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Christmastime in Serbia – Cultural and Religious Traditions

by Laura on December 3rd, 2012
tree and ornaments_Laura Dennis

I love the holiday season, especially now that I have little children. My first two expat Christmases here were a bit of a cultural shock. Serbia is a unique mix of Old World tradition and secular national identity. It creates an interesting environment for the holidays.

When I’m feeling homesick, I’ve learned how to deal: the fabulous decorations at the Western-style malls go up in early December. Twinkling lights, sparkling trees, Santa’s sleigh, even Christmas songs sung in English. The works. Great for immersing myself in the whole commercialized Christmas thing. Must. Not. Buy. Unnecessary. Stuff.

However, I don’t know anyone here, except myself, who celebrates Christmas on December 25th. Even though the country is only 5.43% Catholic and 1.05% Protestant, everything is closed on the 25th. Everything. Even the gosh darn ice rink. I can’t do anything with the kids except sit at home. Chinese restaurants are closed!

Christmastime doesn’t really get into full swing until late December. That’s because by the Orthodox calendar, Serbian Christmas is January 7, 2013. Orthodox New Year is January 14, 2013.

Historical Religious Celebrations

While Yugoslavia was under communist rule, religion was suppressed as a way of downplaying national differences. Officially, communism was non-religious (hence, that American catch-phrase insult: Those godless commies!). Citizens were encouraged to celebrate New Year’s Eve (Dec. 31) instead.

One of the many fall-outs of the break-up of Yugoslavia was that ethnicities split up by region. To each his own and all that. Today, Serbia is a very homogeneous culture. According to the 2011 census, Serbian ethnicity makes up 83% of Serbia (excluding Kosovo).

Here’s how the religious composition of Serbia breaks down: from 2002 (excluding Kosovo)

Eastern Orthodox – 6,371,584  84.98%
Roman Catholic – 410,976  5.48%
Islam – 239,658  3.20%
Protestant – 80,837  1.08%
other religions – 20,556  0.27%
not declared and unknown – 334,322  4.46%
athiest – 40,068  0.53%


Religion and Culture Today

Incongruously, religious tradition and non-belief go hand-in-hand now. It’s a cultural thing, like celebrating slava. A Serbian Orthodox tradition, slava (literally, “celebration”), is the observation of a family’s patron saint’s feast day. Celebrating slava, replete with weeks-worth of food preparation and tons of guests … may or may not indicate a belief in God. Usually not. In fact, I don’t know anyone here who regularly attends services, maybe some old people.

Just a note, those without religious belief aren’t fanatical about it. In the US, being atheist has the connotation of actively rejecting the existence of God. People here don’t go around trying to convince others not to believe in God.


Christmastime in my home

Full disclosure: Misha is the first atheist person I ever knew; he wasn’t even baptized! Here he was carrying around Original Sin his whole life, and he didn’t even know it! He wasn’t one of those “dabbling-in-God-rejection-because-I’m-challenging-my-parents” types of atheists I knew in high school, either. He was the real thing.

I was so confused, because even though I was no longer religious, I still held onto the notion that religion teaches us how to be good people. But, here was Misha, a moral person, with a strong belief in right and wrong, and he’d never even read the Bible!

So, you’ll understand my surprise during a recent conversation:

Me: Did you know that according to the census, Serbs make up 83% of Serbia, and that 85% of the population is Eastern Orthodox?

Misha: Well, yeah, I’d have replied Eastern Orthodox, too.

Me: Really? Neither you nor your parents are religious.

Misha: If the census asked, “Do you believe in God?” I would’ve said, “No.”

Me: But when they ask, “What’s your religion?”

Misha: I’d put “Eastern Orthodox.” That’s where I belong, that’s my national identity, not what I believe in.

Well, now I feel like slightly less of a hypocrite when I celebrate Christmas culturally, without teaching my kids about the birth of Christ. That “Jesus is the reason for the season” maxim was drilled into me as a child, after all. Although I don’t believe, Catholicism remains part of my cultural identity.  So be it.

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From → Expat Mommy

  1. Jewish groups also split into Devout and culturally Jewish, even Jew Bu(ddist). Anything goes here, too:)
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    • Laura permalink

      Yes, the Jewish community is another great example, Cynthia. So many are culturally Jewish, or of varying degrees of "practicing." I'd just never thought of Eastern Orthodox in such a cultural sense, so I was taken aback when my husband said he considers himself that!

  2. I was just thinking about this the other day, that when we talk about "religion," we actually mean facets of religion AND culture.

    We had a dinner party once, two other couples, my husband and me. We entered into a discussion about current events. Somehow a bible story came up. I remember one of the women lamented the fact that she grew up without religion — not because she missed the religion part, but because she missed a big chunk of culture.

    And I had no idea Serbia was so homogenous!
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    • Laura permalink


      Yes, you're totally right. I think that it's just harder to "see" or notice my Catholic culturalism when I'm in the U.S., because it's not really distinct from regular American traditions. When I'm here, I'm different!

      I totally can see that Serbia is homogenous, but I was definitely surprised to see that such a high percentage are Serbian. My kids will be in for a culture shock, seeing so many diverse faces, when we return to the U.S.!


  3. Very interesting post, Laura. My imagination is captured by shopping at Christmas time in Serbia, and also by the thought of Serbian Chinese restaurants. Which I guess isn't really any weirder than US Chinese restaurants. Huh. go figure.
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    • Laura permalink

      Thanks, Addison! You know, most of my Christmas shopping is done online well ahead of the season … then I have stuff shipped here! Toys (that aren't knock-offs from China) are super expensive, so I get a few really cool items from the US. But, I've been so tired of my kids' attitude toward their toys — they'd rather jump on the bed, that I'm wary to give them many!

  4. MuMuGB permalink

    How interesting! In France, we celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. How does it work for you exactly? Does it mean that you celebrate Xmas on the 25th and on the 7th of Jan? It looks like you are starting on month of celebrations!
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    • Laura permalink

      Funny you ask. So, I do Christmas Eve (cookies for Santa) and Day (presents) for the 24/25th. We then actually do presents again on New Year's Eve. For the non-religious in Serbia, it's a tradition left over from communism. For many families here, Santa Claus (Deda Mraz) comes on New Year's Day. … No plans yet for Jan. 7!

  5. Adele permalink

    Hi Laura,

    Really enjoyed your post. I'm a 3rd generation (as we call) Serbian Orthodox living in the UK. I had a heated debate with some friends (not Serbian) a few months ago questioning how I could possibly be an Atheist if I had my children christened. I tried to explain that with the Serb community in our area being so small, having them christened Serbian/Eastern Orthodox would allow them access to they heritage. They didn't buy it and said that deep down I must believe in god. Which I most definitely don't, I realised I didn't at the age of seven.

    Reading your post has confirmed that there are others who think like me, which is cool. Thanks for that.

    By the way we do the whole Christmas gifts thing an December 25th, we keep the tree up for the 7th and do a big Serbian feast celebration. With all the Serbian food that we like the most. But no gifts, we always get asked if we get two lots of gifts.

    • Laura permalink


      Thanks for visiting! It's always great to connect with others who are experiencing "mixed" cultures. I think the Serbian Orthodox thing is almost an "accepted" cultural thing, even by the church themselves. A Serb can get themselves baptized in the Serbian Orthodox church, soley for the purpose of being the godfather of a friend's child — to be kum or kuma for a marriage, too. But, that would be such a tricky thing in, oh, I don't know, the Catholic Church where I grew up on the East Coast. As a god mother, you have to totally agree to help raise the child "in the Church," among other very serious promises.

      I'm sure there are some Serbian priests who are more strict about it, but there are plenty of people who think like you! I love extending the holiday season — even into Serbian New Years! It's great to 'meet' you; hope you stop by again.


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