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"As there's no day without light
So there's no rejoicing without the Servian
FROM the first of December the village children, when out of school, talked of ,little else than the coming of Christmas. Grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, were teased to tell of how the day had been celebrated when they were little, and the children themselves never tired of recalling the joys of former years, and anticipating those to come.
For more than a month before the day no meat, and no milk or eggs, were allowed as food, the meals consisted entirely of fish, vegetables and fruits.
On December third, the eve of St. Barbarosa, came the first of a series of preliminary celebrations. On that day the families attended church, and in the evening Yovan came over to Dushan's house. Militza, dressed in her best, skipped about with a big hymn book, written in queer-looking characters; but, when all had gathered in the living room, and sang Advent hymns, she forgot entirely to look into it.
After several of these had been sung, all gathered around the hearth in the kitchen to watch, half merrily, half anxiously, the boiling of a mixture of grains and vegetables in a big pot of water. This was supposed to forecast the weather of the forthcoming year, and to foretell deaths in the family. It was important that the mixture should be tasted by every member and even by the cattle.
But this was of small importance compared to what came on "Mother Feast Day," on the Sunday preceding that immediately before Christmas. For several weeks before Dushan's mother had prepared gifts for the children. These she put under her pillow on Saturday night.
Dushan and Militza awoke early, and, quickly dressing, hurried on tiptoe to her room. They found her apparently asleep and Dushan, who was in the lead, hastily tied her feet together with a string which he had brought with him. His mother now opened her eyes, and begged to be free.
"No, no," cried the children, "not unless you pay us to release you."
"Pay?" exclaimed the mother, pretending surprise. "That is a strange request! Are you serious ?"
"Very serious," responded Dushan and Militza in chorus.
"Well, since it must be," the mother said, sighing, "how will this do?" and she pulled out a long strand of red ribbon, and handed it to Militza.
"Oh, dear mother!" cried Militza. "That's beautiful, and I'll loosen the first knot."
"Dear me! are there more knots?" said the mother. "Then here's something else," and she handed a bright blue neck-scarf to Dushan.
"Beautiful!" said the boy. "That unloosens another knot."
Next a note book, in which Militza could keep recipes for jams, jellies, cakes, etc., was produced; then a handkerchief for Dushan, and so other knots were untied, one by one, until the children, satisfied nothing more was hidden, let the mother free, kissing her hands, and then dancing away with their gifts.
The next Sunday was the "Father Feast Day," when the same performance with the father, instead of the mother, took place. This over, the children knew that the great festival was near.
The Servian name for Christmas is Bojich, which means "the Little God." The celebration of "the Little God" begins on the morning of the day before Christmas. This day is called the Badnyi Dan, a name of which no one seems to know the exact meaning, it perhaps having come down from pagan times.
The morning was still full of the moisture of night when Dushan and his father went to a near-by forest to perform a very important part of the Christmas ceremony, the selecting and bringing home of a young oak tree--the Servian Yule log. Having decided on one, they made a sign or two of the cross and uttered a short prayer. Then Dushan threw a handful of wheat at the tree and gravely greeted it with "Happy Badnyi Dan to you!"
Next he helped his father cut the tree down, working slowly and carefully, for it was very important that it should fall to the East about the time the sun's rays should, first be seen. Anything else would indicate ill-fortune.
When the tree was down it was cut into two logs, one a little longer than the other, and taken home.
Militza and her mother stood at the door, anxiously awaiting them. The mother held a flat, unleavened wheat cake, which she broke on the larger log. The logs, now called Badnyak, were left to stand outside.
This was only the beginning of what proved to be the busiest day of the entire year.
The spotlessly clean house was decorated with ivy, and then Militza helped her mother to make ritual cakes of various forms and sizes, one for each member of the family, and also one for each of the domestic animals. These were to be served with the Christmas dinner. While his sister was busy indoors, Dushan was sent for a bundle of straw, which he bound with a rope and let stand near the Badnyak.
He was helping his father prepare a suckling pig for roasting, when a group of his schoolmates entered the yard, singing Christmas carols. Militza at once joined them to visit the other village people.
Before sunset, however, each of the band had returned home.
At the precise setting of the sun, all of the family assembled in the family kitchen. The mother handed Dushan a pair of woollen gloves, and he immediately went out, returning soon, staggering under the weight of the larger log, and considering himself quite a Hercules.
"He was met at the threshold by his mother."
He was met at the threshold by his mother, who threw a special handful of wheat at him. As he stepped over the hearth he called out "A Happy Christmas to you all," which was answered in chorus: "May God and the Holy Christmas help you!"
Then Dushan's father placed the log on the andirons on the hearth so that it stuck out ten or twelve inches beyond.
Now came the play part, dearly loved by all Servian children. The mother brought in the bundle of straw, Dushan and Militza took their places behind her and followed her as she walked through all the rooms. As she threw handfuls of straw on the floor she imitated the cackling of a hen: "Chok! Chok!" Dushan and Militza, representing baby chicks, followed, squeaking, "Peep! Pee-y-oo! Pee-y-oo!"
When the floors were well strewn, the father threw a handful of walnuts in each corner, exclaiming as he did so: "In the name of God the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen !"
After various other ceremonies were performed, the table and the chairs were taken out of the room and the family sat down on sacking, placed on the floor, to a big supper- without meat, however. The children were reminded not to harbor ill thoughts, and not to quarrel, or ill luck would come to them that year.
When the supper was done Militza carefully gathered up all the crumbs and scattered them outside for the birds, for they, being also God's creatures, were not to be forgotten.
On Christmas day smoke could have been seen ascending from all of the village chimneys by four o'clock, and from then until eight there was, of course, the usual firing of guns.
At sunrise Militza was running as fast as her feet could move to the village brook for water. Before she filled the two pots which she had brought, she threw a handful of wheat into the spring, wishing the water a Happy Christmas as she did so. When this water was brought home the first cupfuls were used to make a special Christmas cake, into which a small coin was placed, and pieces of crudely carved wood representing a cow, a pig, a sheep and a bee. At dinner it was Dushan's luck to get the piece of cake with the coin, which made him certain that good luck would be his. To him, too, fell the wooden bee, which indicated that bees were to be his special care during the coming year.
But, before the dinner was announced, a special Christmas visitor arrived. It was Yovan, Dushan's bosom friend. He had some wheat with him, which he threw at all, while Dushan's mother threw some at him.
"Christ is born," exclaimed Yovan.
"In truth, He is born," responded the others.
Then Yovan walked to the hearth and, striking the burning log with a shovel so that it threw out hundreds of sparks, said, "May you have just as many oxen as there are sparks." Then, striking it again: "May you have as many sheep and pigs," continuing this until he had mentioned all of the domestic animals and ending with "May you have just as much good luck, prosperity, and happiness!" Then, walking up to Dushan's father, he embraced him, and, returning to the hearth, crossed himself several times and, falling on his knees before the Badnyak, kissed it and then placed a small coin on it as his Christmas offering.
This done, he was led to a low chair. As he was about to sit down, Dushan snatched the chair away, so that he fell to the ground. This was done so that every good wish uttered by him should remain right there and not be carried off when he left.
During the very merry meal to which all gathered later, the shades were drawn and a candle lit. Then the shadows of the different members of the family were carefully studied, for, if any appeared headless or with neck too far outstretched, it would betoken death. But the shadows, exceedingly grotesque though many of them were, behaved very well and, although they darkened the table, did nothing to darken the hearts of the gay company. The roast pig, with a small red apple in its mouth, had been placed in the center of the snowy cloth on the table. Around it were vegetables, cakes, and fruit in quantities, so that there promised to be an abundance for many days to come.
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