Another Slava Season has just hit Serbia!
For new arrivals to Serbia, the very term Slava is puzzling.
So, for starters, what is Slava?
As a nation, Serbs converted to Christianity during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Basil I (867-886). However, Slavic pagan roots and beliefs remained strong. Hence, in the early days, Serbian families replaced old Slavic Gods with a Christian saint of their choice. Saints inherited the role of pagan Gods to protect and look after a household that chose them. They were not randomly chosen. For example, Christianity defines St Nicholas as protector of sailors and people working near, on or with water. Subsequently, he replaced the Slavic pagan God of water who was incidentally one of the most popular Gods amongst the Slavs.
So, it is no wonder that a large proportion of Serbs celebrate St Nicholas as their Slava. The same applies to St George who replaced the ancient Slavic God of fire and St John who stepped into the shoes of the pagan God of earth. However, as the number of Christian saints started to multiply and pagan roots to weaken, Serbs started picking other “less popular” saint protectors. Usually, they would choose the saint celebrated on the date of high significance for their family. During the Ottoman rule that date would often coincide with a lucky escape from certain death.
The term Slava is an abbreviation. If a family celebrates St Nicholas as their protector, its members would say: “Slava, Svetom Nikoli!” or “Glory to Saint Nicholas!” After many centuries of exclamations, only Slava remained to describe the feeling of gratitude to family’s favourite saint.
So, now that we know what Slava is, lets see how to celebrate it properly.
On the day, marked in the Serbian Orthodox Church calendar as the day of the feast of a particular saint, a family goes to church to consecrate a special Slava Cake and Žito – a mash between crushed wheat, ground walnuts and sugar. Žito is a traditional funeral dish and is offered only if the saint protector is being considered dead by the church. Yes, it is complicated.
Also, if a certain Slava coincides with days of lent, the family must only offer dishes that correspond to the lent diet, which is very strict for the Orthodox Christians. It is basically vegan, fish being the only exception.
Although saint protectors are scattered all through the year, Slava Season unofficially begins in autumn with the celebration of the Holy and Glorious Virgin-Martyr Saint Paraskevi, on October 27.
Serbs take great pride in the fact that Slava is their unique custom, unshared with other Orthodox Christian nations. For many, Slava is both the happiest and the most hard working of feasts since an average family plays host to dozens of people in a space of a day.
If you get invited to a Slava, you have to know that:
– It is a great honour.
– You have to be prepared for a short story about the life of the family’s protector saint since some of them are local Serbian Martyr Saints. As a foreigner, you should be oblivious of their existence. So, it will not go amiss to Google out some useful information in advance.
– Although a host will almost never tell you at what time you should arrive at the feast, keep in mind that visits after 9 o’clock in the evening are not considered to be polite.
– Standard Slava gift is a bottle of wine.
– You should not be eating anything for a while before going to a Slava feast for that’s exactly what it is – a true feast. Early Christians ate in moderation on the Slava Feast Day. However, nowadays, it is a true competition in excess.
– You have to be ready to partake žito from a common dish and drink wine from the same glass as many before you since you have to try both before entering the house. Clean teaspoons are always provided. After tasting a teaspoonful of žito, place the teaspoon into a specially provided glass of water along with other dirty teaspoons.
– It is impolite to get drunk or be loud during the feast, although this kind of behavior is more tolerated now than in the olden days.
– An invitation to a Slava is life-long. The host takes it for granted you will continue to visit each year.
– Slava should not be avoided if you are not religious. For many, Slava is more of a tradition than expression of religious beliefs.
After having armed you with this knowledge, we leave you with the very last advice. In order to survive the Slava Season, eat it moderation in between feasts.