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A Serbian Christmas

At the far reaches of a darkened dead-end street in Lackawanna, on the last block before the street is cut off by the Thruway, one house is lit up in dazzling Christmas lights. Walking up the narrow, icy driveway, the first thing visitors notice is the thundering bass thump coming from inside. It sounds like the signature bass line of a Johnny Cash song, save for the high-pitch chirps and whistles spurring the music on. As soon as a new guest walks through the door, grain is showered down on them and blessings spoken in a foreign tongue. The house is decorated and the main room is filled with family and friends of the hosts. From the looks of it one would think they were celebrating Christmas in January—and that’s exactly what they’re doing.

In the Serbian Orthodox Church, which adheres to the Julian Calendar (with its 13-day difference), January 7 is celebrated as Christmas Day. The wood-paneled main room of the house is crowded with people dancing as the band plays in the corner. An uncle on the standup bass plays the downbeat while his son and nephews on prim (a five-string guitar/mandolin-like instrument) pick on the upbeat for the quick-step: 1—2-3, 1—2-3. Uncles and nephews take turns with the twangy solos on prim, ascending the fret boards in what sounds like a cross between bluegrass stomp and gypsy revival. The family song “We Gypsies” solidifies this impression. Most of the songs feature group vocals that allow everyone in the room to join in.

The family’s matriarch, tears of joy in her eyes, proudly kisses her grandchildren the way everyone here greets one another:  three kisses, alternating cheeks. She sits by her husband at a table and together they watch the band, which is very much the centerpiece of the evening. In addition to entertaining guests and preserving the family heritage, the custom of singing special songs was once believed to chase away demons. Straw is laid out on the ground and may be connected to the ritual of throwing grain on newly arrived guests, a simultaneous celebration of the past year and an invocation of prosperity in the coming year.

Traditional foods are served like beef wrapped in cabbage leaves (commonly called sarma, pigs in a blanket, or golumpki—pronounced “gowumpki”). Rye bread is brought out, along with homemade cookies for dessert. The adults in the band take a break for drinks and conversation while the next generation of musicians take over. An accordion is introduced, and the music picks up again over the chatter around the tables. The musicians are not teenagers who reluctantly play along with family traditions. They are proud of their heritage and they follow in the footsteps of their parents, who watch them with approving eyes. Every so often one of the younger musicians forgets the words to a chorus and tries to compensate by singing even louder, and everyone laughs. A family toast is made early on in the celebration. No gifts are exchanged. Unlike contemporary celebrations of Christmas that involve Santa Claus and the customary giving of gifts, Serbian Christmas is not a gift-swapping celebration. In some families gifts are exchanged in the weeks leading up to January 7, but the day itself is completely incorporeal. It’s not about toys or clothes or new electronics, it’s simply a celebration of family and tradition. Some members of the family may not see one another until next January, and they savor the moment with drink in hand and never leave without a hug or a handshake, a plate of leftovers to take home, and well-wishes for the coming year.

brian pietrus

  • Chris G

    Great article with wonderful descriptions! I can picture walking into this house and hearing the music play.