This iconic day on the calendar of most Serbs is a treat not to be missed –besides offering real insight into Serbian tradition and life. In Serbian Orthodoxy, each family has a patron saint who is passed down from generation to generation through the male line. Each saint also has his or her own day. When your family’s saint’s day comes round, you celebrate
this day, which is called a slava in Serbian. A slava is an old tradition and is
typically Serbian. It is not celebrated in other Orthodox countries, like Russia or Greece, for example. The slava is a very important holiday
for most Serbs and by law in Serbia you have the right to take the day off, as if it were a public holiday. Those who do not celebrate a slava may take Catholic Christmas or a Muslim religious holiday off instead. In 2014, UNESCO added the slava to its List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. A Serbian proverb describes the importance and meaning of the slava succinctly: “Where there is slava, there is a Serb.”
The most common slavas are St Nicholas’s Day (Nikoljdan), on December 19,
St George’s Day (Djurdjevdan), on May 6, St John’s Day (Jovanjdan), on January 20, St Michael’s Day (Arandjelovdan), on November 21 and St Sava’s Day (Savindan) on January 27. It’s not just families that celebrate their own slava. Many Serbian municipalities, organisations, institutions, companies
and professions celebrate them too. The City of Belgrade, for example, celebrates Ascension Day (Spasovdan) as its slava. Normally, the slava is celebrated over two or even three days. This is because the host cannot welcome all the guests in one day for practical reasons.
As a foreigner, if are invited to a slava it means that you have been accepted into the circle of family of friends of the person who invited you. You will be invited only once for the slava, however. By the time next year’s day arrives, you should consider yourself already invited and feel obliged to come. The slava is fun to witness and join in, as a typical Serbian traditional feast with a personal touch.
The question, of course, is: what can you expect? There is no easy answer to this. The slava is celebrated differently in several parts of Serbia, not to mention in Serbian parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Generally, you should expect a lot of eating and drinking – so be prepared. It is the custom to bring the host a present. Normally, people bring coffee, chocolate, wine or rakija, but if you want, you can bring something more practical that you think the host would appreciate.
When you arrive, you greet your host with the words: “Srecna slava, domacine,” which means: “Happy slava, dear host”. Your host will provide you a seat and you will be welcomed with zito or koljivo. This is a boiled wheat dish that celebrates the resurrection of Christ and family ancestors. Besides that, you will get coffee and/or rakija. When everybody is there and you get to know the people around you, your host will say a prayer accompanied with incense. You should stand for the prayer and make the sign of the cross while the incense is pointed towards you, and say “Srecna slava,” thereby wishing the host and his family a happy slava. You will be also offered a sip of wine. After this more formal part of the ceremony, you can start eating and drinking.
Firstly, you will be served slavski kolac, a ceremonial loaf baked on the night of the slava. In the morning of his or her slava, the host will normally visit a church and attend the service to get the bread blessed by the priest. On the table you will also see a slavska sveca, which is a ceremonial candle, lit during the whole day of the slava. After the slavski kolac comes the starter. To the foreigner this will look like the main course, but in fact it is only beginning. The day of the slava will determine whether it is celebrated “posno” or not. “Posno” means you will not eat any meat or dairy products (it actually means “fasting”) but fish and vegetable products instead. If the first day of the slava falls on a Wednesday or Friday, it will be a “posna slava”. One exception to this is Sveti Nikola (St Nicolas), on December 19, which is always a “posna slava”.
The starter can consist of ham, salami, cheese and/or eggs and various salads. Afterwards, your host may serve soup. If it is a “posna slava”, you will probably get vegetable and fish soup. After this, the main dish is served. For this, your hosts may prepare roast pork or lamb or an assortment of fish – usually catfish, trout, carp, pike and other river fish – if it is a “posna slava”. Of course, your host will make sure that your glass is always full. Be sure to leave some space for the dessert. This usually consists of small cakes and other sweets, served with coffee.
After that, you are free to go home, or stay and have more drinks. But be sure not to behave like the guests of “Ivko’s slava”. This term is very widely understood, thanks to a famous movie from 2005, “Ivkova slava”. Based on a book from 1895 by the famous writer Stevan Sremac, this is a comedy set in the southern city of Nis at the start of the 20th century. It is highly recommended viewing. It features a man called Ivko, who is celebrating his slava with his family and friends, who get drunk and do not leave his house at the end of the first day. He can’t tell them to go, as this will bring him
misfortune. The guests use the full three days of the slava to enjoy the food, drink and hospitality of their host. Over the three days, these drunken guests cause various amusing problems. At one moment, Ivko even calls King of Serbia to resolve them. When you leave – hopefully not after three days, like Ivko’s guests – you should thank your host and hostess for the celebration. Besides enjoying delicious food and drinks, slava will give you some unique insight in the Serbian society.
This article I wrote earlier for Belgrade Insight, which is part of BIRN (link) and appeared in their 264th Edition from 7 December 2018.