Macedonian Religious Family Gatherings

The Macedonians, like many other nationality groups, have special days and celebrations throughout the years. The origins of these celebrations were the orthodox Christian holidays. We cannot describe them all but we will explain those which are most important and include preparation of special foods. Some of the practices on these days will also be explained as they are religiously symbolic and many are beautiful as well as interesting.

Saints Blessing – Slava

All members of the family or community observe together a day set aside to honor their family protector saint. The Saint remains unchanged from the father to the son as a tradition of inheritance. This celebration originated in pre-Christian times, when each family had its particular family God. Later, when the Macedonians became Christians, they transferred this observance to the Christian Saints, selecting some Saint with special meaning to the family or the Saint whose cele- bration day was nearest the day when the family accepted Christianity. Unlike previous pagan family gatherings, the christian Slava is characterized by bloodless practices.The Christian symbols of the Slava are the candle (svekja), wheat (pchenica) and bread (poskura), with a religious motif on its top obtained by pressing the poskurnik (shown on the picture here) on the dow prior to its baking. Since every part or Slava ritual describes the life, passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, bread and wheat were naturally the first elements of the bloodless sacrifices. Wheat (panagija) was established as the most holy and symbolic secret of nativity life. Everything is born from seed. So, in the nativity, the mystical commandment of God is fulfilled. The single wheat grain obtained its name, panagija (All Holy Mother, giver of birth) from the Greek Panagion. Also, wheat was the main source of existence. Even today, the Slava ritual still involves a series of beautiful symbols in the blessing of the wheat and the breaking of the bread.

In Europe and America, there are many different ways of celebrating the Slava, depending on the particular region, but the basic idea is the same everywhere: worship of the Patron Saint with a bloodless practice. The most common way of celebrating is in this manner: the host goes to the church to attend the holy liturgy. He takes to the church a Patron’s Saint Cake (Poskura), a bowl or cooked wheat sweetened with honey or sugar (pchenica) and the “Book in Memoriam” (citulja) from which, during the Holy Liturgy, the priest reads the names of the host’s deceased relatives. The Priest also cuts and blesses the Patron’s Saint Cake, according to a prescribed rite. Pchenica is prepared only in commemoration of patron saints who died. The Holy angels and Saint Elijah did not pass through death. Therefore, pchenica is not prepared for them.

Meanwhile, at home, the table is prepared for the celebration. Returning from church, the host places the cake and wheat on the table and lights a candle which burns all day. Later, relatives and friends gather at the home of the celebrant to share in the festivities and partake of the celebration dinner. The host (always the male head or the household) prays to God and his Patron Saint and then serves his guests. (The host is never seated during the dinner.) Every guest receives a small portion of the Patron’s Saint Cake as well as of the wheat. In many regions, it is the custom to invite the priest to perform the Cutting of the Patron Saint Cake as well as the wheat.

Christmas – Kolede, Badnik i Bozhikj

The Macedonian Orthodox Christmas celebration begins the evening of January 5th, which is known as kolede. Children go from door to door singing Christmas carols, heralding the birth of Jesus, and receiving fruits, nuts and candy from the people. Later in the evening, the elderly people from the neighborhood gather around a bonfire outside, and engage in a conversation about the past year and the year to come.

The following evening is the Christmas Eve, when a traditional oak log (badnik) is brought to the home. This log is cut by the father of the household and his older son, while the table is being set for the Christmas Eve supper (Posna Vechera). The dinner cannot have anything derived from animals, and it cannot be cooked using cooking oil or other types of fat. The traditional dinner usually consists of baked fish. The dinner is the last day of a traditional 40-day Orthodox Lent, which is done in a way to honor the Virgin Mary for carrying baby Jesus.

The oak log is cut into three pieces, representing the Holy Trinity, and each piece is brought into the house by the father. A member of the family receives a piece and places it on the fire. As this is done, the son and the father exchange a greeting: “Good evening and happy Christmas Eve” (Dobra Vecher i Vesel Badnik). While the log is being placed on the fire, the mother and the grandmother gather the children together into the room where the dinner is to be served. Each person carries a bundle of straw from outside, and together with the mother they spread the straw on the floor. The spreading of the straw on the house floor is meant to make the atmosphere more like that when the night Jesus was born. The house is decorated further decoratesd with oak and pine branches, representing the wish of the family for long and healthy life, “with health strong as oak, and with a life long as that of the oak.”

Then the christmas dinner is served on the same table that the Christmas candle is burning. As part of the dinner, homemade bread (pogacha) with a coin hidden in it (usually placed inside before it was baked) is served. The traditional belief is that whoever gets the coin in his/her piece, will have a particularly successfull year to look forward to. The Christmas candle is then lit, and everyone sings a Christmas hymn. Very early Christmas day, people attend the first morning church service. After the family returns from church, the first guests arrive. This is usually someone who is a dear friend of the family, and is especially honored during the celebration. The guests are met by the hosts, who kiss the guest three times on the cheeks and give him/her the Christmas greeting “Christ is born” (Hristos se rodi), and the guest replies “Indeed he is” (Voistinu Se Rodi). These greetings are exchanged throughout the three days or Christmas. After the exchange or the greetings, the guest shakes the burning oak log and when the sparks fly up, he/she expresses his/her best wishes for the family. This is usually done in some form of rhyme, mentioning the Special desires of the family.

The Christmas dinner usually consists of roasted meat and other festive dishes; the meal marks the beginning of the Christmas celebration, which lasts for the following three days. The festive meal has to be rich, and should have meat as part of it, as it is meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus after the strict Orthodox Lent.

Epiphany – Bogojavlenie

This is in memory of the day Jesus was baptized. In some places, there is a procession from the church to the nearest body of water, such as a river or a lake. The water is blessed by the priest and a cross is thrown into the water. People then rush into the water and get the cross. He whoever gets the cross is believed to have a very exiting year coming up. Since Epiphany always takes place in winter, getting of the cross from the water is usually done by young people. Interestingly enough, as cold as it may be outside, there has not been a case of a person that got into the blessed water of getting ill. Some of the blessed water is taken home in small containers as a symbol of purity and protection from illness, and is kept near the family Icon.
The most interesting Epiphany Festivities in Macedonia are in Skopje in the Stone Bridge over the river Vardar and in Ohrid on the Lake.

Palm Saturday and Sunday – Velika Sabota i Nedela

These days commemorate the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, after performing the miracle or the resurrection of Lazarus. In memory of this, on Saturday afternoon there is a procession of children carrying banners, crosses and little bells. A special hymn is sung. Green branches of a willow, representing the palm branches are placed on table in the church and remain there until the next day, Palm Sunday. The priest blesses the branches and distributes them to the congregation, along with the blessed bread (nafora), on Palm Sunday. The willow is taken home and placed behind the family Icon.

Easter – Veligden

This is the most important holidays celebrated. There is a great preparation for this day, and activities the week before follow a schedule made by the housewife. On Thursday before Easter eggs are dyed. The eggs are colored red, symbolizing the coming happiness in the resurrection. In some homes, beautiful designs are scraped on the service of a dyed egg with a sharp instrument. This unusual technique is the traditional Slavic Orthodox Christian style of decorating eggs. The first egg to be dyed is put aside and called “Protector of the House” (Chuvarsko Jajce). It is placed beside the family Icon and saved until next Easter, where the mother of the house buries it in the garden while nobody sees her.

Some baking is done on Thursday, so that nothing but only essential duties are performed on GOOD FRIDAY. On Good Friday, the family observes a strict vegetarian fast and attends church, where they kiss the a grave of Christ. (Plashtenica). Even fish and oils are omitted from the menu on Good Friday and only nuts, fruits and vegetables are eaten.

On Saturday, the house and the food for the coming day are prepared. There are traditional dishes for the Easter meal. A typical menu includes lamb, lamb soup, sarma (stuffed cabbage), salad and delicious cakes. Members of the family, and each guest who comes to the house, are offered eggs on Easter morning, with the greeting “Christ is risen” (Hristos Voskrese) and the response is always “Indeed he is risen” (Voistinu Voskrese). Eggs are taped, end to end, and if your egg is broken by another person’s, you must give it to him/her.

Holy Trinity – Sveta Trojca

Holy Trinity Day is celebrated the 15th day after Easter, in memory or the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost, which appeared to the disciples and enabled them to teach the gospel to all people of different languages. The day of this appearance was the first day the Christian congregation was organized, and it was also the day the first harvest or the year was celebrated. In in memory or this, the custom or celebrating the ‘first harvest” is preserved in the Orthodox church today. After the Holy Services thanksgiving prayers are given by the priest and the church is strewn with field grass. During the prayers the people kneel and each one shapes the field grass into three wreaths, representing the holy trinity. These wreaths are then taken home and placed beside the family Icon.

Saint Nikola – Sveti Nikola

One of the most popular and most beloved saints in the Orthodox Calendar is St. Nicholas, who was born toward the end of the third century. He is patron of the mariners, merchants, travellers, as well as of many countries. Among the Macedonian people he is widely honored as a family patron.

Macedonians who celebrate St. Nicholas as their Slava,being mindful that the holiday occurs in the midst of the Christmas-Advent Fast, observe the holiday in the traditional religious manner and, prepare only fast meals on this day. This is as it should be, because the Slava is primarily religious observance, honoring the patron saint of the home, saint is a best honored if the celebrants properly observe teachings and ordinances of the Holy Church as the saint himself did.

His fame has come down through the centuries and legends have grown around his life. He was known for his kindness and many acts or charity, which he preferred to do anonymously. He loved children and the children revered him-thus the connection with children to this day.

Throughout his life he retained the bright and guileless manners of his early years, and showed himself the special protector of the innocent and the wronged. He died in 342.

Name Day – Imenden

The Imenden is the day the person who bears a name of a Saint celebrates his/her patron Saint, who protects him/her, and whose name he/she bears. For example, the imenden for marija and marijan is St. Mary’s day in August, the Imenden for a Dimitar, Dimitri, Mite, Mitrush, Dime, Mitko is Mitrovden, on October 8th, the Imenden for Cvetan.Cvetanka is on Cvetnicietc. The Celebration while it is significantly more modest than all the other ones, consist of inviting the closest friends and relatives for a gathering.

Memorial Days – Zadushnica/Parastos

Before all important church days, on which prayers (parastos) are said for the deceased, a candle is burned and graves are visited and decorated with flowers. Sometimes a family gathering takes place on the grave of a deceased family member, and a modestly small lunch is eaten, remembering the beautiful times spent with the deceased family member. It is believed that the deceased family member joins them in the lunch, by being alive through their conversations again.

Fasting – Post

The four most important fasting periods are: before Christmas and Easter, and St. Peter and St. Mary Holy Days, and Wednesdays for women and fridays for men (with the exception of the “regular weeks”).

The Regular Weeks are the period from January 7th to 17th, from February 20 to 26th, from March 6th to 12th, May 1st through 7th, and June 19 to 26th. The reason why these weeks no fasting is observed is because they are “weeks of happiness for Christianity.”

Fasting before taking Holy Communion is compulsory and is usually four days in duration for the children and one to six weeks for adults. The morning of the communion nothing, not even water, is to be taken. The specially chosen foods for fasting are for the purpose of cleansing the body and the soul. Fasting included the omission from the diet of all those things which are derived from animals and fowl. On fasting days dishes are prepared with oil or vegetable oil, instead of butter or lard.

Wedding – Svadba

On the wedding day the bride is taken from her home by the “bride’s guard”, accompanied by a band or orchestra. They drink a toast to the bride and groom and the couple are allowed to see each other briefly, as the toast is drunk. They all leave for the church and the band plays a traditional song on the way. In the church the wedding party marches to the altar, accompanied by choir music, and there they go through a brief betrothal ceremony in which the bride and groom are given their rings. The wedding party then marshes to the center of the church, where there is a table bearing the Bible, a cross, a cup or wine and two crowns. The priest gives the instructive sermon, asking the participants specific questions pertaining to their free wills. Then, the priest ties the right hands or the participants together, symbolizing the one-ness or the marriage. Next, the crowns are placed on their heads, representing the coronation of glory with which the husband and wife hope to be blessed with in their future lives. After this, the formula of the wedding is pronounced as the priest says, three times, “Oh Lord, our God, crown them with glory and honor.” There is then a reading or the gospel and the bride and groom are given the cup of blessed wine symbolizing the mutual life in which they will accept the good with the bad, the bitter with the sweet, together in blessed love and understanding. Finally, the wedding party, preceded by the priest, walks three times around the table, signifying the eternal path of marriage. The newlyweds are congratulated by friends and, on the way out or the church, the best man (kum) throws coins in the couple’s path, to wish them good luck and prosperity. Then, the wedding party goes to the bride’s home, or some other suitable place to celebrate. There the guests dance the oro, toast the bride and groom, and (instead of presents) give money to the honored couple. This is done to give the couple good start (financially) on their new life. Later on the bride is taken to the home or the groom to meet the small children, whom she kisses three times. This symbolizes the bride’s desire for children of her own. The bride’s mother-in-law’ gives her wine and bread to symbolize the wish for harmony and happiness between them.

Christening – Krstuvanje

A large candle and christening clothes are provided by the godfather (kum). The godfather presents a silver or gold coin to the child, as its first possession. The priest performs the christening at the family’s home or in the church. This is an important day and there is much celebrating. The godfather becomes the spiritual member or the family and this relationship is perpetuated throughout succeeding generations.

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