Here in Serbia, the season of Slavas is beginning. In the next month or so, most Serbs will attend some one else's Slava or their own, based on the birthday of their family's patron saint. This article was written by a friend of mine, Pat Andjelkovic, an American living in Serbia for many years.
CorD December Column
Pat Andjelkovic Notes from the Big Plum
IT’S NOT JUST ANOTHER PARTY
A slava, (and I’ll add an “s” on occasion hereafter to make it plural) or celebration of a family's saint's day, is a major religious holiday for Orthodox Serbs. Slavas occur all year long, but many take place in the winter months. Although some families invite only guests whose slavas they themselves attend, someone may invite you, so it’s good to know a little something. First of all, how did they come to be?
Centuries ago every Serbian clan had its own household god. As Christianity spread, several attempts were made to convert the Serbs. It was only in the thirteenth century that Rastko Nemanjić, later canonized as Saint Sava, created the Serbian Orthodox Church. He sent out messengers to replace each family's household god with major Christian saints. In the fourteenth century the Turks conquered Serbia, taking complete control for 500 years. Many Serbs converted to Islam to save their lives or to ascend social or political ranks. Orthodox Serbs secretly carried on their Christian customs. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Serbs celebrated their slavas freely for a short while until communism again discouraged religion. As under the Turkish occupation, many continued to observe their personal slava. Nowadays there are no more restrictions.
But just how is a slava celebrated? Although there are differences from family to family, what follows is a traditional explanation.
Slavas are celebrated for three days and families must be ready to welcome guests on all three days, since during slava, an Orthodox home is considered a church, and no one should be turned away. In earlier times, everyone in a particular village knew whose slava fell on which day and automatically came for the celebration. Nowadays it is customary for a family member to extend verbal invitations usually only once and simply remind guests from year to year. If there has been a death in the family during the year, slava must still be observed, but usually only by family members. Because slavas are religious occasions, traditionally no music is played.
Customarily a slava takes place in the father's home or in the grandfather's if he is still alive. Nowadays if there is more than one grown son in a family having a separate household, each son may celebrate in his own home. Slavas are passed from father to son. When a woman marries, she adopts the slava of her husband. (Feminists may think that a woman shouldn't have to adopt her husband's slava, but most women here feel that they have two slavas to their husband's one!)
During the days before slava, housewives prepare great quantities of food, sparing no expense, whereas other families may choose to prepare lighter fare. Some slavas are “lean” slavas and no dairy products or meat are served. Two foods are traditional. The first is the slavski kolač or slava cake, a large, brioche-type bread decorated with salt and flour Orthodox crosses. The other is žito, a confection made of wheat berry, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. But don't look for žito at every slava. There are certain saints' days where no žito is served, because some saints are still considered to be alive. In this instance, slatko, cooked, whole fruit like cherries or strawberries in thick syrup is served in place of žito to welcome guests.
On the first day of slava, family members greet each other with 'Srećna slava' or 'Happy Saint's Day'. No unnecessary work such as laundry, sewing, or ironing is done that day. The head of the family lights a tall beeswax candle, taking great care that the flame not be extinguished until they go to bed that evening. Beside the candle are the slavski kolač, žito or slatko, and a glass of red wine.
Then they wait for the priest to come to perform the slava ritual and bless the house. When the priest arrives, the family gathers in front of the candle for the priest to perform a small ceremony and cut the slavski kolač. (Families may take their slavski kolač to the church instead to be cut if they so wish.) Afterwards, he proceeds to bless the house by walking through its rooms swinging his brass censer of fragrant incense.
Guests usually arrive around seven in the evening, bringing flowers or wine, the only true slava gifts, and greet the family with "Srećna slava". Then the lady of the house or eldest daughter offers a tray of žito or slatko. Each guest must partake of the žito or slatko. Some families serve food buffet style while others choose to have a sit-down dinner. Guests may stay all evening or excuse themselves after an hour or so. If you choose the latter, make sure you tell your host you are going to another slava, otherwise it wouldn’t be polite to leave so soon. In former times on more popular saints' days, streets were filled with people traveling from one slava to another, especially on Sveti (Saint) Nikola, December 19th. People joke that half of Belgrade has a Sveti Nikola slava and the other half attends!
Remember: A slava is not just another party. In fact, it is not a party at all, but rather the observation of a religious tradition and it’s an honor to have been invited to someone’s slava. It shows that your host has accepted you and wishes to share with you the customs of this significant holiday.