Meanwhile the sky and deep fecund earth together maintain an important mythological place as the progenitors of divinized natural elements. This persistent centrality of the celestial and chthonic divinities, incarnated in a lower mythology of animistic spirits and demons, is reflected for example in a dualistic cosmogony reconstructed from South Slavic folklore. While all Slavs eventually embraced Christianity, they did so provisionally: never did the substratum of belief in an animated nature and cyclical (agrarian) time disappear entirely, and the oral and ritual folklore among all major branches of the Slavs –the Eastern, the Western, and the Southern – has conserved strong reflexes of pre-Christian Slavic belief.–Francis Dvornak, The Slavs in European History and Civilization (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986), p. 46.
While the country’s secular calendar is of course Gregorian, Serbia’s liturgical calendar follows the old Julian model, which is roughly two weeks behind the Gregorian method of reckoning time. Hence, instead of observing Christmas on December 25, Serbs the world over commemorate Christ’s Nativity (or Božić) on January 7. What is more remarkable still, from a theological standpoint that showcases the strong Pagan flavor retained in Serbian Orthodox Christianity and in living folk memory, is that unlike in Western Christendom, the “12 Days of Christmas” are officially known in Serbian as the Nekrštani Dani–“the Unclean Days”–when all manner of evil creatures (e.g., vampiri [vampires], džavoli [devils], veštice [witches], karakondžule [demons known for leaping upon travelers’ backs at night and riding them to exhaustion or madness before daybreak]) roam the earth, gaining great strength after sundown each night, wreaking havoc and tormenting people with impunity. Merry effin’ Christmas!
Say what? What about the baby Jesus’ inherently apotropaic powers against the Forces of Darkness? If He truly is the Son of God/Savior of humanity, et al, shouldn’t His birth dispel Things That Go Bump in the Night–not allow them to roam with impunity? After all, that’s what Western theologians and even artists would have one believe. In fact, the great English Neoclassical poet John Milton wrote about this very topic in his 1629 poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Not just evil spirits, but Pagan deities (predictably conflated in Milton’s mind) and even innocuous nature spirits writhed in agony and issued lamentations on the wind when Christ was born, mourning their supposed forthcoming exile from the minds and hearts of men. As stanzas XX and XXI declare:
The lonely mountains o’re,
And the resounding shore,
A voice of weeping heard, and loud lament;
From haunted spring and dale
Edg’d with poplar pale,
The parting Genius is with sighing sent,
With flowre–inwov’n tresses torn
The Nimphs in twilight shade of tangled thickets mourn.
In consecrated Earth,
And on the holy Hearth,
The Lars, and Lemures moan with midnight plaint,
In Urns, and Altars round,
A drear, and dying sound
Affrights the Flamins at their service quaint;
And the chill Marble seems to sweat,
While each peculiar power forgoes his wonted seat. [lines 181-196]
Well, in the cosmology typical of the ordinary Serbian Orthodox (read: Pagan-inspired) Christian, Milton’s scenario just doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard. And so we have this seemingly discordant phenomenon of the Nativity on January 7 kicking off 12 Days of Christmas rife with “unclean” spirits. In a peculiar twist of the theological ethos and telos of Milton’s poem, it’s Christ–not the Powers that preceded Him–Who becomes mute, Who becomes spiritually weak/ineffectual (at least for a time). The implications for Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant/Protestant-derived) Christians are profoundly disturbing: “God” is not omnipotent. “He” can do wondrous things, yes, but there are definite limits to “His” power. And maybe, just maybe, you’ve got to give the devils their due.
Liminality, Uncleanliness, and Taboos–OR [Singing in a Parody of Hall & Oates],”Evil Eyes…They’re WATCHING You, WATCHING You…”
That the celebration of Christ’s Nativity becomes conflated, in Serbian folk mentality and official Eastern Orthodox liturgical commemoration, with the start of a 12-day period of desperately trying to avoid the attention of evil spirits might make more sense when we examine the concept of “uncleanliness” and look at the wider, magical context of the liminal time of year in which these Nekrštani Dani/ “Unclean Days” occur.
The Serbian term nekrštani is literally translated as “without having been baptized.” That is the spiritual root, in the Eastern Orthodox Christian mindset, of the problem of “uncleanliness.” Many (though not all) of these evil spirits said to roam about during the 12 Days of Christmas are tied to the restless dead–spirits of people who died lacking the “Grace of God” in one of several ways: either they committed suicide, died before baptism (in the case of infants and children, who are thought to be quite vengeful after death), died without receiving the Last Rites from a priest, renounced God, or they were magicians/vraćari who trafficked with dangerous spirits in the first place during their lives and thus fell outside the pale of Grace.
The understanding is that since Jesus Himself wasn’t baptized until He reached adulthood, He was “unclean” for quite some time Himself, and so it only makes sense for evil spirits to have the proverbial upper hand for the symbolic period of 12 days (thought, actually, to be a microcosm for the year) between His Nativity and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 19, which commemorates His baptism by John the Forerunner/John the Baptist.
Spiritual uncleanliness has its correlation in the physical world of manifestation too. The ancient Greeks taught us that, bequeathing us with the concept of miasma, which, though, as a term co-opted by the English language is certainly watered down from its ancient etymology having to do with spiritual pollution wrought by the breaking of taboos (for more on this subject, I highly recommend Walter Burkert’s classic tome on Greek Religion), our usage still gives us the sense that we are entering dangerous territory/exposing ourselves to unwholesome energies wherever it is to be found.
Not surprisingly, in modern Serbian Christmas observances, taboos abound to keep miasma in check. One’s main goal in enduring the 12 Days of Christmas is to avoid getting the unclean spirits’/entities’ attention. And so, believe it or not, the chief taboo is one directed at clergy, forbidding them to perform the sacrament of Baptism on individuals–even if the petitioners are on their deathbeds and want to die as Christians! The Waters of Life, a common motif in Slavic folktales, cannot be accessed prior to the Epiphany/commemoration of Jesus’ baptism. But there are everyday taboo observances for regular folk such as:
- Not doing laundry until after the Feast of the Epiphany (January 19)
- Avoiding crying and singing, as these are surefire ways to draw demonic attention to yourself: if you’re already crying, the evil spirits will give you more to cry about; if you’re exhibiting a carefree, happy attitude, the evil spirits will be sure to change your tune
- Avoiding arguments, the reasoning being that displays of anger will draw demonic attention to fuel your rage even further, to the detriment of yourself and the person or persons with whom you are quarreling
- Sending children early to bed and ensuring that they adhere to the previous bullet points
- Doing all domestic chores–especially women’s work such as sewing, the carding of wool, spinning wool, etc.–during daylight hours only
- Avoiding “unclean” places (any place that carries a “death current” like cemeteries and hospitals, but even literal unclean places like garbage dumpsters, landfills, etc.)
- Not going out late at night
If that last taboo in particular is violated, you’re exposing yourself to all sorts of spiritual danger, as the very air in the pre-dawn hours of the Unclean Days are thought to be congested with evil spirits. Late night wanderers court the hazard of actual attachment by an evil spirit–like the karakondžula demonic creature I mentioned in the introductory paragraph to this post.
(As an aside, my father’s nephew Predrag hung himself when he was just 28 years old in 1997–despairing over the civil wars that ravaged what was once Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The night that my father received the horrible news from his brother Mirko, Predrag’s father, both my mother and I had eerily similar dreams that Predrag had transformed/been turned into an evil spirit–we both “saw” him hanging around the garbage cans [unclean spirits at unclean places] in the alley behind my childhood home in Chicago, and when we ran out in confusion towards him, calling his name, he bared what turned out to be fangs and hissed at us, and then leapt with supernatural speed into the air and started hopping from fence post to fence post, shrieking into the night. Those were the exact details that my mother and I had in our respective dreams of individually encountering him.)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Oak Branch (a.k.a., Badnjak)
Fortunately, with all this spiritually unclean energy afoot, it is possible to find magical protection during Christmas–but for Serbs, this comes from the natural world, not a baby Jesus or a God the Father presence. Further underscoring the pre-Christian nature, sensibilities, and activities of a Serbian Orthodox Christmas is the fact that Christmas Eve doesn’t reference Christ at all; it is called Badnje Veće, which literally translates as “The Eve of the Oak.” Huh? Well, kiddies, you see, this baby Jesus figure kind of got grafted onto the worship of a pan-Slavic storm god called Perun, Who, when in eagle form, perched in the topmost branches of the World Tree, which to the pre-Christian Slavs was an oak.
On January 6, Christmas Eve, hordes of Serbian Orthodox faithful flock to their oak groves and their churches to receive the holy powers contained in a sprig of badnjak, which is either harvested by the head of the household (usually the father of a nuclear family) and ceremonially brought indoors, or is obtained–wait for it–at the end of Mass on Christmas Eve! This latter kind of badnjak (pronounced “BAHD-nyahk”) sprig is specially blessed by the clergy presiding over Mass and is thought to have healing powers. Whether au naturale or ecclesiastically obtained, the badnjak is clearly a symbol of virility, vitality, and abundance, and these special oak branches are hung above doorways (homes and barns/farm animal pens) or a car’s rearview mirror, propped up against cribs or the beds of expectant or nursing mothers, placed under mattresses, tucked into purses and briefcases, hung from office ceilings…you get the point. It’s a highly prized apotropaic oak branch, one that is revered and kept until next year’s Christmas Eve, when it gets ceremonially burnt in bonfires…outside the front steps of churches!
And so, tonight, my heart is light and I look forward to receiving my badnjak–two sprigs of it, more than likely, as my father will be bringing me pieces he harvested at sunrise today (and the rituals surrounding that harvesting could easily serve as the subject of another blog post) near where he and my mom live and I will more than likely brave the Arctic temps and the hundreds of congregants at Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, the largest Serbian-American congregation in the city of Chicago if not the whole U.S. (Chicago has the largest Serbian immigrant population of any global city outside of Serbia), to wrest from the deacon’s hands my very own specially blessed piece of badnjak to hang over the entrance door to my condo. And while I’ll be marveling in amazement at the thousands of glittering mosaic tiles detailing scenes of exquisite Byzantine art on the cathedral’s interior walls and ceilings (dome within dome within dome), it won’t be the baby Jesus that my heart will be offering songs of praise to (unlike the other congregants), but rather, the God Perun, ancient Watcher of my people, the Dweller of the Oak, Lord of the Storm and Bringer of Blessings. He is deserving of much praise.
But per my dear Mama’s injunctions, I’ll be sure to not tarry/stay out late…and to definitely avoid unclean places on the way home.