Badnjak, The Serbian Christmas Tree

Yule log, or Christmas log is a tradition of burning a special log on Christmas in many countries in Europe. The custom is spread in Western Europe, but much more in the Eastern Europe, especially on the Balkans. The custom may derive from the pagan religion, but Christian Churches have their own interpretation.

In Serbia, the Christmas tree is called badnjak. Badnjak is traditionally burned on a Christmas Eve. Before a Christmas Eve, a log or branches of oak are brought to the household. Early in the morning the head of each family, usually accompanied by several male relatives, selects and cuts the tree from which a log will be cut for their household. In the evening, a man of the family brings their badnjak into the house. Bringing badnjak into the house is often followed by some rituals that vary depending on the region.

Eventually the log is ritually burned in the household. Some families burn it in front of their houses, or burn a few branches in the stove, but today  most commonly the celebrations are kept publicly in front of a church.

Public celebrations with badnjak burning are common in almost every place in Serbia and in other places where Serbs live in the region. People gather at the local church, where a liturgy is served and badnjak burning is prepared with the clergy. Large logs of oak are prepared for a fire, and people also bring branches of oak to be burned on the large fire in front of the church. After the ritual the priest delivers a short sermon, followed by the church choir singing Christmas songs, poems that praise the Nativity of Jesus Christ may be recited. Before World War I, soldiers of the Kingdom of Serbia developed the custom of laying a badnjak on a fire in their barracks. In the succeeding Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the military badnjak ceremony was further elaborated and standardized in army service regulations, but the tradition ended at the outbreak of World War II. Since the early 1990s, the Serbian Orthodox Church has, together with local communities, organized public celebrations on Christmas Eve. 

Even though the custom probably has pagan roots, and derives from Slavic pagan religion, Serbian Orthodox Church explains the origin of this custom by the events surrounding the Nativity of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospel of Luke 2:1–20, Mary Theotokos gave birth to Christ at Bethlehem, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger. An angel of the Lord appeared to a group of shepherds, sending them to Bethlehem where the savior was born, and the shepherds brought firewood to the cave and built a fire to warm the newborn Christ and his mother throughout the night.

The badnjak burns on through Christmas Day, whether rekindled or kept burning from the Eve. At one moment the burning logs and branches are hit with a poker or a larger oak branch to make the sparks fly. The person that strikes the fire, usually the priest if the celebration is public, then wishes that happiness and prosperity of parish will be as abundant as the sparks. Gathered people throw their branches in the fire, saying their prayers and Christmas wishes.

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