By Marshall, Dan
The World and I , Vol. 16, No. 1
On this cold midwinter night in St. Louis, the faithful gather outdoors around a small bonfire. A gold cross, a tall candle, and a dried sprig of basil in a bowl of holy water sit on a table nearby. Behind it stands a priest in blue and gold vestments, several altar boys, and a man holding the badnjak (rhymes with HOD-knock), an eight-foot-tall crown of a recently felled oak tree. The badnjak's leaf-covered branches sport red and blue ribbons and the occasional orange and apple.
The blaze casts its orange-yellow glow upon the hundreds encircling it, and shadows dance on the brick walls of Holy Trinity Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. In the flickering light I notice the wide, youthful eyes of Zoran, who fled a crumbling Yugoslavia just a few years ago; the rosy cheeks of Mira, who carries her son as her parents once held her; and the mellow gaze of 85-year-old Steve Miloradovich, who has experienced this event annually over more than fourscore years.
As the priest chants, the choir responds a cappella, filling the air with praise, thanks, and petitions to God. "Thy nativity, O Christ God, hath arisen upon the world as the light of wisdom," they sing, while Very Reverend Father Radomir Chkautovich censes the people and the badnjak with fragrant incense. After calling down blessings upon the water, he sprinkles the crowd and tree by dipping the basil into the water.
"O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, who did plant the Tree of Life in paradise so that it might bestow upon us eternal blessedness," intones Chkautovich. "Bless also now this tree which is a symbol of Thy cross and the Tree of Life in paradise, and which reminds us of Thy holy birth and of the logs which the shepherds of Bethlehem kindled to warm themselves when they came to worship Thee, the divine infant, and thereby prefigured Thy salvation-bearing cross."
As the prayer ends, the badnjak is tossed on the bonfire. Flames devour dry leaves, and smoke from the offering rises above. A brave contingent of those assembled--mostly young boys and men--converges on the tree in pursuit of a good branch. In a race against the fire, twigs are twisted off, branches with ribbons clipped, and pieces of fruit snatched.
Though the faithful will take their piece of the badnjak home to place in front of their icons, the real souvenir of Badnje Vece (the Yule log evening) sits in the heart of every Serbian Orthodox Christian. "I like our traditions," says Miloradovich. "The badnjak is wonderful."
Roots in history
The Serbian people began migrating from central Europe into the Danube Valley in the fourth century after Christ. By the seventh century they controlled part of the Danube basin and had spread into the central Balkans and along the Adriatic coast. Proximity to Constantinople brought missionaries to these pagan peoples from the Orthodox Christian Greeks.
After the neighboring Bulgarians formally accepted Christianity in the ninth century, the missionaries Saints Cyril and Methodius created the Slavonic alphabet and translated the Scriptures and church services. Since Slavonic was accessible to all Slavs, Christianity spread quickly to Serbs and Russians.
While dominated by Bulgarians, the Serbian people officially became Christians in the ninth century. The great zhupan, Stephan Nemanja, first united the Serbs in the second half of the twelfth century. In the wake of the power vacuum created by the Crusaders' sack of Constantinople in 1204, Serbia obtained full ecclesiastical and secular autonomy. Ecumenical Patriarch Manuel (Sarantenus), with the consent of the Orthodox Byzantine Emperor Theodore Laskaris, ordained Sava, one of Nemanja's sons, the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. Sava crowned his brother, Stephan Nemanja II, the first Serbian king in 1220.
The Serbian kingdom thrived for another century and a half, but by the middle of the fifteenth century Ottoman Turks had conquered almost all the Serbs. …