This year is my first ever Christmas away from my family and my home country, Australia. I am spending Christmas with my boyfriend, Marko, in his home country, Montenegro. This Christmas will be spent among new family and new friends and I will be introduced to more of the culture and traditions of this beautiful country. If you are curious to learn about how Montenegrins celebrate Christmas, keep on reading!
Religion in Montenegro
The dominant religion in Montenegro is Orthodox Christianity and because of this most Montenegrins celebrate Christmas on January 7th. Orthodox Christians celebrate on the 7th of January because for traditional holidays they use the Julian calendar (we currently use the Gregorian calendar). The larger minorities include Islam (19%) and Catholic Christianity (3.4%).
Marko’s mother’s family is Catholic so we will be celebrating on the 25th of December. We will also have a smaller celebration on the 7th of January.
During the time of Orthodox Christmas, people typically have a week off from work from New Year’s Eve onwards. Catholics are generally given 3 days off, from Christmas Eve onwards but it is not always the case and in addition, they have a week off work during Orthodox celebrations.
Special celebrations and traditions
Most Orthodox Christians fast 40 days before Christmas. In Montenegro, this fast means to keep a plant-based diet, with no animal products. Products that are appropriate to eat during a fast are called ‘Posna’. These are clearly labelled in supermarkets and cafes. You can get all kinds of packaged foods and even have Posna cake in a cafe.
During fasting time you can go into a restaurant or cafe and say that you are fasting and they will give you a meal suitable for your fast.
Catholics sometimes fast for 40 days before Christmas too, this fast includes eating strictly vegetarian. This isn’t very common but some people do it. In Croatia, as they are typically Catholic, these ‘Posna’ foods are just vegetarian.
Badnjak – Decorated oak log
Orthodox Christians and Catholics, both do this ceremony but slightly differently. Early in the morning on Christmas Eve, the head of the house (strictly a male), goes into the forest and picks an oak log. Catholics typically take a smaller branch because it is an adopted custom. They bring the log back home and decorate it with olive branches and an orange. After it is decorated you put it in front of your front door.
On their respective Christmas Eves, as night falls they burn the log. Most people burn a small oak log at home and bring a larger oak log to burn in front of the church in a bonfire. People who don’t have a fireplace just bring a large log to burn at church. It is symbolic of bringing light into the place where Jesus was born.
Polaznik – First comer
This is a Christian Orthodox tradition. On Christmas day, the first visitor to the house- a young boy, brings an orange filled with coins and receives socks and a towel in return, upon visiting a neighbour or a family member, early in the morning. This tradition strictly involves a young boy only. This tradition is said to bring fortune to the house and family, as well as to the young boy visiting.
For both Christian Orthodox and Catholics, on Christmas Eve, traditionally they have a feast but it is strictly of fasting food. On Christmas Day, both have a feast of roasted meat. For Orthodox Christians, it is a spit roast.
Gift giving – Traditions changed by history
Gift giving is a little different compared to what I am typically used to. I found this out when we had to make our own gift tags for some gifts I was sending to my family. We could not buy gift tags anywhere. This was simply because gifts don’t go under a Christmas tree. You give them directly to the recipient.
Gift giving takes place on the 1st of January, people say they got a present for New Years, not for Christmas but it depends on the person. Gifts have been given on this date since communist times when The Kingdom of Yugoslavia ceased to exist and a republic was formed. During communist times, it was initially forbidden to practice one’s religion but that eventually changed. Religious traditions were not observed then and therefore Christmas was not typically celebrated.
In this time people worshipped secretly, without symbols, icons or decorations. Mostly Catholics continued to practice their religion during this time but it was rare, Orthodox Christians typically didn’t. In this period of time, most people didn’t care about traditions, the way of their country was filling the needs that traditions and religion once filled. So essentially, for over 30 years in Montenegro, Christmas was mostly practised quietly and this was not a common thing to do.
Some Catholics do give presents on Christmas day but this rare. Christmas in Montenegro is not material orientated, it is focused on spending time with loved ones and God if you are religious.
Santa and Children
Presents under the tree are only from Santa for kids which Santa delivers on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. There are no gifts given by parents as they are all from Santa. Santa also visits schools and workplaces to meet the children.
Cultures with similar traditions
Some other countries that observe Christmas as per the Julian calendar also share similar traditions with Montenegro.
If there is anything I should add or fix please let me know!
I am still learning about Montenegrin traditions every day and I am looking forward to sharing more. I am of course, not an expert so if you have any corrections or additions to make to this post please let me know.
What are your favourite Christmas traditions?
What is your favourite Christmas tradition from your culture? As I have said in a post last year, in Australia we don’t have many Christmas traditions but my favourite tradition is sharing lunch with my close family. I love to cook, so it is always a great pleasure to serve my best dishes to my loved ones.
I hope you enjoy Christmas whenever and wherever you celebrate it! If you don’t celebrate it, I wish you happy holidays!