Vicki's Snapshot: My First Jan. 7th Christmas
My first Orthodox Christmas celebration did not take place here in Montenegro but in California at end of our first year of marriage. It was a never-to-be-forgotten experience, seared into my heart and memory......
Stan and I set off late one Thursday evening to spend ‘Christmas Eve’ with my father-in-law at the home of his fellow Montenegrin ex-pats, the Todorovics. As we drove through So. California suburbia, I pondered just how Christmas-y the evening would be since most of us had put the holidays long behind us and were back at work and into the ordinary rhythms of life.
Entering their neighborhood, dark at 9 o'clock, we easily spotted their modest ranch home ablaze with Christmas lights and a Christmas tree twinkling through the front window. Mr. and Mrs. Todorovic warmly welcomed us and ushered us into their living room, the fireplace filled with a big log, ready to be lighted. (Note: Jan. 7th Christmas celebrations traditionally begin the night before with the burning of the Badnjak--an oak branch used to stir a fire. The burning of the Badnjak is so central that Christmas Eve is actually called Badnje Veče).
As Mr. Todorovic lit the log, he explained to me that Stan would have a key role later in the evening: fulfilling the role of being the first male visitor and stirring the ashes with the Badnjak branch with an accompanying pronouncement of blessings. It was believed that more sparks garnered more abundant blessings. Thus, Mr. T had secured the largest possible log; in fact, the giant log barely fit into the token So. Cal fireplace.
I chose the closest spot to the fire as we gathered around to chat and await the midnight hour. Why midnight? Because of another tradition! Many people fast before Christmas—fasting doesn’t mean no food, just no meat and animal products like cheese, butter, and dairy. Even so, the Christmas repast is a much anticipated meat-laden feast. Our host family was going all out and celebrating Christmas Old-World style, with the breaking of the fast shortly after midnight.
While visiting and being shown an album full of prized pictures of the homeland, I began to realize that I, even I who loves sitting close to a fire, was feeling a mite warm and began inching away. As the midnight hour approached and the time to stir the ashes came, no one could get within six feet of the roaring fire. After the striking of the clock, poor Stan grabbed the fire poker and stood as far back as he possibly could, bending way over with outstretched arm to jab and stir and recite the blessing as quickly as he could:
How many sparks, that much happiness in this house.
How many sparks, that much money in the household pocket.
How many sparks, that many sheep in the pen.
How many sparks, that many pigs and lambs.
And most of all, health and joy.
With Christmas properly welcomed in**, we moved to the attached dining area to sit down to the lavish meal: smoked and roasted meats (yes, plural), homemade cheeses (plural), pickled vegetable salads, rich Russian salad, homemade breads, baklava and desserts galore. This was my first full-blown traditional celebratory Montenegrin meal; it is still classic and enjoyed at every major celebration to this day.
As we were working our way through all that deliciousness, Mrs. Todorovic glanced into the living room and gave a start. She wondered aloud if she was seeing smoke? She got up to take a look. She thought for sure she was seeing wisps of smoke coming out of the….wall. (The fireplace was set in a wall completely covered by large mirrored tiles). Her husband took a look while we guests sat in silence while they worked out what was actually happening. Mr. T thought it was nothing important, so back to eating we went.
However, as the minutes passed, it was apparent that smoke was creeping in through the tiles, so Mrs. T determined to call the fire department. Mr. T admonished her to tell them “No sirens!”; yet within minutes, we heard the loud whine as a fire truck pulled up in front of the house.
Mr. T went out to greet them and the fire team dashed in…. and stopped. They looked around. Did their eyes deceive them? Had they fallen down the rabbit hole? A Christmas tree? Christmas packages? People dressed up in holiday finery? Eating a feast at two in the morning?
After a few speechless seconds, they sprang into action. A younger fireman got ready to start bashing the smoking wall (as the rest of us, with sinking hearts, pictured ALL THAT BROKEN GLASS) but his level-headed captain stopped him. He thought it best to first remove the giant, still blazing log.
The Captain asked the Todorovics if they had something suitable to put it in. I was flabbergasted that he thought someone would, but Mrs. T came to the rescue: she had a large, old-fashioned metal washing tub in the backyard. The firemen wrangled that log into the tub (how, I don’t know—we had to stay back in another room) and deposited it safely outside.
While the axe-wielding fireman stood yearningly by, the captain inspected the inside of the fireplace and soon determined that the wooden framing had been smoldering—not by sparks but by the sheer heat emitted—and quickly got it extinguished, no axe needed-with minimal damage to boot.
As the fire captain explained, the mirrored wall saved the day—without seeing that smoke seeping out between the tiles, there was a high chance that we would have feasted ignorantly, after which the Todorovics would have gone to bed, still unaware that the framing was burning silently inside the walls, til the house fell down upon them.
Relieved that the worst had not come to pass, we offered our thanks and good wishes to the firemen, pressed upon them some Christmas treats, and saw them off with a wave, once again a picture of holiday cheer.
After the drama of the night, we quickly wrapped up the celebrations and headed home, knowing we had witnessed a great mercy.
**NB: "Christmas properly welcomed in", is according to the Orthodox tradition. These traditions are still going strong and we use these opportunities today to engage with people and point them to Christ.