On Tuesday, January 7, to the delight of some and dismay of others, the full, half- and quarter- breed (slivers of Serbs, or SOSs) descendants of Serbian immigrants to Amador County celebrated the other Christmas Day, complete with shotgun (blanks) announcements of the impending arrival at local Serbian “open house” parties, singing, the sipping of refined Serbian beverages, and for some, church.
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 service during the last several years of her life. My Tete’s sister, my Baba (grandmother), on the other hand, had no use for church. I never bothered to find out why. 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 Djedo: we didn’t always understand how things worked; they just did.
On Serbian Christmas, if you were anywhere in the vicinity of North Main and downtown Jackson in the early afternoon, you likely saw a long line of cars snaking along, stopping every so often to blast off a few black powder blanks. Of course, blanks can hurt people too, which is why you may have heard someone yelling, “Cesti ti Bozic!” which is Serbian for, “Knock it off you crazy Serb!”
After a few stops that usually serve to both entertain and annoy passers-by, the procession came to a rest at a handful (okay, two) of open houses parties hosted by local SOSs, for local and visiting Serbs, plus a whole lot of Serbian wanna-bes who are looking for any excuse to skip work. On the doorsteps of these homes was a spattering of coins, left during the night by the local Serbian Santa, promoting a long-standing Serbian tradition of giving, and thievery.
I was lucky enough to be born to the son of a TS, and my quarter-Serb status gained my entry to some of these open house parties, back when my grandparents and their friends were still in their swinging 50s, and I was a mere teenager. I picked up on the fact that the old folks could still rock it. I may have also picked up a screwdriver now and then, but who’s carding? Turns out, nobody was back then.
The shooting rituals that take place can be traced back to the old country, when one household would shoot off guns, alerting another household, on the next hillside, that they were either ready to receive guests, or offing their cousin for stealing the Yule Log. Of course, now we have cell phones to do this job, but how fun is that? Bottom line, neighbors of Serbs are among the most patient and forgiving people in the world.
For the record, I don’t own a gun, but on Serb Christmas I’ve got no problem borrowing one and shooting a few blanks. Who doesn’t? (Well, a few people I know, including my husband, but he gives me a long leash on Serb Christmas. As evidenced a few years ago when he politely suggested that perhaps it wasn’t exactly on his list of favorite things to look across the room and see the arm of 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, it makes no sense at all, but people still do. With a little help from Brother Slivo, one (liquid) shot at a time, grievances can be aired, repaired or deepened; if it’s the latter, just remember that it isn’t a knife fight you’re going to.
The point is this: The cultural traditions that we kids and grandkids of Total Serbs 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 butt at the last house party of the evening, or within the hallowed walls of the old Wells Fargo Club. The cultural traditions, cherry-picked as they may be, remind us that one day a year, we are one, be it TS, SOS or even SOB.
In fact, I suspect that some of the Total Serbs that we SOSs were raised by and among may have over-indulged in the midnight coin-throwing, gun-toting rituals they witnessed as children for the same reason we do—because it makes us feel closer to our own, long-dead loved ones. We don’t all go to church on Serbian Christmas, but that makes us no less Serbian (and for most you can’t be any less), and no less connected to our ancestors. 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.
I guess it’s finally time to take down those decorations, but not before a final “Cesti ti Bozic” (Merry Christmas) and a song from the Serbs who know the words to the traditional Serbian song thanking the host of an open house party. My husband, who was there in spirit, caught up to us later when he got off work.