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CHRISTMAS PAST from Tanya Webster's blog

When I grew up in Yugoslavia, celebrating Christmas was forbidden, as it was in most Communist countries. In our home, out of the sight of others, on Christmas Eve we waited for Papa, who would sneak in the Yule log he had bought in the open market. It was called Badnjak and was made of oak branches together with a small bundle of wheat. Papa would place our Badnjakin the corner of our living room on a box covered with red cloth. On the floor around the box, and on top under the Badnjak,was a layer of straw, like the stable where Jesus was born. The dry golden brown star-shaped leaves gave off a fragrance of forest and peace at the same time. To me, the leaves looked like birds coming in from the harshness of the cold winter day. Every year, our celebration gave us a feeling of togetherness as a family. Before dinner, the children would take small pieces of neatly folded paper on which we had written our wishes, and lay them on the straw under the Badnjak tree. Mine read, “I wish for peace everywhere. I wish that my parents will live forever.”

Then, it was time for our Badnje vece dinner. A white cloth covered the table and in the center was an evergreen wreath representing eternal life. Four red candles were set in a circle, a symbol of the four advents. Papa would light these candles as we sat down to dinner. A white candle in the center was lit on Christmas Day.

At Christmas time the smells of baking, cooking, and evergreen filled our home. Then it was time for Badnje vece dinner. We had grilled fish and smoked seafood; calamari and shrimp; a stuffed goose; potatoes and vegetables. First we had a moment of silent prayer, and then we sat together to eat, surrounded by family and the warm glow of candles. After dinner, dessert and fruit were served: a baked cake with several layers of chocolate and dry plums, figs and apricots. As I write, the smell and taste of Badnje vece comes back to me even now. Afterward, we waited excitedly for česnica, a round sweet bread that Mama and Noné baked with a coin inside. Each of us would break off a piece hoping to find the coin. Whoever got the coin would have good fortune for the coming year. I never got the coin.

After Badnje vece dinner, Papa would place the Badnjak outside on our balcony instead of burning it, as was tradition, because we didn’t have a fireplace. Our wishes written on small pieces of paper were still on the straw beneath. After a few days, our papers with wishes disappeared along with the straw.

On Christmas Day, Bozic, our neighbors and my family would greet each other with: “Christ is born” Hristos se rodi. On that morning we would light the white candle in the center of the evergreen wreath and wait for the dinner that Mama and Noné had prepared. The table filled with pork roast, potatoes, sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves with ground meat and rice), vegetable pies, homemade ajvar, sauerkraut, pickles and noodles with minced walnuts and brown sugar. I fondly think about those days so full of happiness and togetherness.


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By Tanya Webster
Added Dec 24 '20

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