Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Serbian Orthodox Christmas, London, 2017

Posted on by royvickery |

Visited St Sava’s Serbian Orthodox Church, Notting Hill, London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 7 January 2017, their Christmas Day.

The floor was strewn with a light covering of straw, symbolic of the stable in Bethlehem, ‘though it was really a cave, not a stable’, according to a man who kindly explained things.

Facing the entrance was a large branch of oak (Quercus robur) which had obviously been collected in the autumn before it had started shedding its leaves, decorated with dried slices of citrus fruits, other ornaments and lights.  It was explained that Serbs do not have Christmas trees, such as people have in England, but instead have these oak branches, ‘yules’.

Although the 7 p.m. Vespers on Christmas Day attracted a congregation of about 30, the church had been packed, with people standing outside in its courtyard for the Christmas Eve service.  At this prepared bundles of oak twigs and straw were blessed and given to the congregation.  About 1,000 bundles were prepared.  Traditionally these would have been taken home and burnt, ‘but not many people have the facilities to do that these days’.

Around the walls of the church are icons of various saints, and beneath each of these had been placed a small pot containing wheat (Triticum aestivum) seedlings, leafy oak twigs, an apple (Malus pumila), an orange (Citrus sinensis), hazel (Corylus) nuts and walnuts (Juglans regia).  The wheat was said to symbolise new life, while the fruit and nuts represented ‘the fruitfulness of the Earth’.

Comment from Colin Maitland, October 2022: ‘I notice a similarity between the “offerings” at Serbian Christmas and those displayed in homes at nawruz, the Zoroastrian New Year. Both involve shoots of wheat.’

Updated 31 October 2022.

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