A Bosnian Christmas Carol
To the right is Svemirnka (Minka) Mijatovic, my wife's sister (actually her cousin but they don't make such petty distinctions in the Balkans). Behind her is the tiny log cabin church that is the goal of the story below. It is called A Bosnian Christmas Carol, two sections of which have been encoded into Windows Media Format for your viewing pleasure. I hope you enjoy the story below and Merry Christmas!
On January the 6th 2003 or Orthodox Christmas Eve, I took part in a few Christmas rituals with my wife and her family near the little village of Susnjari, just outside of Banja Luka, the capital of the Bosnian Serb Republic.
My wife Dragana, her father, uncles, her English-speaking cousin Minka and I made our way through Susnjari towards the mountain. It was dark, it was cold and it was starting to snow.
As we walked through the village, we stopped at every house. The brothers Mijatovic would start shouting and out would come the men. Hidden stashes of slivovitz were revealed, all drank one shot and we moved onto the next house where this would be repeated.
We did this maybe ten times before we got to the foot of the mountain. Now it was colder, the snow was falling harder and I was drunk. I asked Minka: How long will it take to get to the top? A half an hour, she slurred. And I just knew she was lying.
So we’re fighting our way up this mountain in what has become ankle deep snow. To my astonishment, more people were joining us at every new path. We must’ve been about 50 at one point. And now we’re getting hot and sweaty from the work. And people are laughing and joking and I’m starting to have fun when… of in the distance… I heard baddah baddah baddah pow!!!
“Jesus Minka”, I whispered. “What’s that? It sounds like gunfire.” “Oh it is.” she replied, “Somebody is celebrating Christmas.” “Will they have guns at the top of the mountain?” “Oh no, they’re not allowed to bring them. Well not anymore!”
An hour and half later we reached the top. I thought I heard more gunshots, but it turned out to be kids lighting firecrackers. And there were hundreds of people huddling around a tiny log cabin that could hold maybe 10 people…tops. It seemed that almost everyone had made this arduous, cold difficult journey, up the side of a mountain, in a snowstorm, in the dark, to get to a church so tiny, you simply can’t get in. When the service and auction had ended, some of us moved to the cabin next door. There was many a hearty pat on the back and the greetings of people who only get to see each other once a year, surrounded by alcohol laden halos of breath. And then, magically, my father in law started to sing.
You can click here to see the singing in wmv.
After about an hour, the singing stopped, more out of exhaustion and intoxication, I think. Everyone shook hands and we headed back down the mountain where the whole thing happened in reverse.
Click here to see Minka explain the end of the ritual in wmv.
One party would break off from the rest to head down a different path. We would all stop and sing a song with me pretending to know the words. We all had one shot of brandy, and, in a spirit of genuine brotherhood, go our own way.
When we reached the edge of the village, we were all drunk, wet, cold, hungry and…frankly…exhausted. We hurried home anticipating the gigantic Christmas meal we not only knew was awaiting us, but that we had earned. But then the brothers Mijatovic suddenly stopped in front of a white house and started discussing something in hushed tones I couldn’t understand.
They stopped talking and counted down: three, two, one. And they started singing a soft, kind of sad carol in perfect two-part harmony. And then, a chubby, middle-aged lady with badly dyed blonde hair peered out of the houses front window. She saw the men singing and squeezed her hands to her cheeks. She listened for a minute and then went away.
When she reappeared, she was plowing her way through the knee-deep snow, nearly knocking over the slivovitz bottle and little cups she had placed on a serving tray, laughing and calling to us and panting and, and…she was crying. Minka leaned over to me and whispered, “This woman is a refugee. She lost her whole family when the Croats chased the Serbs out of Krajina. Her husband and son are dead and she’s all alone.” The Mijatovic’s held out their arms and shouted to her. Ho, Ho.They hugged her and she kissed them. She poured us all a glass and we made a toast, “Zivjeli” - To life. And as the brandy burned my throat thought, I thought “Wow, now this is Christmas.”