As a child growing up, holiday memories consisted of two diverse Christmas celebrations. My father was Catholic so we celebrated on December 25th, and my mother was Serbian Orthodox so we celebrated on January 7th. For the longest time I thought everyone in the neighborhood celebrated two Christmas’s, and as I grew older I found out that was not so. Back then I didn’t think to ask my friends if they shared the same holiday customs. I just assumed that on December 25th Santa Claus brought gifts to all the good little girls and boys, and on January 7th the actual holy day, according to the Julian calendar, everyone went to church or visited their grandparent’s house. Never any presents on January 7th!! Looking back, I can still feel the excitement of Christmas Eve, December 24th at our house, because Santa would be arriving with gifts for my sister and me on Christmas morning. Our home was an “open house” filled with a constant flow of neighbors and kids coming and going, eating and drinking all of the goodies my mother had skillfully prepared. On the other hand, I did not feel that same excitement about January 7th. There were no presents, just religious rituals spoken in Serbian that I didn’t understand and my Dad was never there. Not sure why, but he always stayed home.
On January 7th as usual, my mom, sister and I were off to grandfather’s house. The atmosphere when you entered the kitchen felt ceremonial and somewhat somber. The table was always covered with hay and a white table cloth on top of that. It was difficult setting things down on the table because of the uneven surface. On many occasions I spilled my drink, forgetting about the hay placed beneath the lumpy table cloth. When asked about the hay, my Mom would say that the hay was there to remind us of Christ’s simple birth in a manger. There were also floating candles everywhere which I liked. These were just wicks floating on oil in a small cup which gave the room a soft spiritual glow. A loaf of sweet bread sat in the middle of the table, and a silver coin was baked inside, which was said to bring luck to the one who finds it. The bread was torn, not cut, into as many pieces as there are guests. I never found the coin.
As I grew older, around my early teenage years, the whole idea of two Christmas’s became an embarrassment to me. I found out that no one else in the neighborhood celebrated two Christmas’s, just us. This was just too weird. Then my grandfather died, and so did the January 7th Christmas ritual. Although a few of my mom’s sisters tried to continue the custom, it just wasn’t the same. Life wasn’t the same without Grandpa. From that time on, I was down to one Christmas and all grown up. That’s when I asked myself, how was I going to pass these wonderful customs down to my children? Should I put hay under the tablecloth at Christmas? Perhaps bake a coin into a loaf of bread or buy floating candles. Lastly and most importantly, I asked myself would their father be part of the Orthodox ritual—he was Catholic.