Christmas Eve, in Serbian Badnje veče (pronounced as badnye veche) is celebrated on 6th of January. Instead of Chrismas tree, Orthodoxs have badnjak (badnyak), which symbolizes the wood that shepherds brought to Joseph to stoke the fire to warm the cave where Christ was born. On Christmas Eve, before the sunrise, male members of the family should go to collect badnjak in the woods, which they bring in house in the evening, together with straw and roasted pork. Of course, nowadays this tradition has changed, so it is usual that they buy already prepared oak tree leaves on branches, tied with red, blue and white ribbons, and mostly decorated with small bags with wheat and corn. Straw is symbolizing the straw where baby Jesus was laying - it should be spread on the house floor, especially below dining table, where it should be mixed with sweets, dried fruits and small presents, for children. Children should make noise like chicks, while looking for presents. After that, the family joins at the dining table for the Lenten dinner. Badnjak was supposed to be burnt in a fireplace, or a stove, but since most of people don't have it anymore, it can be burnt outside the house, or in church.
People go to church to attend the Midnight Christmas Liturgy. After the first part of the Christmas Liturgy in the Church, everyone, including the choir, follow the priest outside to walk around the church three times before burning badnjak. After burning of badnjak, people return into church for continuation of the Liturgy and more singing.
Photo: sonja r. @flickr
Photo: pelagija @flickr
On Christmas Day, 7th January, family goes to church and upon return home the most festive meal of the year is served. The father lights a candle and incense, and says a prayer. Family turns česnica (chesnitsa) from left to right singing Roždestvo Tvoje, the Christmas hymn glorifying the birth of Christ, and then break česnica, so each member of the family receives a piece, leaving one portion for an unexpected guest. Česnica is a round bread, baked from wheat flour (nowadays, people usually buy it form bakery store). A coin is placed inside česnica to bring good luck throughout the year to the person who finds it. Each person kisses the person next to him/her three times, with the greeting "Hristos se rodi!" - "Christ is born!" and receives in reply "Vaistinu se rodi!" - "Indeed He is born!" This greeting and reply is being used all three days of Christmas, instead of "Merry Christmas".
As you have noticed, there are no presents opening, as in other Christian Christmas customs. That is because three Sundays prior to Christmas are dedicated to the family: Detinjci (Detinytsi - Children's Day), Materice (Materitse - Mother's Day) and Očevi (Ochevi - Father's Day). On each of these days family members , usually one by one ;o))), tie the title celebrants to an object (eg. a chair, or tie his/her legs to each other), and their release is obtained with a gift. But anyhow, nowadays majority of people in Serbia are giving presents for the New Year's Eve, on 31st December.