Because it sure is surreal sometimes

Because it sure is surreal sometimes

Friday, January 4, 2013

Serbian Christmas...Deconstructed

Back by popular demand, much to the dismay of some local Serbian Church officials, are the cherry-picked cultural traditions that many of the quarter- and half-breeds (I’ll call them Slivers of Serb, or SoS’s) have taken upon themselves to continue. That’s right: Some of us are keeping the stuff we like and at least for now, and maybe forever, ignoring some of the stuff we don’t—but rumor has it that may be changing—that something’s afoot, in the form of a re-cleaving of the flock. In other words, be patient, Father, for some of the young guns’ sins are coming a little less frequently these days.

Many of the young Serbs and SoSs have regularly or semi-regularly attended church through the years, while others have opted out completely. Personally, I had a short run of about six years when I accompanied my elderly Great Aunt (Tete), a total Serb (TS), to Christmas Eve and sometimes Christmas Day service. Not having grown up as a churchgoer, I’m one of those who pick up after church service ends (more on that later), and I’m raising my children the same way.

My Tete’s sister, my Baba (grandmother) had no use for church. I never bothered to find out why and she never discussed it. Personally, I suspect it was like a few other things in her life, from her pot roast to her lemon pies to her 62-year marriage to my Jedo: We didn’t always understand how things worked, they just did and we didn’t question her about it. Most likely, if we had, she would have just smiled and said, “I don’t know, honey” and that would have been the truth.

Post-church Traditions
A handful of years ago, I wrote an article chock-full of inaccuracies, according to the local Serb priest, about the cultural traditions of Serbian Christmas, especially the shooting of guns on Christmas Day. At the end of an exhausting phone conversation in which we picked apart the article point-by-Serbian-priest-perspective-point, I officially took responsibility for two factual errors and apologized for not checking my resources more thoroughly. I did not apologize for describing the cultural traditions outlined in the article, stood firm in their accuracy because I was either present, or had been given pictures to prove it, (long-dead church officials shooting guns on Christmas and judging by the images, it wasn’t against their will). Bottom line, I grew up doing what was described, I did not dream it all up, and I don’t apologize for the behavior modeled by my grandparents and their friends, who would lay an egg at the very mention of that word, by the way. Right after they reloaded their black powder blanks. Still, at the end of the day, I understood the priest’s position. I'm not so sure he understood mine.

But we didn’t all sign up to be priests. We didn’t even all sign up to be Christian. Those are choices we make when we become adults. I was lucky enough to be born to the son of a total Serb, and my quarter-Serb status gained my entry to some great parties. Even at 8 or 9 years old, I picked up on the fact that the adults in the room were having one helluva time. Now, it’s my turn.

Some of the cultural traditions in question seem to get a little too much attention, in the eyes of the local church officials. And especially right now, I can understand it. I don’t own a gun, and if gun laws changed tomorrow it would be fine with me. But who doesn’t like to shoot a shotgun now and then? (Well, a few people I know, including my husband, but he gives me a long leash on Serb Christmas. As evidenced last year when he suggested that perhaps it wasn’t exactly on his list of favorite things to look across the room and see a slobbering SoS (or was that an SOB?) “draped across my shoulders like a blanket.” It was harmless, I assure you, until an hour later when the same SOB accidentally caught my son’s cheekbone with his fist during a little three-teenage-boys-on-one-grown-man wrestling match.)

Yes, Serbian Christmas is just one of those magical times when it makes sense to let it all hang out. Or, maybe it makes no sense at all, but people still do and then tend to the cleanup later. With a little help from Brother Slivovitz, grievances can be aired, repaired or deepened; if it’s the latter, just remember that it ain’t a knife fight you’re going to.

The point is this: The cultural traditions that we kids and grandkids of total Serbs, religious or not, choose to partake in mean something to us. They connect us to another dimension of our loved ones—their long gone, but not forgotten big personalities— which often matched their big Serb feet. Even the quieter among them may have blossomed on that one day a year. I’ve seen the grainy reel-to-reel films, in which faithful, churchgoing total Serbs of yore could occasionally be seen with a hand on the wrong -ich’s ass at the last house party of the evening, or within the hallowed walls of the Wells Fargo Club. 

On that one day a year, the cultural traditions, cherry-picked as they may be, remind us that we are one, and of our common thread, be it TS, SoS or SOB.

In fact, I suspect that it is not today’s young SoSs who invented the idea of embracing the fun stuff as passionately as the religious stuff. It just might be possible that some of those same old-country Serbs carried forward not every aspect of the religious habits of their forefathers, but plenty of the midnight coin-throwing, gun-toting rituals they witnessed as children for the same reason we do—because it made them feel closer to their own, long-dead loved ones. So there’s nothing new here. There’s nothing new about a flock whose members aren’t always headed in the same direction. Sometimes they even bump into each other and fall down. People are many things, but they aren’t everything.

We’ve all got a job to do. God bless the priests for doing theirs. God help the rest of us for doing ours.