Christmas for Serbs who are Christian Ortodox, comes two weeks later than that of Roman Catholics. Serbs do not celebrate Christmas on December 25th, but on January 7th, while they celebrate New Year on January 13th rather than on December 31st. This is because the Serbs follow the Julian calendar, while Roman Catholics follow the Gregorian calendar.
The Gregorian reformation of the calendar came into force on 1582. It made corrections in the Julian calendar, the ten days from October 5th to 14th were canceled. Of course, not all countries changed over to the Gregorian calendar at that time. Germany, for instance, didn’t accepted the Gregorian calendar until 1775, while Bulgaria didn’t do so until 1917.
Serbs, like the most other people, accepted officially the Gregorian calendar, but all holidays, specially of cultural or religious contents, were celebrated according to the Julian calendar.
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.
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 slightly vary from place to place.
The Serbian name for Christmas Eve during the day is Badnji dan. After sunset it becomes Badnje veče. 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.
Early in the morning the head of each family, usually accompanied by several male relatives, selects and fells the tree from which a log will be cut for their household. The group announces its departure by firing guns or small celebratory mortars called prangija. The Turkey oak is the most popular species of tree selected in most regions, but other oaks are also chosen. Beech, pear, quince, hornbeam, and plum trees are used in eastern Serbia, although less frequently than oak trees.
Generally, each household prepares one badnjak, although more are cut in some regions.
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. He may also explain to the badnjak why it will be cut: "I have come to you to take to my home, to be my faithful helper to every progress and improvement, in the house, in the pen, in the field, and in every place." He then cuts it slantwise on its eastern side, using an axe.
The tree should fall to the east, unhindered by surrounding trees. It must not be left half-cut, as then it will curse the house of the man. In some regions, if the tree is not cut down after the third blow of the axe, then it must be pulled and twisted until its trunk breaks.
The first splinter from the tree is taken home and placed where prosperity is especially desired, such as beside the beehives, in the hen roost, or between milk basins in the dairy room, in the hope that the coming year's kaymak will clot to form thick layers in the basins. It may also be placed beneath some baker's yeast, so that the prosperity of the household may grow like yeast. In Semberija, a piece of the splinter is put in the dough for the česnica, a round loaf of bread prepared specially for Christmas dinner. This is done "because of bees", as the reason is traditionally termed.
Once in the home, each badnjak is leaned vertically against the house beside the entrance door.
In west Serbia's region of Rađevina, centered on the town of Krupanj, the badnjak prepared for each household is cut into three logs, the most important of which is the dozemak—the log that comes from the part of the trunk that grew nearest to the ground. In Resava, Levač, Temnić, and Jadar of Serbia, as well as in Ozren and Romanija of Bosnia, the badnjak is cut into three logs associated respectively with the men, the women, and the children.
Upon entering the house the man approaches the fireplace, called ognjište - 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. Any other logs are brought in by other males and laid on the fire parallel or perpendicular to the first. 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. 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. The head drinks a draught of wine from the jug, after which it is passed to other members of household
The moment when the badnjak burns through may be marked with festivities, such as the log being kissed by the head of household, and wine being poured over it accompanied by toasts. 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.
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.
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.
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.
A common custom is to scatter a handful of walnuts over the straw. It will be collected and taken out of the house on the morning of the second day after Christmas.
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!
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!
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.
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:
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.
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. It used to be served in some villages on a sack filled with straw, with the family seated around it on the floor
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Christmas knocks with a stick,
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!
Christmas, Christmas treads loud,
carries a clump of gold
to make golden the door,
and also, from floor to floor,
all the house to the rooftop!
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.
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.
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. 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):
| 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. Ethnologists consider that the animal polažajnik is more ancient than the human one.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
Koledari prepare themselves during several days before the start of the koleda: they practice the koleda songs, and make their masks and costumes. 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. 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.
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.
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:
| 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.
„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:
| 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
The Vertep is a Serbian Orthodox Christmas custom.
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, a group of boys dressed in variegated costumes goes from house to house of their village carrying a vertep – a litter that represents the manger in which newborn Jesus Christ was placed. In front of every house they sing Christmas songs, and recite poems that praise the birth of Christ. This custom is called vertep, and the participants in it – vertepaši. The name vertep comes from the Church Slavonic вєртє́пъ (meaning cave, referring to the cave where the manger was sited. Similarly to koledari, vertepaši are armed with wooden swords and fence with each other in front of houses.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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 – 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.
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.
Detinjci, Materice, and Oci
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.
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.