SLAVA – what makes Serbs different from other Orthodox

„Where there is Slava, there is a Serb“ – Serbian proverb

Majority of Serbs are Christians, and Christianity came very soon after the settling of South Slavs in Balkans. Byzantine missionaries and brothers St. Cyril and St. Methodius are considered to be the founders of South Slavic Christianity. It was a very cunning way to introduce Slavs as pagans to the new religion – most of old Slavic gods were implemented in characteristics of Christian saints, and until nowadays we can still find original corelations with ancient Slavic religion.

Serbian Christians are mostly Orthodox Christians, belonging to Serbian Orthodox Church. Along with Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania and Ecumenical Church of Constantinople – Serbian Orthodox Church forms the Council of Orthodox Patriarchates. Thanks to the fact that each nation has a Church of its own, most of the national folklore maintained untouched through the church. Yet, there is one special holiday which differs Serbian Church from others – slava.

Slava is connected to the times of old Slavic religion, when a cult of ancestors was very strong. For Slavs, family and its legacy is one of the holiest things in life; and this custom is highly appreciated even today. In order to maintain this legacy and implement it into Christianity, Serbian archbishop St. Sava canonized this ceremony and formed a unique cultural heritage for Serbs. So, what is slava today?

If you walk into a Serbian home, you will find there an icon depicting a Christian saint. It is believed that this saint is a patron of host’s home and family, and usually is celebrated for generations back. Each Christian saint has his/her day in Orthodox calendary. That very day is the holiest day for the family which celebrates, right after Christmas and Easter. On this day, Serbs are completely dedicated to their family and dearest people.

There are dozens of different manners of celebrating Slava – depending on the region in Serbia – but there are some customs which are the same everywhere: slavski kolač – ceremonial bread which is baked in the night of Slava; žito or koljivo – ceremonial wheat which celebrates the ressurection of Christ and family ancestors; slavska sveća – ceremonial candle which is lit during the whole day of Slava.

Serbian Slava zito

The day of Slava is very ceremoniuos, and usually hosts organize a great feast to celebrate their patron saint, bringing the whole family and friends to the table. The day of Slava usually begins very early in the morning, when family begins the ceremony in the church with holy liturgy followed by cutting and blessing the ceremonial bread and wheat by the priest. Since Orthodox Serbs have several fasts during the year, as well as each Wednesday and Friday, some celebrations may not consist meat and dairy products and we call these celebrations „posna slava“. For these celebrations hosts usually prepare lots of salads, fish stew and roasted fish. On the other hand, „mrsna slava“ traditionally consists of lots of meat (usually roasted pork and/or lamb). Don’t be fooled – mrsna and posna slava are equally tasteful and abundant.

Literally hundreds of saints are celebrated throughout Serbia. Yet, some of the most popular saints are St. Nicholas (December 19), St. George (May 6), St. John the Baptist (January 20), St. Archangel Michael (November 21), St. Sava (January 27), St. Demetrius (November 8)…

Serbs say that you are invited to Slava only once – for the first time. The following times you are already considered invited, and consider yourself obliged to come. You may get a call from your hosts, so he could briefly inform you about the time you would be expected. Should you get invited to one’s Slava – consider yourself very honored, as this means that the host thinks of you as a very dear friend. Now we can introduce you to some of the customs of Slava’s good manners…

It is custom to bring a gift to your host – usually a bottle of red wine, which depicts the blood of Christ, for the male host; a bouquet for the hostess should do the work. It is not obligatory, but you will win the sympathies of all family if you bring a couple of candies for the kids – this way you will show your host your appreciation to the family.

„SREĆNA SLAVA, DOMAĆINE!“

So, you have arrived and the first thing you will say is „SREĆNA SLAVA, DOMAĆINE!“ meaning „HAPPY HOLIDAY, HOST!“ Remember that Serbs are genetically loud, so you can’t be loud enough by wishing him joy on the holy day.  Ritual of greet cannot be skipped, so you will start from your host and greet all the family members. If you are coming to one’s home for the first time, let your host introduce you to the family members. Remeber one thing: Serbs love to kiss their friends and we do it THREE TIMES!

Now that you’ve met all the family members you can proceed with Slava rituals. Your hosts (usually hostess) will serve you wheat and red wine on a plate. This is where the fun begins for us if you are not Serb – seldom you will get instructions, and usually we will have a good laugh by following your confusion and next step. Here’s what you have to do (you will thank me later): make the sign of the cross and wish your hosts happy holiday again; take a spoon, cleach from the wheat bowl and taste it (you can put your spoon either to a glass of water, or besides the clean spoons); and then take a sip of the red wine. Now you can feel domestic and relax!

Have in mind that there is a certain order in sitting. Usually the most respected family members are seated in the most respected place, and others follow in hierarchy. The most respected places are always kept either for grandfathers or for godfathers. The best (hence the most respecting) thing you can do is to let your host show you your place at the table. In some families you can still see the oldest customs, such as blessing the feast by the host and/or the elders; so take a good look of it.

Serbian Slava table setting

Bite2Satisfaction photo

Usually the feast begins with abundance of appetizers – dry meat, cheese, salads, pies, ajvar, kajmak, cornbread and many, many sorts of dishes. This is followed by, warm appetizers or soup. In the winter time, both „mrsna“ and „posna“ slava cannot pass without SARMA – sour cabbage rolls filled with minced meat and/or rice. During the spring and summer feasts – sarma is replaced by SARMICE OD ZELJA, made in the same manner; but instead of sour cabbage we use sorrel. As the main dish hosts usually prepare roasted pork and/or lamb in case of „mrsna“ slava, or assortment of fish (usually cat-fish, trout, carp, pike and other river fish) during the period of fasting. Desserts are always served, and usually this is the perfect timing to send compliments to hostess; as the whole feast is usually made by her. Guests will be offered with coffee or tea, and the host will be somewhat boring with his attention that your glass remains full all the time. Pay attention that it is considered very rude to reject hosts offer.

As for the drink – Serbs LOVE to toast and to be toasted. So with your first glass of drink (or usually with a shot of rakija), you will repeat once more „SREĆNA SLAVA, DOMAĆINE!“ If you are a lyrical soul, you may try to compose a toast of your own and here are some guidelines: may you and your family celebrate Slava for many years / may you have many descendants to carry on your name and Slava / may your Slava bring you and your dearest all the best / may your patron saint (you can even name) protect your home and those in it from all the evil / may we celebrate your Slava even in a greater number next year! In some parts of Serbia, there are even sorts of contests between guests who will perform the best toast.

As mentioned, Slava is a day when family and friends gather and celebrate. This is why Slava is one of the most cheerful holidays in the world. Don’t be shy, join the laughter and cheerful discussions! It is not rare that someone begins to sing, so don’t be afraid to break the ice.

So, now you know it! The winter is coming, the season of Slavas begins and you are fully prepared to enjoy Serbian tradition at its purest glory.

 

Writen by Petar Živić / Serbia Incoming DMC Project Manager

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30 replies on “SLAVA – what makes Serbs different from other Orthodox

    • Nada

      It is good article about Slava. You have to read bit more around and understand that there’s same celebrations in Christian Albanians and Greeks and Bulgarians. Some might say that those were Serbs once. But seems like that it was old Christian custom which is possibly kept by Serbs and become very commercialised lately. It was thanksgiving day for family and friends and good way to meet and celebrate during the winter days. Also to remember our ancestors and look forward to the future generations.

    • Fly Orient

      Thank you, Nada, for your comment. What you have mentioned is something completely different, and it’s called “Imendan” in Serbian, “Imenden” in Bulgarian and Macedonian and “γιορτάζουν” in Greek (I didn’t learn Albanian in my college, so I don’t know how they call this holiday); and it’s also popular holiday in Russia. This is the day when each individual – very important – celebrates his patron Saint. Moreover, Greeks and Bulgarians prefer celebrating this holiday over birthday. Hence, this cannot be called “Family Holiday” as Slava is. Not even the customs are the same, and the only thing these holidays have in common is celebration of patron saint – family patron in case of Slava, and patron of particular individual (e.g. Djordje, Georgi and Giorgos celebrate St. George because these guys got their names by this saint) and this is where all the similarities end. As you might see from the obvious – (almost) all the Orthodox (even some Catholic) Christians celebrate the name-day, or as you call it “thanksgiving”, but ONLY Serbs celebrate Slava, day of the family patron saint. Hope you now understand the difference between individual and family holiday.

      I remain at your disposal for any questions.
      Best regards,
      Petar Živić
      Theologist and Tourismologist
      Project Manager at Serbia Incoming DMC

  • Krajisnik

    I mi Srbi rodjeni izvan granica Srbije imamo Slavu koju slavimo i postujemo, a u ovom tekstu se samo spominju Slave i obicaji u Srbiji… i opet smo izostavljeni, kao da ne postojimo.

    Reply
    • Fly Orient

      Žao nam je što se tako osećate, ali tekst se ne ograničava samo na Srbiju. Već na početku kažemo “Gde je Slava, tu je i Srbin/Srpstvo” (Where there is Slava, there is a Serb).

    • Nada

      I’m surprised you deleted my comment. Looks like “Politika” newspaper from Serbia. Anything challenging the dogma is deleted.
      Please check the facts I was talking about Slava

    • Fly Orient

      Dear Nada, because there is lot of spam comments, we approve manualy every comment. So, it takes time for your comment to be published. With all respect, this article is all about facts. But you must understand, we are not historical institution or culture magazine, we are Serbia tour operator, destination and event management company. Our articles are here mainly to give a preview of Serbia culture, destinations, customs, gastronomy etc.

  • Una

    The article is great, but if we are to show ourselves at our best to the world, you do need to get a native speaker to check the texts. An English editor to check the grammar (for articles, both definite and indefinite) and translations would make the experience even better. Zelje is very definitely NOT rhubarb, it is sorrel. It may be an added expense, but it is well worth it.

    Reply
  • Djokica STOJKOVIC

    Absolutely BRILLIANT Article!
    I will share it with my Aussies friends. Best ever article about Slava and our tradition.

    Reply
  • Marija

    Sjajan clanak! Mislim da je cak najbolji clanak o srpskim slavama ikad napisan! Prenecu svim mojim “non-Serb” prijateljima, svima ce znaciti! 🙂

    Reply
  • Georgios

    It is surprising that the author of the article forgot to mention the Greek Orthodox Church which has its origins in Greek Byzantine empire. It is important to mention that Cyril and Methodios where Greek monks on a mission (successful as it was proven) to convert Slavic nations to Christianity. Regarding the “Macedonians” obviously there is a confusion. Macedonia is the northern part of Greece, the place where the Greek King Alexander the Great was born.

    Reply
    • Fly Orient

      Dear Georgios,

      thank you very much for your attention dedicated to Serbia Incoming, we are very glad to have your feedback. Now, if you pay attention to the very first paragraph and the second sentence in it, you cannot miss mentioning two brothers and saints, which are very much respected in Serbia – St. Cyril and St. Methodius. Thanks to these two Byzantine (or Greek, even Macedonian to be more precise – being born in Thessaloniki) Enlighteners, Serbs were among first nations who got the Holy Bible written in their language.

      As for the misunderstanding in using term “Macedonia” – I would leave it for the political forums, not for the articles dedicated to Serbian heritage, don’t you agree?

      Thank you very much for following us! Hope we will get the chance to host you in our beautiful land!

      Όλα τα καλά!

  • Tamara

    Very nice article, but I really don’t see the point in using Croatian latinic signs… It’s so common for our people, to believe that if we write “dobro došli” instead of “добро дошли” foreigners will understand it better… Only people who would understand it are from ex-Yu republics, and they understand it either way… If you want to write it in original, please use Serbian cirilic letters (since you’re talking about religious holidays, there’s really no need to use latinic letters that aren’t connected with orthodox Christianity in any way, but are leftovers from Yugoslavia and Croatian part of Serbo-Croatian language that doesn’t exist anymore ). Foreigners don’t know how to read ć or č anymore than they know how to read ч or ћ… If you want to do it in a proper way, use transcription in English with or without original in Serbian, but cirilic Serbian

    Reply
    • Fly Orient

      Dear Tamara,

      thank you very much for your kind words and comments. The author thought that it might be too confusing for non-Serbian speaking readers to read alternatively Latin and Cyrillic script, especially if one has on mind that many European nations besides Croats use “Č”, “Ć” and other Central European Latin symbols. Hence, he thought, it would be much easier to read the text and to pronounce it.

      But have no worries, will take your comment in serious consideration, especially in our future article on Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.

      Many thanks for following us!

  • JUDITH HUSSEY

    VERY IMPRESSION WITH THE EXPLANATION OF WHAT A SERBIAN SLAVA IS AND WHAT IT REPRESENTS. WILL TRY TO POST TO FACEBOOK FOR ALL TO READ.
    MY MOTHER AND HER SIX SIBLINGS WERE BORN FROM MY GRANDMOTHER MILKA AND DEDA MARKO. THEY BOTH CAME FROM SERBIAN AS YOUNG PEOPLE, MET, MARRIED AND WERE WONDERFUL PARENTS AND GRANDPARENTS. I REMEMBER SO WELL GRANDMA (BABA) HAVING A SLAVA FOR ST. GEORGE AND I STILL HAVE ST. GEORGE AS MY PATRON SAINT AND ALWAYS WILL. BECAUSE OF MY MOTHER MARRYING A MAN WHO WAS NOT SERBIAN IT WAS UNFORTUNATE THAT SHE DID NOT SPEAK SERBIAN TO ME IN ORDER TO LEARN AND USE IT THOUGH I KNEW OF MANY OF THE CUSTOMS BECAUSE OF BABA. I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER THEIR MEAGER LIFE HERE IN AMERICA AND NOT ONCE HEARD THEM SAY THEY WERE UNHAPPY AND BASICALLY POOR IN WEALTH HOWEVER IN LOVE AND GIVING LOVE THEY WERE TWO OF THE RICHEST PEOPLE I HAD THE PREVILEDGE TO KNOW AND BE PART OF. SO TODAY BEING CHRISTMAS DAY I WISH ALL WHO READ……..A BLESSED, HAPPY AND MERRY CHRISTMAS. MAY GOD SMILED DOWN UPON YOU AND YOURS. judie

    Reply
  • Душан силни

    St. Jeronim was from Stridon, now Bos. Grahovo. He lived about 300 years after Christ, he was a Serb and Christian and translated the Bible to Latin. So Serbians were Christian well before SS. Cyril & Methodius. This part of our history was hidden from us since the Congress of Berlin. Great article!

    Reply
  • ljubica zarkovic

    interesting that st cyril is buried in Rome in the basilica of San Clemente while the tomb of St Nicholas is in Bari

    Reply
  • Dora Matic

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading article on slava.Even in far away Australia when I meet someone from a Serb background I tend to ask the question. When is your slava?

    Reply
  • Wanda Wilson

    My ex-boyfriend is Serbian, we dated 14 years, practically was married, however not on paper. Anyways I was to many Slava’s during these years, not only his, but to his friends Slava as well. You are correct on this article, just wish u would have elaborated on how the priest comes in and blesses the Slava and the traditional things he does, it would have made the article excellent, but of course it is already a good article. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Roland Lee

    I found this enlightening article because I was searching for the Slava alphabet and some fonts. I have a 200 year old book on Theology and I want to transliterate into the regular Cyrilista and then possible translate parts into English. The fonts are my main problem – the alphabet is not a real problem but I can’t any elaborate fonts to compare with my book.

    Reply

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