Christmas in Slovenija

( Bozic v Sloveniji)

I am 32 years old but I've only had thirteen Christmases. Nineteen of them were celebrated in my heart, with a secret visit to the Midnight Mass under the cover of a pitch-black night.

Slovenija in my childhood was part of Yugoslavia, a socialistic country which would not allow any other religion other than the one worshipping Tito and other communistic heroes. We were never taught in school about Jesus, about the little town where he was born, about the Three Kings.

We would get a fresh tree from the market and you could smell the fresh pines all over the house. There were no nativity scenes; under our Christmas trees, decorated with home baked cookies and dried fruits, framed pictures of Tito were placed. There were no presents on the day. Instead, the arrival of New Year was celebrated in a big way, people gathered in their best attires, expensive firework displays were colouring the sky and preposterous propaganda speeches were echoing through giant speakers in all the factories. Decorations in towns were scarce, saying only “Happy New Year” in greenery and ordinary light bulbs.

Santa was replaced by “Dedek Mraz”- “Father Cold”, silvery bearded present bearer from “the North”. Parents didn’t have to worry about presents as every company, of course owned by the state, would provide them. Every child would get a hefty bag, normally filled with sweets, fruits, educational toys, books and even clothes. We all got the same, so we never fought. Adults would get watches, books, certificates of service and food vouchers. The value of a gift depended on one’s loyalty to the company, length of service or involvement in the work of The Party. Big dinners were organised every last working day of the year - without exception, all factories would close and re-open on the same days, so everybody got exactly the same amount of holidays, and some more speeches were made.

But beneath all the talk, all the masquerading and marching under the red flags of communism, the true faith never died. It was my Grandmother who made sure I knew, who He was and what He did. She told us, her grandchildren, where he was born and how he died, her hushed voiced stopped when Granddad came into the room. He was the Chief Superintendent, a partisan, but above all the proud owner of a red identity card, an active member of The Party. To him those were nothing more than stories, with which you shouldn’t fill children’s heads. Our parents, the after-war generation, did not approve either, so evenings spent in Grandma's living room were special, magical.

When I was old enough and my Granddad retired, she took me to the Midnight Mass. I will always remember the cold, crispy night, the snowfall above head high. Narrow footpaths were dug along the pavements. I was walking in front of her and soon more people joined us. Nobody talked loudly, I could only hear whispering and the howling of the wind. Then the huge wood-carved doors opened, and the inviting glow of the candles welcomed us into the church. There were hundreds of people, standing close together in silence and prayer. Little clouds of steam escaped from their mouths when they spoke, as there was no heating system, merging with the smell of incense under the ornamented ceiling. I was mesmerised. I could recognise the faces from all over the town; our neighbours, my teachers, the baker… they were smiling politely and bowing their heads, sharing the little conspiracy… sharing the truth and the joy. The next day, we would eat delicious mushroom soup, cooked smoked ham, horseradish sauce and potica, a delicious cake made with nuts and vanilla - a typical Christmas lunch, just like they did when my Grandma was a child herself.

Slovenija gained its independence in 1991, and in May this year [2004] it joined the EU. Communism is very much in the past and things have changed. Towns get gaudily decorated in the weeks before Christmas, all the shops are selling glitzy, overpriced and instantly forgettable presents, and you can see Santas everywhere. You could be in any other European country, not noticing the difference. Elaborate meals are being cooked, although they are still based on ham, special breads and potica. Our children are getting an abundance of expensive toys, almost as if we need to compensate for what we were not getting.

The one good thing about being able to celebrate Christmas this way is that the churches get full for the services, and are bursting at the seams for the Midnight Mass, although people no longer hide their faces. Maybe it is not being in a certain place for a while, that makes us see things in a different light, which is making me feel this way, but if I could chose I would rather have Christmas of my childhood any year!

My Grandma is now in her eighties and none of my siblings or cousins have taken the path of the truth. She has not been at the Mass for the last four years since I moved to England, as she lost her sight and is afraid to go out in the night on her own as the pavements are slippery. But this year I will try to give her back a gift, she gave me all those years ago, we are planning to go to Slovenija for Christmas and at midnight I will take her to the church. I know that is the present she wishes for most. I hope she will feel a bit of the feeling I felt as a little girl, seeing the candlelit church on that special night, inhale the smell of incense and sense the presence of Jesus. It certainly was the best Christmas present I ever received!

Sanja Moore
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 2nd December 2004