Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas in Sarajevo

Christmas in Sarajevo

This is the first Christmas Dionne and I have spent outside of the U.S. and without any family at all. Fortunately we have a makeshift family of missionaries and friends here in Bosnia and so we are hosting Christmas dinner and playing BINGO just like at home. And there is something reassuring about celebrating the birth of my Savior by serving him as one of his messengers on this Earth today. Walking the proverbial walk you might say.

I wish to share some stories of Christmas in the Balkans. Some of these are known stories, some are simply impressions, some are personal stories of friends here.

Cellist of Sarajevo

The signature song of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra is entitled Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24. Here is how the song came to be according to band member Paul O'Neill...
... We heard about this cello player born in Sarajevo many years ago who left when he was fairly young to go on to become a well-respected musician, playing with various symphonies throughout Europe. Many decades later, he returned to Sarajevo as an elderly man—at the height of the Bosnian War, only to find his city in complete ruins.
I think what most broke this man's heart was that the destruction was not done by some outside invader or natural disaster—it was done by his own people. At that time, Serbs were shelling Sarajevo every night. Rather than head for the bomb shelters like his family and neighbors, this man went to the town square, climbed onto a pile of rubble that had once been the fountain, took out his cello, and played Mozart, Beethoven and Lynrd Skynrd as the city was bombed.
He came every night and began playing Christmas Carols from that same spot. It was just such a powerful image—a white-haired man silhouetted against the cannon fire, playing timeless melodies to both sides of the conflict amid the rubble and devastation of the city he loves. Some time later, a reporter traced him down to ask why he did this insanely stupid thing. The old man said that it was his way of proving that despite all evidence to the contrary, the spirit of humanity was still alive in that place.
The song basically wrapped itself around him. We used some of the oldest Christmas melodies we could find, like "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Carol of the Bells" part of the medley (which is from Ukraine, near that region). The orchestra represents one side, the rock band the other, and single cello represents that single individual, that spark of hope.
The actual cellist was Vedran Smailović; not "white haired" since he was 35-years old as he witnessed the destruction of Sarajevo. He often played solo in ruins, at funerals even with the threat of snipers, and was an inspiration for his people.  It is doubtful he played Christmas music. But the image is a powerful one from the war.

Vedran Smailović playing in the partially destroyed National Library (1992).

Christmas in a Muslim City

Sarajevo proper is approximately 80% Muslim and Christmas (Bošič) is not a Muslim holiday. It has been interesting to observe how the Muslim community tolerates Christmas but only at an arm's length. At the beginning of December, Christmas displays began to appear in stores. Generic Christmas icons such as Santa Claus and Snowmen popped up. Fake trees with ornaments were available for purchase. But no nativity scenes. No religious imagery. Muslims appear comfortable with the secular holiday Christmas and, understandably, do not embrace the religious aspects of the season.

There are public decorations but they are sparse. There is some holiday street lighting, a few decorated trees, and a couple of small "winter markets" which are Christmas and New Year themed. But, compared to other major cities I have been in during the holidays (e.g., Hong Kong, London, U.S. cities, etc), the lack of Christmas decorations is quite noticeable. It would have been somewhat depressing if we would not have been given a chance to visit Zagreb, Croatia and tour one of the Christmas markets in Europe!

This is a walking street that leads to Old Town. There are a few lights strung up which our neighbor's home display back in Lenexa would put to shame.
This is a walking area. There are "winter lights" spaced sparsely along the path.
We did learn that our Muslims friends enjoy traditional U.S.-style Christmas parties. We hosted two of them this month with our partners; primarily Muslims. We played a gift exchange game. Bosnians like receiving gifts. And they are very competitive fighting for the best of the gifts. These parties were attended by over 40 guests and everyone had a very good time.

One of our partners from Muslim Aid posing with her hard fought "bounty."

Muslim Stories About Christmas

I asked several of my Muslim friends for their memories of Christmas. First they emphasized that they really do not have any "religious" memories of Christmas. But both of them had fond memories of Christmas from their early school years.

Our friend Emin mentioned that Christmas always meant "Holiday Class." Schools here take a long winter break starting just before Christmas. The kids are out of school from late December until as late as early February. Holiday Class was one of Emin's favorite days. Every once and while a kid would bring a treat to school (birthday or some other celebration). But during Holiday Class, everyone would bring a treat. So it was a big celebration for the entire school.

Emin and his son Isa shopping for tack in Verona.
Our friend Ilma also tells a story from her school days. When she was very young (~5), Santa Claus came to her school. She was so excited. "Santa Claus is real" she exclaimed. This is a very distinct memory. She does not remember when she discovered that he was not real. She also remembers getting Christmas gift packages.

Muslims and Christmas

Muslims have an interesting relationship with Christmas. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Somalia, Christmas celebrations are outright banned. While not banned in Turkey, they are often protests against images such as Christmas trees and Santa Claus which are considered Western impositions. In Western countries, however, Muslims often celebrate in a secular fashion.

All of this is interesting because the Quran is another source that discusses the birth of Jesus (Isa). In fact, Mary is the only woman specifically named in the Quran. According to the Quran, Jesus was born from the virgin Mary. This means that Muslims are the only other religion that concur with Christians about the virgin birth.

Quran 3: 45-47 reads...

The Angels said, "O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous. She said, "My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?" He said, "It will be so. God creates whatever he wills. To have anything done, He only say to it, 'Be,' and it is."

Muslim author Mustafa Akyol opines in a New York Times op-ed that his fellow Muslims need not shun the Christmas holiday. Although it is not one of their holidays, it is one that can find supportive passages in the text of the Quran.

The people in Saudi Arabia and Brunei who ban Christmas clearly have the wrong idea. Even if this is not a Muslim holiday, we don’t need to object to Christmas. The miraculous birth of Jesus — the prophet, the Messiah and the “Word” of God — should not offend any Muslim. Salaam alaikum, or “peace be upon you,” Muslims should be able to say to their Christian neighbors on Dec. 25, without hesitating to add, “Merry Christmas!”

While I do not have an opinion with regards to this discussion among Muslims, I do find this conversation interesting and the distance between our two religions smaller than I would have assumed.

When Was Christ Born?

The other two ethnic groups in Bosnia are Serbians (orthodox) and Croats (Catholic). Both of these are Christian religions and both celebrate Christmas. But they passionately disagree about what the proper date to celebrate Christmas is.

I learned this firsthand from a Serbian friend who "hobby horse" is the date of Christ's birth. For me the date of Christ's birth is unknowable and thus does not really matter. But for friend who grew up Serbian, the date of Christ's birth is of extreme importance. Let me try and explain why.

Delivering Christmas cookies and receiving more food in return than we brought!
Bosnians celebrate Christmas on two different dates depending on their tradition; December 25th (Catholic) and January 7th (Orthodox). Because Sarajevo and Tuzla are primarily Muslim cities, our LDS branches decided to celebrate on Dec 25th. But in neighboring Banja Luka (primarily Serbian), the branch celebrates Christmas on Jan 7th.

A Christmas party in Banja Luka (Srpska). They children put on a wonderful Christmas program for us singing traditional holiday songs which we had never heard! The young man pictured was delivering gifts to all of the party guests.

Confused? Join the club. Which brings me back to my friends' assertion. Serbs and Croats have been arguing about the date of Christmas since the 4th century. That is a long time. The crux of the argument is not when Jesus was born but rather when he died. Many assume incorrectly that our Christmas dates were selected from pagan festivals surrounding the Winter Solstice. That is not correct...

One might wonder then how it is that we have come to celebrate the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. There’s a popular myth, especially widespread on the internet, that the selection of the date of birth of Jesus was timed in order to coincide and thus supplant either the festival of Saturnalia or the birthday of Sol Invictus, the victorious sun god. It seems like a compelling argument: In 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast in honor of the birth of Sol Invictus on Dec. 25. Certainly the winter solstice is around the same time and pagans did have festivals celebrating various deities but, as Professor Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkley Divinity School, has written, these were not the reasons for selecting late December as Jesus’s birthday. In fact the idea of deliberately attaching Christian festivals to pagan ones wasn’t raised until the turn of the seventh century and no one noticed that Sol Invictus and Jesus shared a feast day until the 12th century.

So how were the dates of Christmas selected? By working backwards from the estimated date of Christ's death. Augustine and Tertullian determined that Christ died on March 25th. From this starting point they were able to work backwards and land upon the date of Dec 25th. In the East, the Greek Christian fathers did the same thing. But they argued that Christ died on April 6th. So their date of birth was slightly later, January 7th. And so we have two dates and two traditions which are celebrated here in Bosnia! So my Serbian friend is really asking the wrong question. The dispute is not actually about when Christ was born but when he died.

A Croatian Christmas

We traveled to Zagreb for a two-day mission Christmas conference this week. Fortunately this conference was a time to celebrate the year end, enjoy the company of our fellow missionaries, and tour Zagreb. The sermons and meetings were kept to a minimum!

All Bosnian and Slovenia missionaries outside the mission home.
Zagreb is renowned for its outdoor Christmas market. It did not disappoint. One of the coolest features is a large ice skating path which winds around a large portion of the market. There were shops, food vendors (they like hot wine drink, sausages, and dough balls dipped in chocolate), and a live nativity outside of a wonderful cathedral.

Sister Newton and Porter shopping for souvenir ornaments.
 The Zagreb cathedral is most magnificent building that we have discovered so far in the Balkans. It was completed in 1217 and is a physically imposing building. It is one of those churches that make your jaw drop when you first come upon it.

Zagreb Cathedral. Clearly this pictures does not do justice to the magnificence of this building. You are going to have to use your imagination a little to appreciate it!
Just outside of the cathedral was a live nativity. We did not have the will power to wait the 30 minutes for the next showing. But we did greatly appreciate the open fires (it was a little chilly) and the live animals.

Never met an animal she doesn't like.

Bosnia Croats

Yesterday we visited a Croatian school in Bosnia that we are partnering with. When we walked into the school, the decorations were more like we were used to when Dionne and I were growing up. The first thing I noticed was the large Christmas tree and the nativity scene. I am pretty sure there are no longer nativity scenes in U.S. schools.

This was in the lobby of the primary school in Domaljevac.
Croats have their own selection of Christmas characters. Santa Claus is Saint Nick. And his companion is Krampus, who gives bad children punishment. Krampus is often depicted with horns, cloven hoofs, hairy, and fanged. The children at this school had created some Christmas pictures and Krampus made an appearance alongside of St. Nick.

Artwork by one of the children depicting Krampus and St. Nick.
Americans have influenced Christmas celebration as far as Bosnia. The next two images demonstrate just how far the Disney corporation extends. Wherever I go, I cannot seem to escape major U.S. brands like Disney.

Another piece of artwork from the children of Domaljevac.
Characters at the Zagreb market.

Our Celebration

Christmas Eve was spent with a family from the ward, the Woods. We had dinner and played "Minute to Win-It" games. This immediately made me think of Britni and her blog posts. We do not think these particular games were sourced from her blog.

Preparing to try and catch a "rudolph nose."
We then spent much of these rest of the night playing Risk. Surprisingly, half of the missionaries with us had never played it before. How can you have never played Risk? Elder Perry was so fascinated that we had to play a second game immediately after the first ended (in world domination by Elder Isom).

Dionne learned that you cannot defend Asia.
Tomorrow means church, dinner and our family tradition, BINGO. Just like other Newtons everywhere. we have a big table to BINGO prizes awaiting our players.

Can you spell B-I-N-G-O?
Dionne and I wish each of you a Merry Christmas. Peace on Earth. Goodwill towards Men. And don't eat too much!


  1. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Newtons. I learned so much reading your blog; thank you. I often used the novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, when I taught English, so I really appreciated your writing about this. The information about the differing yet similar Christmas traditions was especially interesting.
    We pray for you continued happiness and success as you labor in that part of our Lord's vineyard. Sister Stewart

    1. I am going to have to read that book on my Kindle this season. We broke tradition on Christmas Day and rather than talk about the Christ story (which each of us did individually in church) we talked about the song Christmas in Sarajevo and the history of this story. Hopefully the missionaries will always remember their Christmas here whenever they hear that song.