Because it sure is surreal sometimes

Because it sure is surreal sometimes

Friday, January 10, 2014

Serbian Christmas, Deconstructed

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.


Anonymous said...

As Serbians, why would you all choose to use the phrase, Cestit ti Bozic/Cestit Bozic? That is a Croatian phrase. The Serbian phrase for Merry Christmas is Srecan Bozic.

Ladyluck said...

To answer Anonymous's question above, we used it because our grandparents used it, so you'll have to ask them. Good luck with that.

Why did you choose to post your comment anonymously?

Lana Vuk said...

Oh my ! The Community was mixed and we/they used many phrases. Cesit ti Bozic! Mir Bozic. Sretan Bozic. Hristos se Rodi. Sretna, Sretan, Screcna. etc etc etc Then on to New Year and Slavas.
Don't hit me on all the grammar - ja neznam dobro gramatika (that ought to give someone a stomach ache). We are all just trying to celebrate, honor the past and just get along. :-) We have lost people, personalities and an era and we feel it. Enjoy; we have enough critika, critika, critika, critika. :-) Celebrate with us or however you want.

Beau Gillman said...

Cestit it bozic was used by the Serbs that came to Amador County in the late 1800's/early 1900's....long before Serbs and Croations started fighting. Many non Serbs in the community became accustomed to this greeting and it is obviously still widely used within Amador County. We've always done things differently here and will continue to do so :) we do use Srecan Bozic as well!! We also say Merry Christmas since we are Americans as well. Hope this helps out, Anonymous.....

Petra said...

As Beau mentioned, many of the Serbians from Amador County came here long before the split between Serbia and Croatia. Therefore, phrases like "Cestit ti Bozic" and "Cestit Bozic" weren't considered "Croatian" phrases since Croatia didn't exist then. They were Yugoslavian phrases. Also, many Serbians lived (and still live) in areas that are now considered a part of Croatia.

In a way, I guess I can understand where you are coming from, Anonymous. Many Serbians that I know from Krajina would never use these phrases do to their current connection with Croatia. I can't say I blame them considering what they went through back home. However, you also can't blame other Serbians who choose to use these phrases either. They might now be considered Croatian phrases, but these were phrases that they were taught by their ancestors of former Yugoslavia. They have every right to use the phrases from their homeland. At the end of the day, they all mean Merry Christmas, and there's really no reason to further fuel the fire between Serbians and Croatians.

However, if we really want to get technical, Anonymous, the most important phrase used on Bozic isn't Cestit ti Bozic or Srecan Bozic, it's Hristos se rodi (Christ is born). I mean, at the end of the day, it's not just a Serbian holiday, it's Orthodox Christmas.

Hope that helps :)

Ladyluck said...

Thanks, Petra, for the great explanation. To reinforce that, it is also common to hear some of the older folk (myself included) referring to the holiday in casual conversation as "Slav Christmas," for precisely the reasons you cite. It was Yugoslavian Christmas when I was growing up. I completely agree that at the end of the day, it's a good thing that we're conveying "Merry Christmas" in whatever language. On that note, I'll pay homage to the other side of my family with "Buon Natale!"