Podcast episode 5: Winter but Never Christmas – Stories of Sarajevo in Winter

Featured, Podcast

This is the first podcast in a while. 🙂 I apologize for the radio silence. Things have been busy. The recent holiday season gave me time to put this together, and I hope you like it. It’s a mishmash of stories having to do with winter in Sarajevo — the land where it’s often winter, but never Christmas.

The transcript is below; here are some helpful links mentioned in the podcast.

“Beyond the Gold” – Network broadcast of the 1984 Winter Olympics with John Denver

Christianity Today article on the Trans-siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12.24” Christmas medley

Sarajevo Bobsled video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uhrOnHY3Yc

The podcast is completely free — we enjoy making it. If you would like to help us keep the lights on, you can do so by making a donation of any amount at this link. Thanks for listening.
Donate online here.

Podcast transcript:

Hi I’m Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project podcast. The Bosnia Project is the chronicle of my life as a world traveler youth worker father and husband. 

The Bosnia Project is the story of how I came to live and work overseas in a country called Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s my blog, the Bosnia Project dot com, this podcast, and our Facebook community, and email updates we send out to our supporters and followers.

“The Bosnia Project” is a process and a product, all wrapped up into one thing, and this podcast, the blog, and everything else is a way to catch all that work, write it down, record it and preserve it, so that it can be of use to someone. This is the Bosnia Project, and it will continue for a good while longer. 

This is the first episode in a series that will attempt to answer several of the questions that people ask about Bosnia, Sarajevo, Mostar, and Eastern Europe in general. We are going to talk about Communism, America, Atheism, Religion — there’s going to be a lot of issues thrown together here. I hope you like it. Today’s episode is called “Winter but never Christmas — Stories of the holidays in Sarajevo”

Winter but never Christmas

When I think of doing a podcast about Sarajevo, it’s hard to know where to start. This was the first place that I lived outside of the US, and it’s a place of so many “firsts” for myself and my family. This is the first podcast in a series that will touch on many things that people ask about Eastern Europe. This series is the essence of the Bosnia Project — giving people in my homeland, the United States, a feel for what’s happening in the rest of the world, educating people about issues people care about here, and weaving my own story in where it is appropriate. I hope you enjoy it. 


Sarajevo is a incredible place. It’s not a large city by Eastern Europe standards. The metro area boasts a population of about 500,000 — good enough for 10th place on the list of the biggest cities in the Balkans, depending on who’s counting. But there is enough history and culture in this place that one could spend a whole career, and still not come to the end of all there is to learn or do or see. That’s the reason I felt like it would only be wise to start off a podcast called “The Bosnia Project” by doing an episode about Sarajevo. 

Now, you should know that There are many other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina — with many other stories and lessons that aren’t really focused on people in Sarajevo. Sarajevo wasn’t where the kings of the medieval Kingdom of Bosnia lived. It wasn’t an important place until the Turks came and built it up, after the Bosnian kingdom fell apart. But in the last 500 years, Sarajevo has been unquestionably the most important place in this region. In fact, you could even make an argument that today, Sarajevo is as important in world events as any other city in the Balkans. And its over-sized role in world events has made it a popular destination for travellers who want to get off the beaten path today. This is a bit of the story of Sarajevo, and how it’s affected my life over the past 15 years. 

Sarajevo today


Sarajevo is like a window into the East. Without leaving Europe, you can come to Sarajevo and be surrounded by mosques and minarets, madrases, Islamic libraries, and signs written in English, Bosnian, and Arabic. Today there are over 300 mosques in the Sarajevo metro area, each with its own minaret – the spindly towers that rise into the sky. The Islamic call to prayer can be heard 5 times a day, beckoning followers to the mosque. The prayer session is called “Dzuma”, and on Friday afternoons it includes the Friday sermon — which is usually well-attended at the central mosque in Sarajevo’s Old Town. 


But don’t let that convince you that Sarajevo is a conservative Islamic city — nothing could be further from the truth. The city was the capital of the Bosnian entity in the old country of Yugoslavia — one of the world’s large Communist countries from the end of WW2 until 1991. When the Berlin Wall was coming down in Germany, Communism was falling apart in Yugoslavia as well, but for different reasons. That’s all to say that it does still matter that Sarajevo was located in a Communist country for 45 years, meaning that Atheism was the religion of preference for the political elite here not so long ago. 

But don’t let that make you think that Sarajevo is a conservative Islamic city. Nothing could be further from the truth. Until 1991, Sarajevo was an important city in the old country of Yugoslavia — one of the world’s large Communist countries. And just like in all other big communist countries, the religion of the elite was Atheism. So, for about 45 years — from the end of WW2 until the country fell apart in 1991 — most of the people of influence were Atheists. 

So, while most of the people here have an Islamic heritage, few actually do the things that Islam teaches — the daily visits to Dzuma, the Friday sermon, and so on. Like Westerners visiting a church on Christmas Eve, most people here just visit the mosque during Ramadan, if at all. 

Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and other religions

But if you just stopped here, you’d have an incomplete picture of the city. See, Sarajevo likes to market itself as the “European Jerusalem”, because in the Old Town you have mosques, a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church, and a Jewish temple, all within 100 meters of each other. There’s even a historic Protestant Church — which today is the Academy of Fine Arts — right on the river. And this juxtaposition of so many different religions and competing cultures is the source of so many Sarajevo stories. 

The 1984 Winter Olympics

One of those stories is the one of how the city hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, and played host to the world, as a small city nestled in a mountainous region of the world’s third largest Communist country. For millennials like myself — and even for people a little older than me — it’s hard to understand just what this means. I was 3 when the Winter Olympics came to Sarajevo. I can barely remember that there was a Berlin Wall. I don’t remember the Cold War, except that it was this thing that men talked about on the evening news on TV, which my parents watched in the evenings. 

Today, you say “Communism” and “Cold War”, and most of us don’t really know what to think. Soviets? What were those? And Yugoslavia is probably even lower on the list of things we know about the decade that happened before we were really aware of anything past snack-time. 

But back then, the typical American recollection is that were 2 worlds — the Communist world, and the “Free world”. In reality, there were other countries that comprised a third “side” of the Cold War era, and Yugoslavia was sort of the leader of those countries. Yugoslavia was like the one large country that, while it was a communist republic, wasn’t a puppet of either the US or the Soviet Union. It was independent, and it had it’s own great leader, Marshal Tito, who engaged in extensive diplomacy to try and improve his citizens’ standing in the world. 

Mostly, we learned later, he did this to get other countries to loan Yugoslavia huge sums of money, which Yugoslavia never paid back, but that’s neither here nor there. In the 80s, Tito was the leader of the International League of Non-aligned Nations, and he was heavily engaged in a campaign to bring the Winter Olympics to his country. If he could pull this off, then the eyes of the world would finally be focused on this little country in Eastern Europe, and they’d see the great work he and his comrades had done over the past few decades after WW2. 

There were 2 other candidate cities for the games — Sapporo, Japan, and Gothenburg, Sweden. Gothenburg lost out in the first round of voting, and then Sapporo was passed on because it had hosted the games 12 years earlier, leaving Sarajevo as the winner. This would be the second time that the Olympic gameswould come to a Communist country, after the 1980 games in Moscow. The US boycotted the 1980 games, but would decide to compete in 1984. 

The Olympics brought the world to Sarajevo for 2 weeks in 1984, and it was perhaps the crowning achievement of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia. Sporting venues were built, mountain resorts around the city were modernised and expanded. Skier Jure Franko won Yugoslavia’s first Winter Olympic medal; a silver in the giant slalom. He became a national hero. Torvill and Dean of Great Britain earned across-the-board perfect scores for artistic impression in the free dance ice dancing competition, a feat that was never matched.  Scott Hamilton scored Men’s gold for the United States, and Katarina Witt won the first of two consecutive gold medals for East Germany in Ladies Figure Skating.

Winter but never Christmas

The Winter olympics in Sarajevo happened so long ago — it’s like a legend now. So few people actually remember it happening, but it is part of the city’s story. With winter being such a big part of this city’s story, it often catches Westerners off guard that our favourite winter holiday is nowhere to be found there. With the history of Communism, and the prevalence of Islam, Christmas has never been widely celebrated in Sarajevo. 

In fact, there is a famous recording of a medley of Christmas songs that includes the city’s name in its title: the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24”, which is a combination of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and other songs, with a cello, orchestra, and rock band all coming together to make one unforgettable song. If you are from the U.S., I’m sure you’ve heard it. 


Now, I wasn’t really able to find evidence to back this up, but I have often wondered about the name the band chose to give this song. It was inspired by the Cellist of Sarajevo — which is another story entirely. But the name seems to me to be intentionally styled to be respectful of Sarajevo’s culture, while still letting people know that it’s a medley of music composed for Christmas. Americans celebrate Christmas because we come from cultures that were mostly Christian at one time and Christmas was the pinnacle of religious holidays. So if you want to sell the album, you’ve got to let people know that it’s Christmas music.

But in Sarajevo, there are no Christmas lights, no Christmas trees, no exchanging of presents. Kids don’t go to visit Santa Claus at the department stores, and the vast majority of people don’t go to church. That’s because for almost 50 years, there was Communism, and today, the vast majority are Muslim. There is no Christmas. It doesn’t happen here. So in a very real way, Christmas Eve isn’t Christmas Eve in Sarajevo. It’s just another day. It’s 12/24. 

My early experiences in Sarajevo

This is how I remember coming to Sarajevo, having never really experienced life in another country. It was 2003, I was 23, and one of the first things I was told is that Sarajevo is the land where it’s often winter but never Christmas. For those brought up in conservative American circles, that line is meant to evoke scenes from the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of children’s books written by the British author CS Lewis. The fantasy land that his characters went to was called Narnia, a place ruled by a White Witch, who kept the entire country under a spell of perpetual winter. 

The winter in Sarajevo started early — the first snow was always in October, and then, starting in November, snow usually stayed on the ground until March. One year, we had to alter travel plans because of snow in June. In the years since I first arrived in Sarajevo, western economics has slowly taken over and, while most people still don’t celebrate Christmas, most stores have taken to a casual observance of the holiday in order to encourage people to spend more money. 

I can remember the Christmas of 2004, when some colleagues of mine were shopping in the city’s one large, modern mall ahead of Christmas, and they spotted a Santa Claus, with some other Christmas decorations, suspended by ropes from the ceiling overhead. There were snowflakes, stars — nothing extravagant — all hung up overhead. But the Santa Claus was the one alarming part of this. The way the Santa Claus had gotten put up there, it was suspended by a rope, and the rope was tied around its neck. Rather than a celebration of Christmas, it looked more like a public hanging — and Santa Claus was the victim. 

I’m sure nobody really noticed, and it’s all just as well. To Muslims, Christmas probably seems like a strange holiday. It would be hard to argue if someone tried to say that it’s just a way for stores to sell more toys and electronics. For most people in the West, the economic celebration dwarfs the spiritual celebration of family, love, and Emmanuel, God with us. The hanging of Santa Claus was most likely unintentional, but in retrospect maybe one could take it as an omen. Wouldn’t it be great if Christmas was known more for its real meaning, instead of just for its side-stories?


Sarajevo has many stories. The Olympics, Christmas, 12/24 — those are just a few. And these stories are part of diverse city with an incredibly rich culture and history. This was the place that I came to as a young adult, and that eventually drew me back to live there. 


This is the part of the podcast where I like to give a few time-sensitive updates and keep you, the listener, aware of what’s going on now. The rest of the podcast is more “evergreen” – you could listen to it anytime of the year and enjoy it and get some meaning from it. Now, I want to share a little bit that’s more urgent or relevant to what’s happening now, the week of New Year’s day, 2019. 

This past couple of weeks has been pretty full. Just like with any small business or organization, there is lots to do, and it’s hard to put the work down and take a few days off, just because it’s a holiday. For people like us, the holidays are the time when there is usually more stuff to do, more people to talk to, more opportunities. 

In December, we had several things — mainly, our ministry planned a humanitarian project with our students for this Christmas season. We partnered with a local charity called “Together for our city”. Every year,  they run a christmas program for children with special needs in our city where they put together Christmas packages with snacks and candy for all the children in the school for special needs children, and then they organise a presentation where they do music, skits, and bring in Santa Claus for these children. Our part was to collect donations for these packages. So our students spent 2 Saturdays this month standing in local supermarkets collecting donations from shoppers, and then we also contributed gifts on our own. It was a great project — we ended up collecting more donations than they needed, which made everyone feel really good. “Together for our city” ran 2 Christmas programs, 1 at the school and 1 in the national theatre, and they publicly recognised our group of students for collecting all the donations. It was great for our students and great for us. 

The last several days have been filled with family time. Our family decided to forgo presents this year and instead went on a family trip up to Sarajevo to enjoy their Christmas market, see some old friends, and stay in a hotel. It was the first time we have done something like that. 

It’s easy to forget about the true meaning of Christmas. We give gifts and spend time with family, but often these things can distract us from the gift of Jesus Christ, the one who made Christmas possible. And just like my kids, we can get tired of that gift pretty quickly some times, and end up playing on our iPads instead of enjoying real conversations and relationships. I hope I can help my family to remember — there’s more to the season than the toys and gadgets. 


This podcast was made by me, Jonathan Trousdale, using my laptop and a few little gadgets and apps. If you’ve enjoyed this — if it’s enriched your life, consider helping us keep going and doing what we do. Donation instructions are in the show notes and it’s easy to give online. 

I hope you’ve had a great Christmas, and I hope you’ll listen again. This podcast is on the list of things I’d like to improve in 2019. I am also toying with the idea of a weekly email, with more show notes and content, for those listeners who would like to go deeper. I’ll let you know soon about what we come up with. 

In any case, have a great New Years, and we wish you all the very best in 2019. Thanks for listening. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.