Being away from home and the familiar can be a really trying experience during the Christmas season.
For me, Christmas is one of the few times of traditions in my life. I always go to Grandma Linda’s for a celebration with the Geistfeld family and we always have the same main dinner options. I always celebrate Christmas Day with my Sangren family. I get to see people I rarely see and eat foods I love but only consume twice a year.
But these constants in my life aren’t happening this year. And I think without that planning and anticipation, the excitement and joy of this Christmas season hasn’t really been with me.
It didn’t feel like Christmas.
The night of the 23rd there was an advent concert at my church, and it think it was there that I thought to myself for the first time, “It’s Christmas!”.
It was beautiful.
The Merry Gospel choir performed all types of gospel Christmas music from classic hymns with a twist to fun new pieces. The majority of their performance was in English, which prompted a member of my congregation to ask me if it felt like a piece of home, to which I responded, “Da!” (“Yes!”)
The Merry Gospel choir performed and the majority of the music was in English and I got to bask in my love of Christmas music and choral performances. I got to hear one of my favorite pieces, Mary Did You Know, as well as getting to sing along to Silent Night in both English and Serbian.
But Christmas Eve was truly the moment where I got to celebrate Christmas this year.
In the end of October, Pastor Anna had extended an invitation to join her and her family of five (six if you include Teo the cat) for Christmas Eve dinner, and so following a worship service in Šid we journeyed to her apartment and celebrated together.
Traditionally, Christmas Eve dinner is the big celebration for Christmas. The advent season used to be marked by a fasting period that was broken on Christmas Day. At every step along the way of the meal, Pastor Anna explained the history and the reasoning of why we were eating each part of the meal.
Before we joined at the table and began the meal, like good Serbians we enjoyed a bit of liquor to kick off the evening. Typically this is done with rakija, a plum (fruit) brandy that is well loved across the land, but I toasted the evening with a strawberry liquor that was amazingly sweet and delicious that may or may not have been a type of rakija.
The true meal around the table begins with a fresh apple. One apple is cut in half horizontally and then shared among everyone. When cut horizontally, the core of the Apple creates a star shape, reminiscent of the Star of David.
Apples were typically the fresh fruit available at Christmas time, but following the sharing of a single apple, you begin the meal with something sweet. There are dried fruits such as apricots, dates, figs and plums. Walnuts are always served as well as honey, a classic piece of the Christmas Eve meal.
Our first course included an item called oplatki, a sweet and crunchy treat reminiscent of a waffle with a thin layer of caramel inside (think stroop waffle). You can eat it as is, or drizzle some honey on top to make it sweeter.
Oplatki is delicious, and is featured here along with dried fruits, walnuts, and honey which served as our opening course.
The second course was a sauerkraut soup made with dried mushrooms and dried plums called kapustnica, and following the tradition of this meal occurring during a time of fasting, it is a relatively simple soup with no meat. Paired with this was a cooked bread called knedlik that Pastor Anna’s eldest daughter made for the first time this year! It was delicious and doughy soft and went well with the slightly sour and salty soup. I was nervous about the soup, sauerkraut is not on the top of my food choices and neither are plums or mushrooms, but it was delicious! And I definitely had two helpings which was a bad choice seeing as this was only the second course.
Kapustnica is sauerkraut soup made with dried plums and dried mushrooms. If that does not sound like your cup of tea, at least give it a try. It was delicious and filling!
The third course was battered and fried fish and a chilled potato salad. I squeezed fresh lemon juice over the hot fish and the potato salad was simply cooked potatoes, salt, chopped onions and lemon juice mixed and served cold.
Honestly, it was not all that different from a meal I would have back home. Easily this could have been something I ate at the cabin lakeside, Uncle John having caught and fried some fresh fish for everyone, a classic potato salad on the side. This thought train hit me really powerfully right after I took my first bite and the weirdest sense of happiness settled over me and my already very full stomach.
This was captured after almost consuming my entire plate, but the fish and potato salad were both lemon-y and reminiscent of meals from home. At the top of my plate is a piece of the knedlik cooked bread that I carried over to this course because it was too good to not continue eating.
The final course was a dessert called opakance. This was a bread that was baked until it was very hard but was re-softened with water and covered in poppy seeds. Because of this process of hardened and softened, not every piece is the same consistency. Some were really firm and others were as soft as fresh baked bread. You can also drizzle honey on top of the bread pieces to make the dish even sweeter (of course I added more honey).
Bite sized pieces of poppy seed opakance, drizzled with honey! After an entire meal of delicious foods, this final course did not disappoint.
Alternatively, for poorer families, this opakance bread could also serve as the main course dish, but it would then be topped with cheese, rather than poppy seeds.
And that concluded my Christmas eve meal! I was full to the brim and could not even think about eating or drinking another morsel. I was full up on food and new cultural learnings and getting to spend time with this fun and centered family. We spent the rest of the night (and into Christmas morning) listening to various types of Christmas and Serbian music, talking, cuddling with Teo the cat (who was not really in the mood to be cuddled) and celebrating together.
A Christmas tree, various bottles of rakija and Teo the cat. Srećan Božić! Happy Christmas (Eve)!
Bonus information! Outside of the traditions behind what we were consuming at the dinner table, there are other habitual traditions I learned about.
- It used to be practiced that the grains to feed your livestock were brought inside during the Christmas Eve meal and kept underneath the table so as to bless the foods for your animals that they too will have a prosperous year and will bless the family.
- Two weeks before Christmas, green grains were planted and grown up until the holiday. I can’t confirm for sure what this tradition was for, but I believe it was to reflect on the prosperity the new year will bring you and your family. Pastor Anna did follow this and had the table set with a cup of green grain growing!
Srećan Božić! Happy Christmas Eve everyone!