition of sprouting wheat on a round plate. By the time the wheatgrass is about six inches high, it makes a striking solstice statement: new, green life growing lush during the darkest time of the year. With a votive candle in the middle and a red ribbon tied around the outside, this mini forest glows splendidly in a dimly-lit room, and casts a dramatic shadow on the ceiling and surrounding walls.
To grow your wheat, or žito (pronounced zhee-to), soak half a cup of whole wheat berries in water for a day or two, rinsing daily. When they begin to sprout, spread them out on a large dinner plate or small serving platter, one or two berries thick. Sprinkle water on them a few times a day, or cover them with a damp paper towel. Balance the moisture carefully: if the berries are kept too damp, they’ll begin to grow mold. Too dry, and they’ll die. I wish I had more masterful instructions to share on this point, but it’s an annual struggle for me, too. Sometimes I have to start over. It’s worth it. Put in the glass for the votive candle on about the fourth day, before the roots get too tough and tangled. Allow up to two weeks to get a nice thick crop. After you’re done with it, you can soak it off of the plate (it’ll be stuck at first) and put it outside for the birds.
The Božični Kolač, or Christmas Bread (pronounced bo-zheech-nee kolach) is a gloriously decorative bread, and it’s delicious, too. It’s not like any other bread I’ve ever seen or eaten. Tall, cylindrical, and rounded on top, like a crown, it’s covered with shiny ornaments made from dough. It’s rich, dense, yellow, and crumbly, with a thick and firm–yet tasty–crust. It’s ever so slightly sweet; in fact, the word “kolač” means cake. If you don’t want to make the ornaments, it’s wonderful plain, too. For a shiny crust, brush a bit of milk on top before baking.