„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.
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.
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