Although the Gregorian calendar has become the international civil calendar, the Julian calendar was still used by some countries. Some Orthodox churches still use it today to calculate the dates of movable feasts, such as the Orthodox Church of Russia and Serbia, Georgian Orthodox Church, Jerusalem Patriarchate, Ukrainian Orthodox Church also on the Mount Athos (or “Holy Mountain”) in Greece . Orthodox Christmas is a national holiday in Orthodox countries like Russia and Serbia so banks and public offices are closed on January 7. Some orthodox countries still use the old ‘Julian’ Calendar, which means that Christmas Eve is on 6th January and Christmas Day is on the 7th January! Advent in the Orthodox Church starts on 28th November and last for six weeks.
If Christmas Day falls on a weekend, the non-labor day moves to the following Monday.
Christmas Day is a time of reflection, inner thoughts and healing in many eastern European countries. Many Orthodox Christians fast before January 7, usually excluding meat and dairy products. There is a 40-day Lent preceding Christmas Day. The Lent period ends with the first star in the night sky on January 6 – a symbol of Jesus Christ’s birth. Many Orthodox Christians go to the church to attend a Christmas liturgy that evening.
Christmas Day is a family holiday when families gather together around the table. Christmas Day, on the other hand, is a day for feasting and enjoying the company of friends and family members. The Christmas meal usually includes meat and different types of pastries.
The ”badnjak” is an oak log or branch brought into the house and placed on the fire on the evening of Christmas Eve. Early in the morning the head of each family, usually accompanied by several male relatives, selects and cuts the tree for their household. In the evening, a man of the family brings their ”badnjak” into the house. Oak-wood has always been a symbol of fertility. It preserves certain pre-Christian elements. According to the tradition, it is the wood that the shepherds brought to Bethlehem cave and ordered it to warm up the newborn Christ. So, it also represent the Christ, it is often called holy wood. While burning it lightens the light not only of our home but of the darkest parts of the human soul, bringing the blessing of Christian peace and love.
A ”polaznik” is the first person who steps into the house on Christmas morning. He steps 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. They respond with “Truly He is Born,” and throw grain at the ”polaznik”. He then approaches the fireplace, takes a branch, and strikes repeatedly the burning badnjak to make sparks fly from it. At the same time he utters these words: ”How many sparks, that much happiness in this house.How many sparks, that much money in the household head’s pocket.” 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.
There are many more Orthodox Christmas tradition and they vary depending on the region. Here I just mentioned a few basic ones. I think it is very important to keep traditions alive.
Orthodox Christmas Bread ”Cesnica” is also one more beautiful tradition. There is always a hidden coin in it, that brings luck to the person who finds it. If you do find it you should not spend this one. It is good to keep it somewhere hidden in your wallet during the whole year.
Orthodox Christmas is celebrated for three days. The first day is for family.
The celebration is announced at dawn by church bells, and by shooting from guns. On the second day of Christmas, neighbors visit each other. On the third day, Christmas straw is taken out of the house. Little bundles are made with it, and hung on fruit trees to make their fruit more fertile. A bigger bundle may be stored in a dry place and it will be burned on St. George’s Day, as a protection of fields.
Pecenica is one more Orthodox Christmas tradition. The men build a fire in the house yard, and roast a pig, or more rarely a sheep (pečenica) on a long wooden spit. In Serbia they do it a day before Christmas. Even though it smells delicious, they don’t eat it fresh cooked, because of fasting. They are cutting and eating the pig the next day on the first day of Christmas.
Besides, the bread, pig, fruits, salads, walnuts, etc. there is always red wine on Christmas dinner table and a lot of sweet treats.
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.”