Friday, December 17, 1999

A Serbian Christmas

Celebrating according to Old World custom

By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
In Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin
Dec. 17, 1999

When my parents left Yugoslavia after World War II to build a new life in Baltimore, they wanted to assimilate, but also to pass along the culture they left behind. So each year, we celebrated Christmas twice: American-style, on Dec. 25, with presents, a tree and stories of Santa Claus, and on Jan. 7, according to Old World custom.

Slavs who are Eastern Orthodox (including Serbs, Ukrainians, and Russians) clock religious days by the ancient calendar devised by Julius Caesar. The Julian-reckoned December 25 falls on the modern Gregorian calendar's January 7. We didn't do everything required by custom on Serbian Christmas, but I heard a lot of stories.

To practice the full complement of Serbian Christmas rites, you'd need a whole Serbian village around you, and five days off from work. Full time preparations and festivities traditionally began two days before Christmas, and involved dozens of people: a crew of boys to bring in your Badnjak (a massive oak Yule log) while you toss handfuls of rice, wheat, and oats at them; more boys carrying a creche and men dressed as the Three Kings to sing carols and recite the story of the Nativity; a man to knock on your door at 2 a.m. on Christmas morn to wish you a happy one; and assorted groups of folk popping in here and there on this day and that, for snacks of figs, prunes, flatbread, and cheese, and plum brandy boiled with water and honey. But we didn't have access to the required cast of characters in Baltimore.

Even without celebratory rifles fired in the air and roast suckling pig (whose severed head is displayed on a platter on the dining room table till it's finally eaten on the third day of Christmas), there was plenty left for us to do – including some customs you might enjoy trying for yourself this year. You don't even have to wait till January 7.

One tradition definitely went beyond how far my modern mother was willing to go for the sake of heritage, but it's always intrigued me as being Fellini-esque: the whole family walks three times around the table, then throughout the house, imitating chickens. The father crows like a rooster, the mother clucks like a hen, and the children follow behind, peeping and cheeping. Dad-as-rooster liberally strews hay and straw in every room. Depending on the source, this custom is said to bring happiness and prosperity in the year ahead, or symbolize Christ's birth in a manger.

Later, the father throws a nut in every corner of the dining room. No sweeping is allowed till the three days of Christmas have passed. Let me know how it works out for you.

More sedate is the custom of sprouting wheatgrass on a plate. By the time it's about six inches high, it makes a striking solstice statement: new, green life growing lush during the darkest days of the year. With a red votive candle in the middle and a red ribbon tied around the outside, this mini meadow glows splendidly in a softly-lit room.

To grow your wheat, or zito (pronounced zhee-to), soak half a cup of whole wheat berries in water for a day. Rinse well and spread out on a large dinner plate, one or two berries thick. Sprinkle water on them a few times a day, or keep them covered with a damp paper towel. Balance the moisture carefully: if the berries stay too damp, they'll begin to grow mold. Too dry, and they'll wither. I wish I had more masterful instructions on this point, but it's an annual struggle for me, too. Sometimes I have to start over. It's worth it. Insert the votive candle on about the fourth day. It's supposed to take three weeks to grow, but I've gotten pretty crops within a week.

The Bozicni Kolac (pronounced bo-zheech-nee KO-lach), or Christmas bread, is not like any other bread I've ever seen or eaten. It's gloriously decorative: tall, cylindrical, and rounded on top, like a crown, and decked out on top with tiny sculptures made from dough. It's firm, yellow, crumbly, and slightly sweet, with a thick, tasty crust. Even if you skip the dough sculptures, it's a wonderful, rich bread.

Traditionally, the Kolac (or Kolach) is baked on Christmas Eve (Badnje Vece), which is a day of fasting from animal products. Because the Kolac is made with eggs and milk, it can't be eaten on that day. I part from tradition by waiting until Christmas Day (Bozic, or Bozich) to bake it – because it tastes best on the day it's baked.

My mother cut the bread in wedges, but my husband and I like to slice off rounds from the bottom instead. That way, the dough decorations are preserved for as long as possible.

Every family's Kolac is decorated a little differently. My mother and grandmother made wine barrels and bunches of grapes, representing the old family vineyard. Following this custom, I fashion four barrels from bread dough, and stick on hoops and nails made from the special sculpting dough (see recipe below). My own additions include a computer, a silhouette of a ferret (we have three), and a frying pan.

Customarily, there's an emblem in the center, engraved with letters written in Old Church Slavonic, the language customarily used in the Eastern Orthodox liturgy among Slavic peoples. It's made by pressing a carved wooden stamp into a square of sculpting dough. Fashion a central emblem that's of special significance to you, spiritual or otherwise.

Bozicni Kolac
(Bozhichni Kolach, or Christmas Bread)


8 cups flour
4 tsp. yeast
2 cups milk
4 yolks (reserve the whites)
4 tbs. sugar
1 stick butter, at room temperature
1/2 tsp. salt

To get the right shape, bake this bread in a one-gallon saucepan or pot that's narrow, round, and straight-sided, with ovenproof handles. The best utensil I've found is a stoneware crock liner from an electric slow cooker.

Warm the milk to 105º or until it feels warm, but not hot. If it's too hot, it'll kill the yeast, and your Kolach won't rise.

Dissolve the yeast into a small amount of the milk, then gradually stir in the rest of the milk and the sugar. Let stand 10 minutes.

Mix in the remaining ingredients and knead well, to make a fairly stiff, stretchy dough that pulls clean from your fingers. If it's too stiff, add milk as needed. Put in a greased bowl. Spray with vegetable oil. Cover. Set to rise in a warm place, at least one hour. Test by pressing the center lightly: if it springs back, it has more rising to do.

Punch down and knead just enough to work out any big creases. Pinch off about half a cup of dough and set aside for decorations. Butter the baking pot well, put the dough inside, and let rise again. Meanwhile, make the dough sculptures and decorate the bread with them.


* 1/2 to 1 cup dough, pinched off from bread
* 2 tbs. flour
* A little milk
* 1 yolk
* Egg whites (left over from bread), beaten slightly
* Sprig of fresh basil
* Red ribbon or thread
* Assorted nuts in the shell

In a small bowl, mix together the flour, yolk, and enough milk to make a dense, pliable lump of sculpting dough. This dough won't rise while baking, so it'll retain any shapes you mold it into, or carve into it.

Pinch off some sculpting dough and roll two long cylinders thinner than a drinking straw. With a rolling pin, flatten them into ribbons. Make them two inches longer than the Kolac is wide. Dip them in egg white and arrange in a cross over the top, forming four quadrants.

Roll a third cylinder, this one about two-thirds the length needed to encircle the bread. Flatten it, rolling out to the right length. Dip in egg white and rope it around the bread.

For an alternative to a plain band that encircles the bread, try my grandmother's specialty: an elegant fringe. Roll the band to 1" wide. Use a paring knife to cut fringes 3/4" long and about 1/4" wide. Dip in egg white and place on bread. With the tip of a paring knife, bend back every other fringe 180º, flat against the bread.

Use the reserved bread dough and the rest of your sculpting dough to make shapes that represent things meaningful to each member of your household. Keep in mind these properties as you form your sculptures: the bread dough will rise; the sculpting dough will keep whatever shape you give it. Think of it as a mixed media project. Tip: bread dough barrels are fun to eat!

Dip your sculpting dough objects in egg white before placing on bread. The egg white will glue them in place, and will be glossy when baked. But don't dip your bread dough objects in egg white: they'll slip off the bread.

When you're done, brush top lightly with egg white--sculptures and all. Bake at 400º for 10 minutes, then cover loosely with a sheet of foil folded into an inverted V. Turn down heat to 350º and bake 60 to 80 minutes more. Bread is done when a light thump produces a hollow sound. Let partly cool, then carefully turn it out into a dishcloth.

On a platter, arrange nuts in a ring around the bread. (Some people balance the bread on three red apples, and cover the platter straw, hay, and dried grains; some surround the bread with fruits instead of nuts.) Lay the basil, tied in the ribbon, on top.