How I Did Not Celebrate Christmas
Branko Milanovic on the former Yugoslavia's private sector Christmases.
A week ago, a friend asked me how was Christmas when I was growing up in Yugoslavia, in the 1960s. I said to her: “Christmas was cancelled.” That was true, but the full truth was a bit more complex. Like in the Soviet Union, but not in the rest of Eastern Europe, Christmas in Yugoslavia was combined with the New Year, and all the usual Christmas festivities, including the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and gift-exchange were just displaced by several days. Christmas was folded onto the New Year and lost most, or all, of its religious connotation. The official holiday was New Year’s day, a staunchly secular festivity.
How did that happen? When Communists came to power in Yugoslavia they faced a multi-religious country where different religions during the World War II, egged on by the Nazis, engaged in brutal internecine and religious wars. (Anyone who believes that religious people are tolerant knows nothing about history—or present, for that matter.) In the intra-war Kingdom of Yugoslavia, both types of Christians celebrated their Christmases and Easters; they were official holidays, and it is possible (although I am not sure) that in the parts of the country with a Muslim majority some Muslim holidays were official holidays too. It was a complicated patchwork of religious celebrations. Yugoslav communists, dizzy with the success of the revolution, decided to cut the Gordian knot of religious celebrations (which they disliked anyway) and get rid of all of them as official holidays.
As I mentioned, they followed Soviet practice there. The situation was different in other Eastern European countries whose communists were more considerate, as they came to power mostly thanks to Soviet involvement, had to be a bit more thoughtful of the religious practices of the populace, and did not face a patchwork of religious holidays. Also, they often had to deal with a much more powerful Catholic Church. Thus, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Christmas remained celebrated, quite openly.
I hardly knew about the existence of Christmas when I was a child. Both the 25th of December and the 7th of January were ordinary working days, with my parents, and everyone else's parents going to work. When I would read in the newspapers an article, for example, on how Parisian streets were especially nicely lit for that year’s Christmas, I felt vaguely that the French must have been celebrating some weird quasi-medieval festival that no modern-minded person would pay slightest attention to. For me, Christmas celebrations in Western Europe were a bit like those weird customs that I would read still existed amongst the British Lords, Queens and Kings that seemed so outlandish that I was wondering how an advanced country could have such unenlightened practices. It was perhaps like a feeling that votaries of Scientology elicit among most people in the United States today.
In our elementary school, Christmas and Easter (of both kinds) were also ordinary working days. So far as I remember, nobody ever mentioned them. The only discordant note that I remember is that we had in our class a kid, Mikica by name, whose parents refused to send him to school on Christmas and Easter. He was a quiet, rather taciturn kid, nor much liked by other students, and twice a year, he would just not show up, get an unjustified absence from the teachers, but neither teachers nor anybody else made a big deal about it. For us, kids, it seemed that Mikica’s parents were somewhat unusual parents who instead of pushing their son to go to school, very uncharacteristically, forbid him to take classes on a specific day. In a way we liked it: not going to school and having parents on your side, seemed pretty cool.
Sociologically –and I became aware of that much later—there was an interesting angle to Mikica’s school absences. While most of my classmates’ parents worked for state-owned companies or government (including my parents), Mikica’s father belonged to the private sector. He was a taxi-driver. Somebody like my father, working for the government, could not, even if he wanted (and my father certainly did not—since he cheerfully ignored Christmas), celebrate Christmas or not send his kids to school on the Christmas day. The story of a communist party member and a government official taking a day off on Christmas or even hosting a Christmas dinner would spread. The outcome would be severe Party-cell critique, job demotion, and in the case of repeated offenses, probably firing.
But if one were in the private sector, the rules were different. My aunt, who was religious and cared about family traditions, would every winter organize splendid dinners, with white-table cloth and crystal glasses, either for Orthodox Christmas or patron saint (hers was St John on January 20). My parents, including my father, would gladly go there. The meals were exquisite, the wine good. But that was politically acceptable: going to a religious festivity hosted by a close cousin was not transgressing the rules. And my aunt, who was a dentist, having had private practice and then later (after the private practice for doctors was banned) working in a state-owned health system like NHS could freely celebrate Christmas. She was not member of the Communist Party and could do whatever she wanted with the exception perhaps of celebrating such holidays in too ostentatious manner. My other aunt who was a geography teacher did the same. Her position was more delicate because teachers were not supposed, by speech or deed, to engage in what might be considered religious propaganda. But she, deeply religious, observed all holidays quietly within the family.
And for us kids, as I said, Christmas was cancelled. We were looking forward to the New Year, when Father Frost would bring various presents, when we would decorate the tree, and as we grew older when we could go out, partying, drinking, smoking, and some even smoking illegal substances, until the wee hours of the morning.
The older we became, the more Christmas faded into irrelevance. The New Year’s eve with nice dinners, dancing parties and concerts was much more exciting. Where should I go? Private party, the new hotel, dancing floor? Who would come? How long will the party last? Excitement and impatience would overwhelm us in the last few days before December 31. And then as everyone was getting ready for the party, and as I would shave in front of the mirror, to look fresh and neat, the scent of the new cologne would suddenly mix with the crisp and clean smell of the just-fallen snow---and with the dream of a girl I might meet that evening.
This first appeared on Branko's blog and was reposted with permission.