There is something about the season that always makes me nostalgic for Christmas back home. Especially Christmas Eve, which was the main event in my family. My sister and I would wake up early, excited about setting up the tree that day. We would wait impatiently for mom to finish her coffee. In true Bosnian fashion, the morning coffee was akin to a marathon. The pacing was precise and there was no hurry reaching the finish line. It was a process, rather than an event, and the spectators were left annoyed.
The tree itself was a small, plastic tree bought by my parents on credit, as most of the luxury items were in the old Yugoslavia. My sister and I firmly believed that the tree predated my birth, making it, we often stated, a family heirloom. A bit shaggy in spots, held up by electric tape on the bottom, and barely a foot tall, this tree was the most festive and cherished family member. It was prominently placed upon a small console.
Ornaments were not bountiful. There were only a few nice glass ones. Most had fallen victim to disagreements between my sister and me. The ones I loved most were candies wrapped in a festive, sparkly foil. We got them when my grandmother decided to buy new ornaments for her tree. The first time they were hung on the tree, I could not resist and I unwrapped and licked one of these cherished thirty year old candies. Later I learned that Mom had fond memories of these in particular, as they had hung on the Christmas tree when she was a child. I did not tell a soul that night, relieved the next morning that the candies had not made me ill.
To compensate for the lack of ornaments, we would cover the tree with silver confetti. The three of us would shower the tree. I was very proud of my ability to throw the silver threads high in air and achieve the effortless decorating look. The final touch was, in our opinion, the stroke of genius. Mom would take cotton from a makeup bag and unravel it to create snow under the tree. A bit more silver confetti and the sparkly snow became the winter wonderland look we all loved.
While we did our chores, mom would place gifts under the tree. These were always modest gifts, usually a book or a journal. On special occasions we got earrings or hats, gloves and scarves. These gifts were special to us since she would wrap them with such care, making them look like the ones we saw in magazines. Beautiful paper and ribbon was just the backdrop for her artistic expression. She would include fresh berries or evergreen branches or even the twigs and bows made of orange rind. Each gift was wrapped differently, and we felt so special just looking at them.
We would circle around the tree, lifting the gifts and shaking them, trying to guess what we were getting, knowing that we could not open them until after the Christmas Eve dinner. And this dinner was what made this day truly special.
Christmas Eve dinner was a simple feast of fish, German potato salad, red wine for adults and a berry juice for kids. Freshly baked bread and a variety of homemade cakes and cookies rounded out supper. My favorites were tiny sugar cookies and chocolate covered marzipan bars, which would usually disappear in minutes.
While the food was always delicious, the true star of the evening was a candle lighting ritual prior to dinner. There were three candles in all, and two small dishes. One contained red wine, the other with a bit of bread, set in a medley of evergreens at the center of the table. Mom would light each candle and recite, “Please God spark the love in our hearts.” Dinner would end by extinguishing the candles with bread dipped in wine. With that mom would say, “Please God stop the hatred in our hearts.” To this day I keep that tradition. And though I am so far from my family in Sarajevo these small things bring me a little closer to home.