Serbs still widely celebrate their old calendar (julian calendar) new year. Unlike the gregorian new year, which they often call kalendarska or gradjanska nova godina (calendar or civil new year), the 14th of January is called many things: srpska nova godina (Serbian new year), pravoslavna nova godina (Orthodox new year), and confusingly, stara nova godina (old new year). However, the oldest traditional name for this day is Vasilica – the feast of St. Basil.
St. Basil is commemorated on the first of January in the Julian calendar, which translates to January 14th in the Gregorian calendar. The saint is a very important one, considered one of the Church Fathers; that is, a contributor to establishing and harmonizing Orthodox dogma and practice throughout the Church. The Liturgy he composed is served on his feast day and throughout Lent. From an ethnographic standpoint, as much as he is a revered saint, he has very little to do with the customs of this festival.
The New Year is also known as Mali Božić or Little Christmas, because it is a week after that holiday. Because of this, some of the Christmas traditions are repeated: burning whatever remnants of the yule tree, or badnjak, remain; divination of the year to come based on the first visitor, called the položajnik (‘he who will determine our condition’, položaj) or polaženik (‘the visitor’); visits from carollers called koledari, marking the end of carolling season. Many of the Serbian carols, or kolede, are in fact blessings to the home for all good things in the new year. This type of carol actually outnumbers the carols that are Nativity themed.
As with many holidays, there is a ritual bread: the vasilica or vasuljica (depending on the region). In some regions, this is simply a sweet loaf meant for the first meal of the new year, so that the year may also be sweet. This loaf may or may not be decorated with dough ornaments somewhat like the slava bread. In those regions where it is decorated, some of the ornaments are unique and are not seen on the slava bread. For example, a circled of dough, and within it small spheres of dough – one for each family member. This is the hearth or ognjište, the focal point of a traditional home. It expresses the wish that the family be together all year and next year. Another element is a snake, slithering between sheafs of wheat. This animal is both feared and respected in Serbian culture, and interpretations of its symbolism on the bread include family unity and mystical protection of the farm lands and crops.
Vasilica is a happy holiday, and it completes a fast-free week that began on Christmas. The meal is generally a festive one, but no specific food is mandatory. A tradition is to have apples on the table, and an apple with a silver coin stuck into it was a frequent new year gift between parents and children, spouses, or boyfriends to their girlfriends.