Letter from Europe

Serbian Orthodox Christmas

Issue no. 2009/2


Bitterly cold temperatures over central and eastern Europe last evening and this morning do nothing to diminish enthusiasm for the celebration of the Orthodox Christmas. While Orthodox Christmas is underway, daily demonstrations in Belgrade dilute the peaceful spirit.

Dear fellow travellers

Bitterly cold temperatures over central and eastern Europe last evening and this morning do nothing to diminish enthusiasm for the celebration of the Orthodox Christmas. Western Europeans see Christmas as ending with the Epiphany on 6th January, but for Eastern Orthodox Christians (as well as for some of the Eastern Churches in union with Rome), Christmas gets underway after sunset on the 6th, and Christmas Day itself is today.

In Serbia, as throughout the world, Christmas is a time for families and for peace and reconciliation. The dietary restraints of the Orthodox pre-Christmas fast are still respected by many church-going Serbs. So supper on the 6th marks the Vigil of Christmas and is usually meat-free. A selection of small dishes are the norm with the emphasis on fresh and dried fruit, pulses and perhaps a little fish. At the end of the meal, the remains of any food are left on the table, in the belief that the spirits of the dead will drop by to partake of any morsels left out for them.

Christmas Day has a much lighter mood, with many Serbian families using the greeting reserved to mark the Nativity. So a simple 'hello' is replaced by 'Hristos se rodi', meaning 'Christ has been born'. Feasting replaces fasting, and a lunchtime speciality is cesnica, a flaky multigrain flatbread, often baked with a silver coin hidden inside. The communal breaking of bread takes places after midday, usually around the family table, as a prelude to a long and leisurely afternoon meal.

With the coming of peace to Serbia, and the troubled times of the last decade behind them, many Serbian Orthodox communities enact the symbolic breaking of bread outside churches and in village squares.

Yet beneath the surface, and beyond all the talk of peace and reconciliation, Serbian society still has a way to go in terms of coming to terms with its own past. Right wing nationalists gather just before sunset every day at Trg Slobode in Belgrade, a nicely elongated plaza with some imposing neo-classical buildings, impressive fountains and a striking statue of a nineteenth-century Serbian prince on horseback. These men who gather every day on the square are supporters of Radovan Karadzic, the one-time military commander now on trial for war crimes. Last time we were in Belgrade we were struck how the Karadzic legacy remains a very divisive topic in Serbia. Clandestine biographies of Karadzic still make for popular reading in some parts of Serbian society.

The European Union has been pressing Serbia heavily in 2008, and Karadzic' arrest so soon after Boris Tadic became president last year is evidence of Serbia's capacity to do business with the west. But the problem lies not with the country's intelligentsia, nor with the political and policy elites. It will take a lot more than pressure from Brussels to reshape the attitudes of ordinary working-class Serbs who live on the grey housing estates in the suburbs of the city. Yes, these tough men will break bread today, but peace and reconciliation in modern Serbia comes with certain qualifications.

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