A Cross-Cultural Christmas
The Clash of Civilizations, a political theory developed in the early 90s, proposes that cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-cold war world – all well and good, but does it hold true on a more personal level?
Since the fall of Milosevic, Serbia has attracted many foreigners and quite a few relationships that have crossed the cultural divide have been cemented. Are we drawing back the curtain that was drawn between western Christianity and Orthodoxy?
In the former Yugoslavia the majority of people were orthodox by ethnicity but religion was kept out of the public space until Tito’s death in 1980. Bozic bata (Father Christmas) became Deda Mraz (Grandfather Frost) and the day of celebration became the 31st of December. Now, Bozic is back but the Christmas tree and present giving have stuck to the last day of the Gregorian calendar, despite the rise of new believers since the fall of communism.
Unlike much of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia, under Milosevic’s rule was largely protected from ‘foreign’ influence and only since his fall did many see the need to protect the home grown culture. So, paradoxically, along with the rise in the number of ‘foreign-style’ restaurants and bars there has been a commensurate surge in ‘traditional’ restaurants.
Marina Babic, who works as a translator in Belgrade, thinks that “some people here seem to try and reinforce traditional values because they fear a loss of identity, whilst at the same time, they want the ‘progress’ and commercialisation of Christmas that they see elsewhere.”
Marina, does not consider herself very religious but will nevertheless be fasting for 40 days prior to the Orthodox Christmas. She says that the way her parents spend the period hasn’t changed a lot, but that for her things are different. “I am fasting and I am actually celebrating Christmas, she said.
Her British partner, Pete, has been making an effort to learn about the Orthodox Church as Marina regards it as an important part of her life – and of Serbian culture. Not a fan of the traditional British Christmas, he says it will be a relief to not have to take part in rituals which he doesn’t identify with and the “endless days of preparation necessary to produce the ‘traditional’ meals that no one is all that fond of.” He’ll be happily foregoing the traditional turkey this year, because Marina’s fast forbids her to eat meat.
It is of course not only a process of foreigners learning about orthodoxy – the process works both ways. Claudia Mayr spent last Christmas together with her Serbian partner in Austria and ‘says “he was amazed that we sang Christmas carols and read stories to each other”. His family is atheist and there are no signs of Christmas to be seen in the house, although there is modest exchange of presents on New Years Eve.
It is difficult to make any form of generalized statements in regards to the way people celebrate Christmas in Serbia or what kind of importance it has in people’s lives. For some, Slavas (the celebration of patron saint’s days) seem to carry a similar connotation to Christmas in ‘the West’, for others, neither has.
Ana Seferovic says that in her family religion and ‘pagan’ traditions were always a taboo topic after experiences with village ‘healers’ many years ago and Ana herself does ‘not want to be associated with a church that she says supported some of the excesses of the past.The church, she says “is still too traditional and conservative”.
Ana and her partner, Toby Brundin, exchanged their presents last year on New Year’s Eve, but, he says, more modestly than if they had been in England. The consumerist culture of a British Christmas has, he thinks, “still not invaded Serbia, as people still do not have that much money to spend.”
Kosovo, which over the past few years has seen a huge increase in foreign presence, celebrated last years Christmas with quite some excess, even though the Christian minority makes up just 3 per cent of the population. Aside from this minority however, this seemed to be a longing to celebrate with the majority of the rest of the world – a commercial Christmas almost devoid of religion.
And, as we all know, you do not have to be religious in order to take advantage of religious holidays. Celebrating with someone from a different cultural background and in a different country can bring out what should really matter – spending time with friends and family.
On the whole then it seems that the political scientists can keep their theories. Love across the interdenominational divide seems to be alive and well even at this most religious time of year. (Source: Balkan Insight)