One of the goals of my Peace Corps service was to experience and participate in as many of the Macedonian traditions as possible. The month of January was filled with events and celebrations – more than I thought possible. Most of the January holidays and celebrations are centered around the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which celebrates Christmas on January 7th. Christmas festivities began late in the evening on January 5th, the night before Christmas Eve (known as Kolede). The villagers lit the traditional Kolede bonfire, and people from around the community gathered around the bonfire. Live Macedonian folk music filled the air, warm rakija was passed around, and I enjoyed this night out with my host dad and his friends. I was told the bonfire represented the ‘warmth of the cave where Jesus was born near Bethlehem.’ Of course, this took several attempts on my Google Translate App and help from those who knew a bit more English. The fires went on late into the night.

Christmas Eve is known as Badnik, which started bright and early. After the previous night at the Kolede bonfires with my host dad and friends, a mid-morning start would have been appreciated. Badnik began with children from the village going door to door singing songs. Unfortunately, I was unaware of this tradition and awoke to the noise of what I thought were battle drums outside my window. I went downstairs to see children from the area singing carols. In return, my host family gave them chestnuts, oranges, and coins.

         Later that day, my host family prepared a wonderful dinner, but no meat was served at this meal. The dinner consisted of several foods and beverages I had never tried, such as Компот (or kompot), which is diced and mixed fruits made into tea. We also had Зелник (or zelneek), a multi-layered bread carefully stuffed with either leeks or walnuts. Perhaps the most interesting item was Јува (or Yuva ), and the literal translation is cabbage water. The Зелник and Компот are some of the best traditional-style dishes I have had so far. As for the Јува, I can promise you I will never be drinking that again. I was told it is very high in Vitamin C, and I should have known something was up when my host family snickered a little while pouring me a glass. I can still smell it when I think about it and feel a little nauseous. 😣. The meal also consisted of a bread dish called Бадникова лебче that usually has a coin inside. The bread is broken apart and given to people around the table. I was told that the person who gets the coin receives good luck for the rest of the year. I was a bit worried I might be headed to the dentist if I got the coin, but I didn’t – maybe next year 😀.

         On January 7th, we celebrated Божик (Christmas Day), and I had a delicious lunch with my host family. This feast incorporated traditional dishes such as pork, chicken, cheeses, salads, homemade bread, dates, walnuts, figs, and cake! It was a great meal and pleasant to spend with my host family. We spent the rest of the day visiting with friends from the area. The traditional Macedonian Christmas greetings are Христос се роди (Christ is born) and Навистина се роди (He is truly born), and Среќен Божиќ (Happy/Merry Christmas). We used these greetings over and over throughout the holiday upon arriving somewhere or passing people in the street.

         The final traditional Orthodox holiday I witnessed occurred on January 19th and is called Vodici. Vodici (also known as the baptism of Jesus Christ or Epiphany Day) represents the day St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus. To celebrate this day, a friend invited me to watch the celebration in the town of Kochani. Upon arrival, we followed the crowd to the river running through the town center. There were thousands of villagers lining both sides of the river. The event was started by the local Orthodox priest, who blessed a wooden cross and threw it into the center of the river. Men from both sides of the river jumped in the cold water and swam to the cross. The person who first grabs the cross is said to receive good health and luck for the rest of the year. After drying off, the person goes door to door around the area to receive gifts from the villagers. I was told that this icy river plunge takes place all across the country. Next year I will bring my swimsuit.   

These long-standing Orthodox traditions were meaningful to experience with my host family and friends, and I look forward to more celebrations in this extraordinary country. In other news, we started school after a short delay because of a heating fuel shortage. My classes in the different schools are going very well, and I will have another update about teaching soon. In the meantime,… До следниот пат (Until next time)!

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