Moon woman keeps Serbian Orthodox Christmas customs alive
January 7, 2010 8:00 PM
Mim Bizic with some of the Serbian Christmas items: psenica, kolach and the bread baked with a lucky coin.
By Ann Rodgers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Perched in a sunny spot on Mim Bizic's kitchen counter is a glass bowl that, at first glance, appears to be green grass growing from a bed of pebbles.
But the pebbles are grains of wheat that have broken open to release the shoots of new life -- a biblical metaphor for Jesus' death and resurrection taken from the Gospel of John. This tiny garden of wheat is a psenica (SHEN-it-za), a Christmas tradition in the Serbian Orthodox Church, which keeps to the Old Calendar date of Jan. 7
The seeds are planted in a bowl Dec. 19, St. Nicholas Day, and watered after a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Waiting for them to grow is a spiritual exercise.
"Isn't it a fun way to pass the short, dark days waiting for the birth of Christ?" said Ms. Bizic, who retired five years ago as a librarian in the Quaker Valley School District. The green wheat is held tall and straight by a circlet of ribbon in the Serbian national colors of red, blue and white.
"When you first put the wheat in, you wonder if it will grow. But then you see it put out these little knots, and then the shoots. You can see it grow the next day and the next. It fills you with happiness," she said.
Her home in Moon has been fully decorated for Christmas, which she joked that she celebrates three times. There is St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 19, and then Dec. 25 for what she calls "American Christmas," complete with presents. But the holy day, and the day of the most treasured customs, was always Jan. 7.
She is the granddaughter of Serbian immigrants who grew up on the South Side. She never felt odd for celebrating Christmas in January. Her German and Lithuanian friends enjoyed participating in the family celebrations with her.
There was the Christmas tradition of lighting three candles -- in honor of the Holy Trinity -- while reciting the Lord's Prayer. There was also a tradition of baking a coin into a special loaf of bread, which was passed around the table as a hymn was sung. The coin was supposed to bring luck to whoever found it.
Ms. Bizic is recording all of these traditions and many more on her Web site www.babamim.com -- the name means Grandma Mim. It's a virtual museum of Serbian culture, which her home has been for many years. Just inside the front door visitors are greeted with a portrait of Karadjordje, who led the Serbs to independence from the Turks in 1804. Every wall is filled with icons, folk art and family mementos.
All of this she passed along to her son, Nick, who is teaching it to his 3-year-old daughter, Jocelyn. Ms. Bizic's Web site includes a series of photographs in which she and Jocelyn prepared a psenica. Her son has also spread the tradition to some of his Texas neighbors.
This year her parish, St. Elijah Serbian Orthodox Church in Aliquippa, sold kits to make psenicas. The proceeds will be sent to Kosovo to buy firewood.
"Even though we might not make that much money selling the kits, we're keeping the custom alive for harried families who might not have the time to go shopping to a specialty store to buy loose wheat," she said.
On Christmas, the psenica takes its place at the center of the family table, where it is part of all of the family prayers and rituals.
Afterward it is given to the birds.
"We bless ourselves and make a grand send-off," Ms. Bizic said. "We say, 'We thank you, psenica, for being with us and making us happy through this whole season of expectation.' "