Thursday, December 24, 2009

Keeping watch on Badnjak (Advent Calendar: Christmas Eve)

"Who can sleep on the night that God became man?"
- Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
I have often asked the same question since I can't seem to rest for long on Christmas Eve. It may have started when, as a child, I spent hours gazing out my bedroom window at the beautiful Christmas candles that our family lit outdoors each year on Christmas Eve. It may just have been the magic of the evening - the wonder of the Holy Child's birth surrounded by the joy and excitement of sharing Christmas Day with family.

Only this year did I learn of the Croatian custom. It turns out that Badnjak, which is the Croatian word for Christmas Eve night (and also the word for the yule log in Croatian), is traditionally kept awake, burning candles and a yule log. The custom is to keep watch (or vigil) throughout the night, at least until the return from Christmas Mass.

According to this article by Betty Labash Kovacs on Croatian Christmas Customs, the etymology of the word Badnjak actually comes from the Glagolitic (ancient Slavic script) for bdjeti, which means "to be awake". Thus, vigil is kept through the night as the shepherds kept watch on the night of the Savior's birth.

The article, which was published in The Zajednicar, the newspaper of the Croatian Fraternal Union, goes on to explain that traditions of Christmas Eve vary in different villages and regions of Croatia. However, the use of the yule log is the center of the celebration in many Croatian homes. Here she describes its use in Croatia and in other countries of the former Roman empire:
On this night there must be heat and light, represented by the ritual candle and as no other light may appear before the ceremonial candle is lit, the domaćin [head of the household]lights it before dark has fallen, accompanied by traditional phrases and verses, varying from region to region. Some of these still remain and are carefully nurtured not only by peasant families, but by specialists - folklorists who travel from village to village, recording and codifying folk culture for future generations. The custom of the Yule Log or panj existed in pre-recorded times in all of southern Europe - Spain, Portugal, France, Croatia, all former regions of the Holy Roman Empire or lands adjacent to it. Northern Slavs from Poland, the Ukraine, the Carpathians did not adopt the practice, but just as there are remnants of the Roman connection in the Istrian word for Christmas (vilija), so the Croatians as they settled in southern lands accepted the Badnjak, the Yule Log.
Badnjak is not only a night of "keeping watch", but the evening when all the house is to be decorated for Christmas. Andrea Janekovic's Christmas in Croatia article describes her memories of Badnjak. According to Janekovic, Christmas Eve was a day of preparation. By this day the Chrismas Wheat (Pšenica) would be at its height. On Christmas Eve food is prepared (although the baking may have been done already) and homes are decorated with ivy, holly and tree branches and the traditional straw is brought in. If the family has a Christmas tree, this is the night to decorate it. And, of course, the candles and yule log are lit, and prayers are offered for departed family members and friends.

As you celebrate your own traditions on this Christmas Eve, I hope that you enjoy the beauty of this night of celebration after the long wait through Advent. Light a candle, say some prayers and enjoy the magic of Badnjak as the shepherds did on that night so long ago.

In the words of a traditional Croatian Christmas Eve blessing:

Eto sine, živ i zdrav bio - do godine Badnjak na kucu metnio!

May you live and be healthy to place the log on the house next year!

This article is part of a series written in celebration of the Advent and Christmas seasons. It is included this year as part of the GeneaBloggers Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2009 Day 24: Christmas Eve. Make a visit to Thomas MacEntee's GeneaBloggers website for some additional inspiration to get yourself in the holiday spirit!

The article originally appeared here at 100 Years in America and was included in Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories 2007.


  1. I loved reading your story and I love the photos and design of your site!

  2. The photo of the fire grabbed my attention and I had to know what you were writing about. Wonderful information and story.
    Thank you


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