Christmas is one of the most beautiful and joyful holidays all over the world. In this region, as in most other areas, it is celebrated within the family circle. In Serbia Christmas festive time lasts 3 days, from January 5 to January 7 in the Gregorian calendar.
Christmas Eve is the last day of the Nativity Fast. It serves to refresh the last part of the year - mystically renewing the spiritual unity with God and preparing people for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. The fast traditionally entails staying away from red meat, poultry and other meat products, eggs, dairy, fish, oil, and wine. Christmas season celebrates family and on Christmas Eve the family members gather together for a meatless (one could even say vegan) dinner.
In Serbian language Christmas literally means "little God". In different parts of Serbia there is a variety of ways to celebrate the cheerful holiday. Christmas Eve is named after badnjak, a piece of oak wood symbolizing brought into the house and placed on the fire, with the wishes for happiness and prosperity. The preparation, bringing in and laying on the fire of the badnjak have many regional variations.
Some of the customs are very interesting and do not occur in other cultures. So, if you hear the chicken chirping from the neighborhood on the Serbian Christmas Day, don’t be puzzled! It is another specific Serbian traditional custom that goes like this: the oldest member of the family brings the badnjak and some straw into the house and starts cackling like a hen. The straw symbolizes the straw on which baby Jesus was lying. The kids are following him/her, chirping like chicks. They are given a warm welcome. The symbolism is obvious here: parents take care of their children the same as hens protect their chicks under the wings. The host throws candies, fruits, small presents and straw all around the place, so that homes would resemble the Bethlehem cave. Also, the nuts are thrown into the corners of the room to ensure the well being and prosperity for the family. The kids are catching and picking their treats with joy and happiness. The straw is placed under the table full of nice festive dishes, candies, little presents and toys for children. Then, before the meal, the family members make a prayer and congratulate one another Christmas.
The straw remains under the table for three days. In some rural parts of southern Serbia still exists an old custom that the family sit and dine on the straw on the floor.