In the recent years, Christmas trees have become a symbol not just of Christmas itself but of the season itself. It has, in a way, lost a great deal of its religious connotation and became a common sight even in families and countries which are not Catholic. Orthodox Christians have Christmas trees of their own, but them being the original hipsters, Christmas tree is somewhat different. Instead of a spruce, pine, or fir, Christmas tree in Serbia is called badnjak and it’s actually an oak. And we don’t decorate it, we burn it. I know, I know, you’re thinking What are these insane Serbian people doing now?. But it’s a pretty interesting story, so let’s get to it.
Disclaimer: traditions and beliefs surrounding badnjak are very elaborate and therefore tend to differ not just from region to region, but sometimes even from family to family. Furthermore, they have changed significantly in the last couple of decades, following the urbanization and modernization of Serbian lifestyle. The traditions described in this article are the ones practiced in the author’s family, who has grown up in the countryside in the northern Bosnia. Thank you for not being nitpicky about this.
Early in the morning of Christmas Eve, before the sunrise, the man of the house goes out into the forest to find the perfect oak tree. He is usually accompanied by other male members of the family, so yes, this is a boys’ club. But to be fair, Serbian traditions are entering the 21st century and women are allowed to join in today. The author’s father specifically said that nothing would make him happier than his daughter joining him. His daughter laughed at the thought of waking up at 5am for anything other than an early flight.
The “perfect” oak for badnjak is supposed to be a very young tree, that has a lot of leaves, and is generally healthy looking. When the man of the house (in Serbian domaćin) finds the appropriate tree, he stands in front of it facing the east. He then proceeds to throw grains, candy, and coins at the tree, which are meant to symbolise the year bringing prosperity, health, good luck, sweetness, and success. Domaćin then prays, talks to the tree, wishing it a good morning and a happy holiday, explaining why it is getting cut down, showing his respect.
The tree is then cut with an axe, always cut from the east because it was supposed to fall to the east. The first spall of the tree that falls is believed to have special powers and is therefore saved and kept throughout the year. Badnjak is supposed to be big enough to be carried over one’s shoulder, and it is brought like that back home. Then it is placed front of the house, typically close to the front door. It is usually not decorated, but there are no rules that prohibit it. Domaćin then takes a little branch off the tree and enters the house with it. The woman of the house greets it, and walks in front of it, throwing grains and sweets on the ground as domaćin takes the little branch around the house, waking up the rest of the household. And that sounds very wonderful, unless you are a grumpy teen who just got woken up with an oak branch scratching her face (this is totally not a personal example). The branch is placed next to the icon of the family’s patron saint and stays there until the next Christmas.
In the olden days, like the 70s or something, before everyone’s house had central heating, lower parts of badnjak were cut, specifically three little logs, that were then brought into the house, one by one. They were used to stir the fire that was started to bake the Christmas bread, aka česnica.
During the day, while the families are preparing the dinner for Christmas Eve and roasting pigs for the Christmas Day, one big badnjak, which belongs to the church, passes through the village on a carriage. Every family gives gifts to the badnjak, usually wine or some money. The latter is used to buy the fish which is served in the churchyard after the Christmas Eve liturgy, alongside the mulled wine. And that big badnjak? Burnt in the churchyard.
So you pray, then eat, drink, and burn stuff?, you ask, mildly horrified. I know what this sounds like. Sounds like a party at some religious camp gone wild.
But there is a perfectly reasonable explanation. When Slavs were adopting Christianity, they were very stubborn about letting their old customs go, which is why there is still a lot of pagan-like customs and rituals present even in the modern Christianity. But imagine some feeble missionaries trying to get South Slavs to give up their strong, wild Slavic gods. Tell a South Slav what to do, and they will absolutely never do that. So most historians would agree that those missionaries probably got Slavs to accept Christianity by telling them they could still, occasionally, burn stuff and sacrifice some animals (hence, badnjak and the Christmas roast).
The religion explains the burning of badnjak in a more wholesome way. The burning of the fire is supposed to symbolize the fire that was keeping little baby Jesus and Virgin Mary warm in the cave of Bethlehem. And the sparks flying up in the air are supposed to be symbols of happiness: the more sparks, the happier the year.
All these customs are significantly different in the cities, where you can’t exactly cut several hundreds of thousands of little oak trees in a non-existent forest outside the city. There are barely enough green surfaces in the city itself. So most people just buy little branches at the local market and keep those in their apartments. But the burning of badnjak in the churchyard stays. We love that part. Whichever way badnjak is acquired, whichever size, and in whatever way it is handled during the Christmas Eve and Day, it is for everyone, everywhere one of the main symbols of Christmas. It is a symbol of happiness, warmth, and community, and one of the most unique elements of Serbian Christmas. Срећна Бадњица, everyone!