Many customs related to this day are completely pagan, although the church tried to give them a Christian character. The customs around Christmas Day were inherited by the Serbs from their ancestors and are still maintained.
Christmas Day is full of rituals and symbolism, colorful actions and all of them are connected with the cult of the family and the cult of the fireplace.
Customs and symbolism
Folk customs around Christmas Day are quite old and to this day many customs have been lost or forgotten. In different regions, customs may differ in some elements, but in many regions they have been lost completely. The combination of these contributes to great differences in customs from region to region and from village to village. However, despite so much variety and differences, there are still a lot of common customs that are very similar, as well as the memory of some customs that are no longer practiced.
The burning of the Christmas tree is closely related to the fire and fireplace as the central element of the symbolism of the birth of the new sun, because Christmas Day is also right after the short day. A young oak tree was burned and given to the fire for the new year, and handfuls of sparks thrown into the sky heralded many harvests and offerings.
Christmas tree cutting
Early in the morning, with the firing of rifles and pistols, the departure to the forest to collect the Christmas tree is announced. Christmas Eve is cut exclusively by men, usually the host and the eldest son, early in the morning, before sunrise. Depending on the regions, different Christmas trees were chosen. In Eastern Serbia, a king was elected; in the west, depending on the region, they are oak or beech; in the villages of Smederevo, it is not the Christmas tree that is cut, but the oak branch.
The number of Christmas trees also varies depending on the region. Somewhere one Christmas tree is cut, somewhere two or three and sometimes nine, and somewhere as many Christmas trees as there are men in the house. Mostly this meant cutting off one branch of a tree, which would be carried home whole, or first cutting it into several equal or unequal parts. This diversity in the number of Christmas trees also supports the pre-Christian origin of Christmas tree and Christmas Day. Of course, since ancient times, the sacred tree in question has been the oak.
Before cutting, the tree is called “good morning”, congratulated on the holiday and prayed to bring health and happiness to the family. Then the tree is sprinkled with grain, and in some regions it is presented with a cake specially mixed for the occasion. The tree must not be touched with bare hands, so the man who cuts it puts on gloves.
The tree was always cut from the east side because it was supposed to fall to the east. The one who cut down the Christmas tree tried “so that the tree does not suffer” i.e. to knock down from one blow or at most with three. If the tree does not fall even after the third blow, it must be torn with the hands because no more blows are allowed.
The first splinter that separates from the Christmas tree also has magical power. Care was taken that this splinter did not fall to the ground, so another man went with the one who was cutting the Christmas tree to catch the first splinter. Placing the first sliver of Christmas tree in the bowl was believed to help it collect cream as thick as the sliver, or, if placed on the hives, then no one will be able to harm the bees, and it was also believed in the medicinal properties of the water in which the first chip was submerged, so the sick drank it to heal. Somewhere, again, they put that chip in the chicken coop so that the poultry is always together, and somewhere under the yeast with the desire that everything in the house grows like yeast.
When the host returns from the forest and brings the Christmas tree, i.e. the Christmas tree, leans them on the wall of the house, and only with the first darkness is the Christmas tree brought into the house and placed on the fireplace. Sometimes they carve the Christmas tree in the forest, and sometimes they bring it with branches.
While the janitors are still in the forest, three-legged stools, brooms, tows of spindles and needles are hidden from the house.
After collection of the Christmas tree, the pork is slaughtered (in some places it is slaughtered or “beaten” on “Tucindan”). It is usually a pig, rarely a lamb (there are no lambs at Christmas time), and sometimes a turkey or a goose. “Pečenica” is a sacrifice for the new summer, and in some places it is also called “veselica” or “Božićnjar”. It is a remnant of the old sacrificial cult for the birth of a new God.
In Vojvodina, children gather in the evening, before dinner, empty their school bags and go to Korinđanje. This custom is very similar to the Koledar customs of other nations. Little Korinđans visit homes in the neighborhood and sing (Korinđan) songs announcing the joyous arrival of Christmas and expect the host to give them as gifts. The owners of the house give the children apples, sweets, cakes, dried fruits, nuts, and less often money (this is a recent invention).