Not Tinsel Town
The rather tasteful and discreet seasonal decorations are beginning to appear in nearby towns and the solitary shooting star on Oprtalj’s campanile is now lit up at sunset. All right, I admit there is the odd Santa figure hanging out of a window or off a balcony. But in general people do not go over the top with the tinsel and flashing lights at this time of year.
Could it be that the recent history of this part of the world plays a part in the low-key celebration of Christmas? After all, in the former Yugoslavia the Catholic Church and all other faiths were at best tolerated and certainly not encouraged. Religious symbols and worship were not banned but declared adherence to a faith precluded you from the armed forces, the state bureaucracy and many jobs and was considered unpatriotic. The faithful were discreet and the important festivals were celebrated within the family and, without too much fanfare.
Perhaps it’s indicative that in the church in Oprtalj the small congregation is almost exclusively comprised of old ladies and some small children being prepared for First Holy Communion. The men, the middle-aged and the young don’t attend more than a couple of times a year.
Given the sectarian problems that arose in some parts of Yugoslavia after its break-up this is perhaps not surprising. To call the Balkans a melting-pot would be misleading. Although for centuries diverse religious communities lived side by side, for the most part harmoniously, they rarely intermarried. Even now, surnames mark out ethnicity and otherness is remarked upon.
The upside of all of this is a marked absence of the commercialisation of Christmas. This is a blessing for everyone who feels swamped from Autumn onwards by sights and sounds which have no resonance or relationship with religion. Which is why this is the perfect place at this time of year.
If you are a Roman Catholic, in a church filled with beautiful unfamiliar harmonies, there will be a packed Midnight Mass. If you are not, you will not be assailed by other people’s beliefs. You can shut the front door, push back and appreciate the delicious produce of the region in front of roaring log fires.