I had two Christmas's this year, which seems to be my Karma for trying to avoid just the one in the first place. The first I spent in Bosnia which was celebrated on the 25th of December because the person I was staying with was a Finn and so celebrated Christmas according to Western tradition. It was odd but very pleasant to be eating pickled herring for Christmas deep in the Bosnian forest.
In Sarajevo, where around only 5% of the population celebrate Christmas on the 25th (Catholic Croats) I could see Coca Cola were pushing the Western style Christmas. They sponsored the new Christmas market, had large posters of Santa drinking Coca Cola in the city centre and had a van going around announcing through a loudspeaker that Coca Cola wished us all a very Merry Christmas.
I was in Macedonia for the 7th of January where the majority Orthodox Christians celebrate on the 7th. It is a calmer, less materialistic affair, more about family and the original religious meaning of the date, though I did notice Coca Cola are here too with their massive Santa posters. Some marketeers are working overtime to get the Macedonians to spend the money they don't have.
However, I had a very special second Christmas, for the following reason. On Christmas eve here (The 6th) my girlfriend told me that if I was woken up early on Christmas morning by the sounds of kids singing it was just the tradition here where kids, usually Gypsy kids, go around singing traditional songs in return for money or food. Though I was up late that night I was indeed woken by the sound of children singing. I succumbed to my usual urge of grabbing my camera to see if there was a possible photo to be taken. In a rush to get down the stairs and catch them i put on my crappy old tracksuit bottoms and tacky runners and my coat which has a broken zip, thinking that it didn't matter if I looked like a homeless person as no-one here knows me.
The street was empty except for four Gypsy children singing rather badly and swinging plastic bags full of their newly won booty. I approached and they put their hands out straight away. As with all kids some are better mannered than others and that goes for the Gypsy kids here too. Some are very sweet and funny and smiley, some are grasping and rude. These ones were unfortunately of the latter and so I decided there was no need to take a picture, but I did ask, I pointed at my camera, after giving them all a few coins each and they replied in English 'No photo, no photo!' and so I put it away. Here too they have become wary of cameras, understandably perhaps and I was fine with that but I did notice that they were also tainted by having learned the gestures of American style gang culture, covering their faces with scarves, hoods up and giving the sideways V sign.
I resigned myself happily to go back to bed, no photo this time. But the kids wouldn't leave me go. They wanted more money and followed me. I gestured that I hadn't any more but still they followed. Eventually I decided to make some fun of it and started clowning around, pretending to slip on the ice and not be able to get down the ice covered steps. The younger kids smiled and started playacting too. An older one quite aggressively pressed me for money and again I gestured that I had none.. and because of my homeless looking attire the younger ones were quite confused, was I some kind of homeless rich tourist or what? I tried to zip my coat because of the cold but they could see that it was broken and then something special happened. One of the younger kids came forward with a look of pity on her face, she pointed at me and rubbed her belly as if to ask was I hungry. I nodded, just to see what would happen. She put her hand into her bag of booty and drew out a fresh green apple which she handed to me. I thanked her and in my broken Macedonian wished her and her friends a very happy 'Среќен Божиќ'
Later that day after retiring back to bed for an hour or two I decided to go to the local Church where I could hear singing. I bought the traditional yellow Christmas flowers from a seller outside the church and watched as the Priests doused holy water from some kind of leaves on people coming to pray to the Icons. People lit candles for the living and the dead, the atmosphere was warm but solemn and calm. I took some photos but I didn't frame them, I just quietly snapped and my camera was covered by the flowers, no-one seemed to notice I was photographing.
Soon after I went to the local baker to buy some bread and saw an old begger sitting on the step outside. I stopped to roll a cigarette, I hadn't seen this guy before, he was old with a long beard and was wrapped up in coats and blankets as it was close to minus 20 degrees centigrade. He took out his own ciggy and gestured for a light. I gave him one and some money too. We smoked our fags in silence and when we finished he gestured to me to take something, he pulled a fresh green apple from a bag beside him and offered it to me. I took it, thanked him, wished him a happy Среќен Божиќ and walked off to join my girlfriends family for Christmas dinner, contemplating apples and the real meaning of Christmas.