The Orthodox Church's Julian calendar allows members to celebrate not one, but two, New Years.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade – 09/01/06
Orthodox Serbs burn oak branches on Christmas Eve in front of St. Sava Church in Belgrade. [Getty Images]
The Serbian Orthodox Church still adheres to the Julian calendar, which gives Serbs the chance to celebrate New Year's Day twice: once with the rest of the world on December 31st and again on January 13th.
However, the differing calendars pose a certain problem for the church: namely, at a time when the faithful should be fasting before the Orthodox Christmas on Wednesday (January 7th), many of them are celebrating the New Year instead, according to the secular Gregorian calendar.
In communist-era Serbia, before the introduction of the multiparty system, observance of religious holidays could represent political dissent. Under the Milosevic regime of the 1990s, opposition parties often turned public celebrations of the so-called Serbian New Year into rallies against the then-Serbian and Yugoslav president.
Now, however, public New Year's Day celebrations are a big draw for Serbian tourism, because people from the former Yugoslav republics swarm to Serbia -- particularly Belgrade -- by the tens of thousands to enjoy the festivities.
Christmas is the holiday richest in Serb customs. Serbs consider it a holiday spent with family. Instead of the usual greetings, at Christmas people greet each other with "Christ is born" and "Indeed he is born" in reply.
Christmas Eve is called Badnji Dan (the Day of Badnja). The term purportedly stems from the name of a deity worshipped by the old polytheistic Serbs, Badnja. When they converted to Christianity, according to folk tales, the Serbs threw wooden statues of Badnja into a fire.
That is the origin of burning the badnjak, a dry oak branch, on Christmas Eve. One end of the branch is smeared with honey, which children lick.
This custom also holds another kind of symbolism -- by warming themselves around the burning branch, members of a household warm themselves with love, honesty and unity. Before Christmas, they cover the floors of their home with straw, symbolising Jesus Christ's birthplace.
Families bake a special bread, called chesnica, for Christmas, placing a gold or silver coin in the dough as a gift to Christ. Each family member receives a slice.
Superstition holds that the year will be fruitful if it snows on Christmas Day. Rain or a sudden rise in temperature is a bad sign. Starting some kind of project after Christmas lunch enables diligence and success through the coming year.