Christmas in Sarajevo

Welcome to one of the strangest first blog posts (or a resurrection of an old blog). I told many of you that I would be keeping a blog of my year teaching English in Sarajevo. Like many things I saw, this blog didn’t quite work out as planned and I’m now making my first blog post three months in. If you’re reading this now–dobrodošli (welcome)! Now for my first topic–Christmas in Sarajevo. I’ll give you a moment to get the Tran-Siberian Orchestra song out of your head.

First, for the mechanics of Christmas here. Bosnia has a sizeable Catholic minority (I’ve oversimplifying but I will get in that later), so Christmas is a public holiday for those who celebrate it. Even at my school, the Faculty of Islamic Sciences, we have a day off, although I am positive I will be the only one celebrating. Nevertheless, the secular traditions of Christmas prevail, adopted into “Nova Godina” (New Year’s) celebrations. In the Communist era, New Year’s was the big winter holiday, and this continues to this day, especially with the legacy of the war here. Almost everyone has a small New Year’s Tree, and every cafe is decked with holly. New Year’s sales are big. So are the parties (in April, when I told my friend Ana that I was coming back to Bosnia, I immediately got an invite for New Year’s.) It definitely feels like Christmas, albeit with fewer Nativity scenes and generally less of a fuss. The Christmas displays and signs for sales only went up two weeks ago or so–it’s a huge contrast to Christmas beginning in November in the US. Christmas and New Year’s is still about consumerism, but not as much as it is in the US. In a way, I kind of prefer it.

At the same time, celebrations aren’t the same as they are in the US. I won’t be enjoying calamari with the Hartleys on Christmas Eve or watching A Christmas Story and avoiding Uncle Greg with my stepsiblings on Christmas Day. That doesn’t mean I won’t be having a good time. On Christmas Eve, I’ll be going to midnight mass at the Catholic Cathedral–it’s a tradition in Bosnia for everyone to go to mass on Christmas Eve, no matter what their religion. I’m spending lots of time on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day hiking, watching movies, and cookies with a few of my friends who are quickly becoming my family here. My friends are determined that I will have a good Christmas, and I am so grateful. It just will be a lot different than the past twenty-one Christmases that I have celebrated with my family.

My Christmas gift that I have received this season is definitely a renewed sense of empathy and gratefulness. In the US, Christian holidays are elevated above everything else, much to the detriment of people of other religions (or people with no religion at all). Everyone celebrates Christmas, but hardly anyone remembers Ramadan or Passover.  I never knew what it felt like for your most important holiday to be just another day when you have to work, but I do now–it’s not a good feeling. Thank God, I can celebrate my holiday without fear of persecution or judgement. I hope I am wrong, but I don’t think many American Muslims will be able to say that this year.

More than ever, I feel the pain of people who can’t go home for Christmas, Eid, or whatever holiday matters most to them. I am so lucky, so incredibly lucky–I chose to be here, and I have the financial safety net that if I decided that I wanted to quit Fulbright, I could be on a plane home the very next day. Many people spend the holidays away from home and away from their family, but very few have the luxury of choosing to do so. Even more, I have a home to go home to. When I go home in July, everyone will be a bit older and their unaccented English will sound a bit funny to me, but everything will be mostly the same. Those from Syria, from Iraq, from Afghanistan–my friends who celebrated Christmas and Eid in Sarajevo twenty years ago–they are not that lucky.

So this Christmas, as we close out the scariest year that I can remember for humanity, as we deal with threats from extremists and Fascists at home and abroad, I want you to remember this. It’s easy to dismiss this post as another reiteration of Band-Aid’s “Do they know it’s Christmas?” platitudes, but hear me out. When you think about refugees, when you think about Muslims this holiday season, please remember the spirit of Christmas–if not the example of Jesus, then the generosity of Santa Claus, and the spirit of tolerance that continues (to some extent) in Sarajevo. If you would like to give me a Christmas gift, don’t ask me for my mailing address. Instead, please consider donating to this fund organized by my amazing and inspiring fellow Fulbrighters, who are currently fundraising to help Syrian refugees in Presevo, Serbia.

For now, Sretan Božić and Sretna Nova Godina (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year). I hope you can find as much peace and love this year as I have found in Sarajevo. Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas 🙂

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