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Feature 25 Dec 15

Spirit of Christmas

From the top of a winding staircase behind a lawyer’s office in Stari Merkator in New Belgrade, a celebration can be heard several floors down. 

Drew Adamek
Illustration. Photo: Flickr/Mo Riza

The International Christian Fellowship’s annual Christmas Carol service is in full swing and filled with the sounds of joyful singing and children laughing.

At the front of the wide, open room a band plays as the congregation stands, sways and sings along to classic Christmas tunes.  Children scamper throughout.

The congregation is probably the most globally diverse gathering in Belgrade outside of diplomatic circles: Russian, American, Brazilian, English, Serbian, Indonesian, German and Pakistani worshippers stand shoulder to shoulder, laughing and smiling with every note.

They’ve come together to celebrate Christmas early because many will leave Serbia for the holidays and this non-denominational church has become a place of comfort and familiarity.

All over Belgrade, non-Orthodox Christians- from Catholics to Anglicans to Baptist, gather in small groups to share the joy of the holidays, and some are discovering new insights about their faith.

For some foreign non-Orthodox Christians, away from the consumerist pressures of the Western holiday season, Christmas in Belgrade is a chance to reconnect with the religious roots of the holiday, and a welcome opportunity to establish meaningful relationships with a new community.  

“I miss the family aspect but in some ways it's more poignant, more spiritual without that here. It is purely religious and it becomes about celebrating the birth of Christ in a very simple way,” said Esther Helizan, a member of St Mary’s Anglican Church of Belgrade.  

While finding a new spiritual connection with Christmas, many foreigners still miss the Christmas traditions of home.

"It's silly things. It's not the real meaning of Christmas but I miss the decorations, the lights, seeing them everywhere out in streets, in people's houses, seeing everyone’s Christmas lights as you drive around town,” said American Theresa Crawford.

Christmas in Serbia isn’t the commercial and marketing event that it is in Western countries. For foreigners used to being inundated with Christmas music, advertising, decorations, food, and sales everywhere the comparatively low-key atmosphere in Belgrade can come as a welcome relief.

“I don't get the same sense of urgency here. In England, Christmas starts end of September, at the beginning of October.  In England, in America, it’s everywhere; you can't possibly forget that you need to buy presents, you need to buy a turkey,” said Briton Emily Dervisevic. “Often here, even a week ahead, I haven't done anything yet because I haven't felt that I need to get started.”

This lack of marketing pressure allows people to focus on family and faith instead of presents and expectations.  But that focus on simplicity also comes from necessity.  
Different Christmas traditions and customs in Serbia make it harder for non-Orthodox Christians to find the trappings, ingredients and ephemera of their Christmas celebrations.  
Some traditionally Western Christmas foods remain elusive, especially quality mincemeat, turkeys and fresh cranberries and getting them to the table requires creativity.

“Finding (traditional Christmas) food can take some detective work. We've had to bring in cranberries from Vienna and mincemeat from London when we were travelling,” said American Gussie Dunstan.

There has been a vast increase in the availability of Western Christmas goods in Belgrade over the last ten years.  Christmas tree markets are springing up, most notably at Kalenić market in Vracar, and stores all over the city carry decorations.

The calendar also makes foreigners think differently about Christmas while in Serbia.

Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7 and for denominations that follow the Gregorian calendar, Christmas is December 25, just another workday in Belgrade.

For Stephen Donegan, Bikram Yoga Belgrade owner and manager, the date shaped his Christmas celebrations. He plans on keeping his yoga studio open as normal on December 25.  

“I have a business and here, Christmas isn’t until January,” said Donegan.  “But I don’t mind because Christmas for me has always been about going home and spending time with my family, and I’ve already done that this year.”

But those differences between Christmas in Belgrade or in Britain don’t matter to Briton John Field, ICF board member and the lay leader of the carol service.

“It doesn’t matter when we celebrate, but that we have the birth of our saviour to celebrate,” Field said.  

This feature was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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