Christmas Lyn

Christmas in Montenegro

Updated June 15, 2024
Source: Pixabay

Christmas in Montenegro is a time for vibrant, lively festivities and quality time with family and friends.

Montenegrins are outgoing, hospitable people who happily share Christmas cheer with everyone around, not distinguishing between family and strangers.

Montenegrins value their cultural heritage and embrace centuries-long traditions like burning the Christmas log, decorating the table with straw, observing the Nativity Fast, and shooting guns.

However, some Montenegrin Christmas traditions are familiar to every American, like decorating the Christmas tree, attending the Midnight Mass, and exchanging gifts.

Montenegro may not be the first country to come to mind when you think about holiday destinations, but it’s certainly worth visiting if you’re seeking new experiences.

When is Christmas Celebrated in Montenegro?

Christmas in Montenegro isn’t celebrated on December 25 like in the western world. Most Montenegrins belong to the Eastern Orthodox Church, which still follows the Julian calendar, so they celebrate Christmas on January 7.

Back in the day, everyone followed the Julian calendar, but in the 16th century, Pope Gregory Xlll introduced a reform to stop the calendar drift. Some branches of the Orthodox Church accepted the reform, whereas others stuck with the old calendar.

Montenegrins use the Gregorian calendar in daily life, so November 11 or August 8 in the U.S. and Montenegro are the same. But all religious holidays are celebrated with a 13-day difference.

Nativity Fast

The Nativity Fast is a period of preparation for the birth of Christ in Orthodox Christianity. The custom originated in the early times when monks used to fast throughout the entire December until Christmas.

Initially, Orthodox Nativity Fast and Catholic and Lutheran Advent traditions were the same, but they developed differently.

Catholics switched from fasting to lighting candles on Advent wreaths and praying, and Orthodox Christians have stuck with the old custom.

Nativity Fast in Orthodox Christianity is a period of almsgiving, penance, and cleansing of one’s body and soul.

People must free themselves from negative thoughts and pray for salvation from their sins. Orthodox Christians must not feel jealousy, anger, or share gossip.

For 40 days preceding Christmas, all Eastern Orthodox Christians, including Montenegrins, refrain from meat, dairy, oil, smoking, drinking alcohol, and other bodily temptations. The most devoted people pray daily.

On certain days, people can eat fish and oil and drink a bit of wine, while some days are stricter than others. However, most people nowadays don’t observe the Nativity Fast as strictly as before.

Still, every Montenegrin strives not to eat anything solid on Christmas Eve until the first star appears in the sky. The oldest family member decides when to begin the feast if the sky is cloudy.

Christmas Food in Montenegro

After 40 days of a bland, vegan diet, meat may be too heavy for the gastroenteric tract. For this reason, Christmas Eve food in Montenegro is usually meatless, made with fish, beans, and potatoes.

While there’s no meat, the food is far from boring. The dinner always begins with cesnica, a round bread decorated with Christian symbols like crosses and angels. People pass the bread around, and everyone tears off a piece.

Cesnica shouldn’t be cut with a knife. Montenegrins hide a coin or bean inside the bread, and whoever finds it is believed to have a lucky year.

This custom is similar to the tradition of hiding a bean in the King Cake for Epiphany or the Scandinavian tradition of putting a whole almond in rice pudding on Christmas Eve.

The main dish may be fish soup, stew, or whole carp baked in the oven. On the side, Montenegrins usually have potatoes, roasted vegetables, various salads, or cicvara. Cicvara is a calorific dish made with cheese, milk, corn flour, and kaymak.

Homemade cheese is a must on the Montenegrin table, regardless of the occasion. The country is famous for its cheese varieties, including layered cheese Kolašin.

Many Montenegrins make pastry with meat, vegetable, cheese, or sweet filling called burek. On Christmas Day, Montenegrins can allow some meat and eat lamb in milk with potatoes and carrots.

Sarma is a staple of Balkan cuisine. Montenegrins stuff cabbage leaves with a mix of minced meat with rice and herbs and cook the dish in the oven. Sarma is traditionally topped with sour cream and black pepper.

For dessert, Montenegrins eat an Italian version of Christmas fruitcake called Panettone.

It’s taller and lighter than British Christmas pudding, made with raisins and lemon zest. Another Montenegrin Christmas dessert is priganice, fried dough balls with honey and lemon.

Mulled wine and eggnog aren’t common at the Montenegrin Christmas feast. Instead, locals prefer Rakija, a traditional drink with a 40%-80% alcohol content made from grapes or plums.

Christmas Decorations in Montenegro

Montenegrins decorate Christmas trees with baubles, holiday character ornaments, tinsel, fairy lights, and garlands. Some Christmas tree ornaments are handmade from glass, wood, or paper.

Montenegrins rarely decorate their house exteriors, but town streets always look festive, glistening in Christmas lights. Shopping malls, main city squares, and other public places set up creative holiday displays.

Montenegrins customary put white tablecloths on the dinner table, representing Christ’s purity. Candles around the house symbolize Christ as the light of the world.

Gift Exchange & Santa

Like most people worldwide, Montenegrins exchange gifts with their loved ones on Christmas Day.

Because Montenegrins celebrate Christmas not solely with family but also with friends and, sometimes, neighbors, the presents are usually small. The thought matters more than monetary value.

Children anticipate gifts from Dedo Mraz (Grandfather Frost) or Saint Nicholas. Grandfather Frost is a Slavic god of winter who resembles Santa Claus with his long white beard but wears an ornate blue robe and has a scepter.

Montenegrin Santa Claus leaves gifts under the Christmas tree. He enters the house through the main entrance and asks kids to recite a poem or sing a carol. Grandfather Frost is often accompanied by his granddaughter, Snow Maiden.

Church Services

On Christmas Eve, Montenegrins go to church to listen to biblical passage readings, sing hymns, and pray. This tradition is similar to Catholic and Lutheran customs of attending the Midnight Mass.

At midnight, the high priest announces, “Hristos se rodi!”, translated as “Jesus is born!”, and everyone answers with “Vaistinu se rodi!”, translated as “Truly is born!”. Afterward, people head outside the church to burn bonfires.

Many Montenegrins also attend the Christmas Day morning service and exchange greetings with neighbors and friends.

The most visit-worthy Midnight Mass in Montenegro takes place in the Cathedral of St Jovan Vladimir`s Temple in Bar, the largest cathedral in the country.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day celebrations in Montenegro start early. According to an old superstition, the first visitor to the house must be male and is believed to have a lucky year, so it isn’t uncommon to see friends on one’s doorstep at 6 a.m.

The first guest is traditionally rewarded with a small gift and a shot of Rakija. When everyone arrives, Montenegrins sit down for a feast. They chat, play games, and sing traditional hymns.

When it gets dark, Montenegrins head outside to stroll the town streets, shop at Christmas markets, and meet friends who haven’t attended the feast.

Badnjak & Straw

Scandinavians have a tradition of burning the Yule log on Christmas, originating from the pagan winter solstice festival Yule celebrations. Montenegrins have a similar custom known as Badnjak.

Interestingly, the custom even inspired the name of Christmas Eve in Montenegro – Badnji Dan. Early in the morning of January 6, the oldest male member of the family goes to the local woods and cuts a log from an oak tree.

This log signifies the tree shepherds brought to Mary and Joseph when they found out about Jesus’ birth. Joseph then ignited a fire to warm up the stable. Badnjak also represents Christ’s cross.

When the male family member arrives home with the log, others sprinkle his head with rice or wheat.

Then, people sprinkle the log with wine and burn it throughout the evening and night, warding off evil spirits and celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Some families cut a large log into smaller pieces so that each family member has their own Badnjak. Women commonly decorate their logs with hyacinth flowers and bay leaves, tied together with red thread.

Montenegrin Christmas table is traditionally decorated with straw, paying homage to Christ’s humble manger.

Gunfire & Bonfires

Every year, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church organizes large bonfires in front of temples across the country. People gather outside on Christmas Eve, after the Midnight Mass, to celebrate.

Often, Montenegrins burn their Badnjak in front of a temple rather than at home, making the bonfire even larger.

As the bonfires burn, Montenegrins shoot guns in the air – that’s a common way of celebrating any significant holiday in the region.

No one even blinks an eye when they hear gunfire at Christmas in Montenegro, but this custom often leaves tourists startled. You can hear gunfire at weddings, birthdays, and even Easter.

However, once Christmas is over, people must put their guns away until the next celebration. Guns aren’t allowed in Montenegro unless the carrier possesses a permit.

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