Christmas Traditions in Yugoslavia

* former country of Yugoslavia, now mostly Serbia

The Christmas Tree > A Christian Symbol with a Pagan History
Christmas is a joyful time for Christians. Wherever we look we see symbols that remind us of our Savior’s birth, we follow many traditions that help us celebrate Jesus’ birth into our troubled world.

One of the most common of those symbols is the Christmas tree, a beautiful reminder of God’s love, and of God’s gift to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. As more and more people have heard the Gospel’s message, this decorated tree has come to hold special meaning for all God’s people, bringing peace and joy into their hearts and their homes. But it hasn’t always been like that.

For many centuries, the Winter solstice, the transition into a new year which comes on December 21, has been associated with magic and mysticism. The days begin to get longer, and the Sun grows steadily warmer, and the new life of Spring doesn’t seem so far away. Because people depended so heavily on nature and its gifts for their livelihood, they developed many rituals and ceremonies which would bring them happiness, and abundance, and blessing at this time of the reborn Sun. Many different cults arose which focused their faith and their worship on the Sun. Only in recent history, as the Gospel message has been shared, has this time of year become associated with the birth of the Son, who brings life-giving strength to every Christian.

The Christmas tree as a symbol of Jesus’ birth is a relatively new phenomenon. The custom only came to Yugoslavia in the late 18th Century. The original custom was to bring a green shoot into the house during the Winter solstice. A fresh shoot, which carries living strength, was regarded as a symbol of health, happiness, and of new life being born. It was believed to have magic effects, which cold repel demons and protect people from evil.

Birch twigs, which were called “Polazniki” or “Carollers”, were brought into the house during Christmas time by shepherds, the carollers, who would then recite verses wishing health to people and animals, a rich harvest, and economic prosperity in the coming year. They would whip the members of the household with the twigs so that the living strength would pass into them. Then the landlady would take a twig for each head of cattle owned by the household and save them until Spring. These were then used in herding the cattle to their first Spring grazing, in order that they would remain healthy. The “caroller twigs” often were a piece of fir with grains of wheat woven into the ends.

Branches of evergreen trees also had a magical effect in the imagination of the people. These trees had a protective function, associated with the cult of the ancestors. They protected people and animals from the evil spells of demons, and of the spirits of the dead, which, according to the beliefs of many European nations, came among the descendants during the Christmas season. The conifer branches were stuck above the entrance doors of houses to ward off all the evil spirits.

In northern and eastern Slovakia, where many Yugoslavians have their roots, the Christmas tree was preceded by decorations made of straw, called “hens”, and by wreaths decorated with field crops and colored ribbons. They were in the shape of the sun, and were associated with the celebrations of the Sun Cult. People hung them above the table in the corner of the room. They symbolized the sun, fertility, and the abundance of crops in the coming year. Later they were replaced by small branches, or the tips of fir branches, call, “hajik”, or Podlaznik, or, “jesulen”. They were also hung by the table, the place of worship for the cult. Only at the end of the 18th century were these fir branches embedded into stands which were put on the table, to symbolize the birth of Jesus.

Even the earliest decorations for the Christmas tree were not accidental, but had their roots in the old pagan practices. The emphasis was placed on securing abundance, health, and success in the coming year. The decorations for the tree were traditional symbols. The green branches themselves were symbols of life, health, and happiness, as were the apples used as ornaments. Walnuts were obligatory decorations, symbolizing fertility. Honey, in the form of honeycombs purchased at Christmas or St. Nicholas fairs, promised protection for the coming year. The color red also had a protective meaning, acting against the spells of witches and demons, so red ribbons adorned the Christmas tree. Colored candles, whose fire reminded people of the warmth of the sun, were also used, and evolved into the colored lights which are used today. Through time, the pagan meanings of these decorations disappeared, and they became ways to celebrate the birthday of our Lord.

A basket was placed beneath the Christmas tree, and into it was placed a piece of each element of the Christmas meal, as a tribute to deceased ancestors. A small pinch of these foods could also be placed into a walnut shell, which was then tied to the branches of the tree.

Giving gifts to each other, especially among family and friends, has also been carried over from the pagan past. The original gifts were demonstrations of love, and especially generosity, symbolic of the love and generosity expected from the spirit world during the coming year. Adults tried to express their goodness through tenderness, love, indulgence, and gifts, seeking to appease and influence the spirits. Only later did these acts of kindness begin to symbolize God’s beautiful Christmas gift, His Son Jesus Christ.

As you decorate your Christmas tree this year, many of these same ornaments will be used, but they will have a much deeper meaning. They will be tributes to the life, and love, and hope that are yours because of Jesus, who came into our world to rescue us from the empty pagan beliefs of the past.