STEUBENVILLE — It’s Christmas today for the Serbian Orthodox community, a time to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child and an opportunity to relax and feast with family and friends.
Wednesday, however, was a time of last-minute preparations for a small group of members of Holy Resurrection Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church, located at 528 N. Fourth St., Steubenville.
Church executive board members Gary and Charlene Stanich of the Pittsburgh area, Sandy Connell of Weirton, Harold Strohmeyer of Wintersville and Frances Wasko of Bellaire had three items on their holiday to-do list: Decorate the sanctuary with poinsettias for Christmas Eve and Christmas; bake bread used as part of the nativity vigil service; and prepare 100 symbolic badnjaks, or yule logs, for parishioners at the Christmas Eve service.
An assembly line of sorts in the church fellowship hall bore the fruit of their labor in progress with the combining of straw symbolizing the manger where the Christ child was born and oak branches representing the cross. The two were secured by red, blue and white tri-color ribbon.
Having the small versions of the badnjak went hand-in-hand with the Christmas Eve tradition of the burning of the yule log outside the church in the evening.
“Last year our new priest, the Very Rev. Stavrophor Rajko Kosic, when he came to us, he brought this new tradition, which is almost like a little play, like a little ceremony that also goes with the (burning of the) yule log,” Charlene Stanich explained.
Serbians are the only Orthodox with the yule log/badnjak tradition.
Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas Eve on Thursday and Christmas today because they follow the Julian calendar, which was used during Christ’s life and currently is 13 days behind the more commonly used Gregorian calendar.
“On Christmas Eve, which is the 6th of January, you burn the yule log, which we have always done outside near the bell tower of the church. It is a big bonfire, and it has kind of evolved during the years from being a log to being an oak branch, like a bunch of branches. I guess just logistically it burns better and quicker, and it’s usually very cold. And a lot of times it’s cold for us, we’re standing outside, so rather than wait for a big log to catch on we now use the oak leaves,” Charlene Stanich said.
“These are small versions of the badnjak,” she said of what the group members were making, “and what happens is everybody is outside and somebody comes in with the big badnjak, carrying that. The carriers of the badnjak bring it in and the choir sings like a carol. Then there’s a flag bearer, who says, ‘Good evening, oh hosts, and joyous and blessed Christmas Eve to you and the members of your household.’ And then the host sprinkles the flag bearer and the badnjak with a little bit of wheat and says, ‘May the Lord be with you and may we have a joyous and blessed Christmas Eve and Christmas on the ‘morrow.”
“The priest says ‘blessed and sanctified are these oak branches as a symbol of the tree of the cross of life and the resurrection in remembrance of the birth of Christ and for the sanctification of our homes by the grace of the Holy Spirit and by the sprinkling of this holy water in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit,’ so that’s what he does when he blesses them so it symbolizes not only the birth with the straw but also the cross with the oak branches,” she added.
“I look at this as a symbol of the badnjak that father blesses, and then everyone can take one home with them,” she said.
“We put it next to our icon. You have an icon corner or table or place where your icon is. So this goes by your icon and then as you say prayers, it’s almost like symbolic,” she continued. “It’s a new start, a new year, a new badnjak for your house and after the whole year goes by, you kind of say goodbye, old year, and who isn’t ready to say goodbye to 2021, right?”
The church members worked in unison to make the small badnjaks, with Strohmeyer trimming branches. This year they came from the church yard.
“It was convenient this year,” Strohmeyer said, “but normally somebody goes and walks in the woods and cuts a sapling down and saves the limbs, and we bring them in and start trimming them up.”
Honoring customs is important.
“It’s wonderful to carry on these traditions that were brought over from Europe after these many years,” commented Gary Stanich. “We enjoy doing it, it’s fun. We get to get together, we joke, and we get the work done, and the parishioners appreciate it,” he added.
“I think the reason people cling to the Serbian church is because it has a lot of traditions in things that you do,” Charlene Stanich said. “Unfortunately, as people get older and kids move away, some of those things aren’t preserved as much so we like to keep those traditions when we can.”
Wasko was glad to be a part of it.
“Our grandparents and great-grandparents brought these traditions, and we want to keep doing them as long as we can in remembrance of them because the traditions are very important,” Wasko said.
“I know how important it was for my dad. My grandparents died when I was just a baby and so it was so important to him so it brings me closer to him when I do this,” Wasko added.
“Our parents are smiling up there,” Gary Stanich said.
(Kiaski can be contacted at [email protected])