Среќен Бодник! Среќен Божиќ! Христос се роди! Orthodox Macedonians celebrate Christmas on January 7th, alongside other Orthodox Christians around the world. It is a very festive period, filled with family, food, tradition, and the spoiling of small children.
I returned to my Macedonian host family to celebrate бодник (Christmas Eve) and божиќ with them as most of my community is composed of Macedonian and Albanian Muslims, who do not celebrate божиќ. I also realized that this is my last opportunity to celebrate божиќ with my host family, as my service will be over by November of this year – I’m not sure that I can wrap my mind around that fact!
Оn Christmas Eve, I hopped on a minibus for a three hour bus ride to the capital, Skopje, where I paused for a quick lunch, and then caught another bus from Skopje to Kumanovo. I hoped to get off the bus on the highway near my host family’s village (and avoid going into Kumanovo, walking to the pazar and getting on a kombi to the village). In my rough Macedonian, I was able to get the idea across and also attracted the attention of the entire bus – all of whom appeared curious about an American traveling to a small village on Christmas Eve. The bus ride only proceeded to become more interesting when a rather inebriated passenger climbed aboard the bus (someone must have started celebrating early in the day). My understanding of Macedonian, particularly intoxicated Macedonian is not that strong, but I gathered that he became convinced that I was from Germany and wanted to become Facebook friends. I could hear a few quiet “леле’s” (kind of like a scolding “oh my god”) coming from other passengers. The bus driver proceeded to spray the air around him with air freshener (to get rid of the smell of alcohol, I suppose?). Our new passenger also insisted upon giving me an apple and some walnuts. I have become accustomed to receiving fruit and food from strangers, and refusal is not possible. He stumbled off the bus, and I was safely delivered to the side of the highway, where my host дедо (grandfather) waited for me.
I was happy to see Kiro, who carefully guided me across the freeway and the snow-covered fields of Romanovce. We stopped for a moment to watch Millan, a host cousin, struggling to get his tractor out of the snow pile that it was stuck in while one of Millan’s friends gleefully snapped a few photos of the incident. A few minutes later we were home! With three kisses cheek to cheek, I greeted my lovely host баба (grandmother), Ruja. I settled in to catch up on the latest gossip, drink a little rakija (potent Macedonian liquor) and eat a bit of salad. It was toasty warm with the шпорет (woodstove) running, and I felt right at home.
My host brother Andre came downstairs, having just woken up, and was busily playing video games on his new phone. Kiro ran in and out to take care of the cows and pigs. It was very cold out, with plenty of snow and ice on the ground, and he and Ruja had to keep hot water prepared for the animals. The village cats were crowding around the house’s windows, trying to stay warm.
Ruja had prepared a feast for бодник – fish, salads, bread, pasta, beans, pita, peppers of all varieties, fruit, baklava, wine, soda…yum. Christmas Eve marks the last day of a 40 day fast, during which no meat other than fish is eaten. In one of the loves of bread was a coin, the recipient of which was granted good luck in the year ahead. Ruja and Kiro’s son Zoran arrived home from work along with his wife Irina, which meant that it was time for the Christmas feast to begin!
Ruja set aside three loaves of bread first, one for god, one for the house, and one for the family, then the basket was passed to everyone. Andre was convinced that he knew which loaf contained the coin, suspiciously (in my eyes), he selected the correct loaf…hmm. At first I misunderstood and thought that we had to stay awake all night, sitting at the table. It turned out that we merely were not supposed to leave the table while eating, and we left the food and dishes out all night (for the dead). We watched the news and some Christmas specials after. I learned that early in the morning on Christmas Eve, children go door-to-door singing. They are welcomed and given fruit – apples, oranges, and nuts – chestnuts, walnuts, etc. Suddenly the gift I received from my inebriated friend on the bus made a bit of sense, though I am certainly past the age of being considered within the realm of childhood.
Irina and Zoran were meeting with Zoran’s sister and her husband to go into Kumanovo to see the bonfire there and to sample some of the hot rakija that was being given away. They invited me along and we all bundled into the car and made our way very carefully on the icy roads leading outside of the village. There are usually bonfires on the day before Christmas Eve and the day of Christmas Eve. Sadly we arrived at the end of the event, after a few moments of indecision, we decided to go to a cafe and ordered tea and desserts instead. All-in-all, I preferred this ending to the evening, as it was freezing outside, even if there had been a bonfire and hot rakija.
Christmas morning came, and with it, plenty of na gosti’s (visitors). First came the next door neighbor, Venka, with meat, sirenje (cheese) and desserts. She sat down for a bit of breakfast with us, and she and Ruja traded desserts – a great way to increase the breadth of your dessert options. Next arrived Ruja’s daughter Elena, with her husband and one of their sons. Next came Ruja’s other daughter, Biljana, with her husband and their daughter and son. The children were presented with money from Ruja and Kiro, as well as bags of candies and treats from their aunts and uncles. Lest you think me a scrooge, I too had brought gifts! The rest of the day was spent socializing, eating, and drinking some of Kiro’s homemade wine. Kiro and Ruja seemed a bit perturbed to see how quickly the wine was disappearing. I would see Kiro dash outside every 30 minutes or so to fill another bottle for the table. Poor Kiro was exhausted after having woken up early in the morning to milk the cows and having helped Ruja get ready for божиќ, and disappeared for a period of time to sneak in a nap. Gradually the night wound down, and Elena and Biljana and their families made their way home.
The next morning brought an end to my visit. Ruja, ever concerned that I am eating enough, packed a jar of ајвар for me, along with a bag of fruit and кифле (homemade pastries). Zoran, Kiro, Ruja and I packed into his car. We left Ruja at the graveyard to pay her respects to her brother and mother (as the day after Christmas is a day to visit the graves of family members who have passed), and Zoran dropped off Kiro and I in Skopje on his way to work. Kiro walked me to the bus station, and made sure I was all set for my trip, before leaving me to go to the bank in the center of town. How lucky I am to be included in the lives of such a lovely family.