Everyone visiting Serbia at this time of year will surely notice (and some may even experience) one of the most interesting customs in Serbia – the celebration of the Patron Saint’s Day, known as Slava. Towards the end of autumn and the beginning of winter, especially in November and December when field work used to cease, the Serbian people celebrate and rejoice. It is precisely during this time of year that the most commemorations of Orthodox saints, who have long been the protectors of Serbian families, take place. Therefore, now is the right time to remind ourselves what Slava is, how it is celebrated, what it represents, and where it originated in our culture.
The saint as the protector of the family
The celebration of the saint, the protector of the family, is a unique religious custom among Serbs, established during the transition from paganism and individual household deities that each family used to have. In pre-Christian times, Serbs believed that each family had its own god protector, and with the adoption of Christianity, these customs and beliefs were transferred to Christian saints. This tradition has persisted until today – by celebrating Slava, Serbian families honour not only their saint and the Church but also their familial ancestors.
It might seem unusual to foreigners, especially considering that other Orthodox peoples like the Greeks, Russians, and Bulgarians don’t celebrate Slava. They typically commemorate name days, unlike us. The celebration of the family Patron Saint’s Day, with family and friends, remains a distinctive feature unique to our people.
If you’re visiting our country, don’t miss the chance to attend a Slava celebration. You’ll see how deeply traditions and customs are woven into all the ceremonies. And if you’re unable to witness these ceremonial events firsthand, consider reading the renowned work of our writer Stevan Sremac, “Ivkova Slava.” It might offer insight into the importance of these customs.
The Serbian Slava
The Serbian Slava celebrates God and his saints. The saints commemorated can be apostles, prophets, martyrs, or righteous figures pivotal in the history of the Christian church.
The origin of the Serbian celebration is tied to the name of Saint Sava. Saint Sava and his successors advocated for suppressing paganism among the people, and records suggest that they introduced Slava to harmonize celebrations with the Christian way of worshipping God.
The celebration of the Patron Saint’s Day was especially significant during the multi-century period of Turkish colonial rule and during numerous attempts at unionism by Catholic countries from the north and west. Since adopting Slava, Serbs have endeavoured to make this day for their family as ceremonious and rich as possible, showcasing their determination to mark their faith, Church, and family protector. From recent history, we’ve heard testimonies: during communism after the Second World War when public policy prohibited the practice of religious customs, many families quietly and in secrecy continued to bake the Slava cake, light candles, and observe their tradition without interruption.
In classes of Serbian as a heritage and foreign language, there’s typically a correlation between subjects like folk tradition and religious studies to illustrate the diverse spectrum of customs associated with the celebration of the Patron Saint’s Day.
Who celebrates the Slava and when does it begin?
The answer to this question is straightforward. In Serbia, the Slava is celebrated by Orthodox Christians, and the celebration begins when a newly formed family becomes independent. For example, when a son separates from his parents and gets married according to Orthodox customs, he takes over the celebration of a specific Slava from his father. The Serbian Orthodox Church today tries to emphasize that it’s a mistaken belief that the Slava isn’t taken over if the groom’s father is alive and still celebrates it, or if it’s celebrated by a biological brother. Instead, all male members of the family take part in the celebration of the Slava.
The Slava is received in the first year of the son’s marriage when the son, accompanied by his wife, visits his father for the Slava celebration. At that time, the father cuts the Slava cake and with his right hand, passes a quarter of the Slava cake to his son, symbolically transferring the Slava to him, wishing that he and his wife, along with their future children, may celebrate the Slava for a long time in good health. The son takes the cake home, shares it with his family, and from the following year onwards, regularly celebrates his own Patron Saint’s Day. Although it’s not in line with traditional Christian customs, in mixed marriages, it happens that the wife also takes over the Slava from her father-in-law if her husband decides to live according to Orthodox Serbian customs.
How to prepare for the Slava?
Several days before the Slava, the host invites a priest to their home to bless the water for the celebration. To sanctify the water, you’ll need to prepare:
- A bowl of clean water
- List of living family members
- List of deceased family members
By performing this ritual, consecrated water is obtained, which will be used during the Slava for blessing the home and the family.
The rite of blessing the water is performed according to Orthodox Christian customs in front of the Slava icon on the eastern wall of the room, where a candle is lit. All family members present in the house at that moment attend the water blessing. When the priest sanctifies the water, all family members take a sip, and from the remaining holy water, the hostess should knead the Slava bread. During the water blessing, the priest recites names of the living household members through prayer and mentions departed family members’ souls. Sanctifying the water is considered highly significant in traditional Serbian households, as it’s believed that the Holy Spirit descends and sanctifies the family home and all its members. This act provides the family with spiritual strength that should guide them through life and work throughout the entire following year.
Invitation to the Slava
Traditionally in our culture, there’s a belief that guests don’t get invited to the Slava; rather, they come on their own. However, this custom has changed today, much like the way Slavas are celebrated. It’s perfectly fine if you invite your guests and plan their arrival.
Greetings and Welcoming Guests
The host should welcome their guests outside the house or at the doorstep of their home. Everyone in the family is attired in accordance with the mood – usually in a festive manner. Guests are greeted with the words: “Welcome!” (Dobrodošli!) Guests respond with the following words: “Happy Slava, host, to you and your home, and to your household, many years in health and joy!” (Srećna slava domaćine, tebi i tvom domu i tvojim ukućanima, mnogo godina u zdravlju i veselju!)
The Slava bread (Slavski kolač)
The Slava bread is kneaded the night before the celebration and represents an offering to God for saving us from death through the suffering of His son, Jesus Christ.
The Slava bread is prepared as follows:
- 750g of wheat flour, type 400
- 3 teaspoons of salt
- Epiphany holy water
- Consecrated Slava water
- 1 cube of fresh yeast
It’s necessary to thoroughly knead all the ingredients and, as the dough rises, prepare the decorations with Orthodox Christian and national motifs. In the center of the bread, blessed basil is placed. Each decoration on the bread carries its significance. For instance, four “S” shapes signify national unity, the cross represents Christianity, a dove signifies peace, and so on. The entire bread is carefully baked and placed on a plate for the blessing of the bread. The bread is kneaded in a solemn manner.
Slavsko wheat (Slavsko žito)
Slavsko wheat is prepared as a token of gratitude to God for all earthly crops, in memory of the saint the family celebrates, and also for the repose of the souls of deceased family members. Additionally, wheat symbolizes resurrection (it’s sown, decays in the earth, and from it springs forth new grain).
Here’s how Slavsko wheat is prepared: each grain of wheat is cleaned meticulously, then two days before the Slava, it’s soaked in cold water and left overnight. In the morning, it’s boiled in the same water, drained through a sieve, and rinsed until the grain remains completely white. The wheat is left to soak overnight and ground the next day in a mill. For every kilogram of wheat, a kilogram of powdered sugar and a kilogram of ground walnuts are added to the ground mixture. Sugar is added evenly to the wheat, and the mixture is kneaded thoroughly by hand.
Serving of wheat
After cutting the Slava bread, the wheat is sprinkled with wine. The host is the first to serve the wheat, followed by all other family members. Then, as guests arrive for the celebration, they are served. The hostess is the one who presents the wheat to the guests on a larger platter with several small spoons on a separate tray and a single glass of water for depositing the used spoons after serving.
You should use a candle made of pure wax. It represents the purest and most sincere offering of the family to God. It symbolizes the family’s aspirations and desires for success while celebrating the Slava. The candle is about 50 to 60 cm long. It is lit just before cutting the bread on the day of the Slava. When a significant portion of the candle burns, it is extinguished in the following way: the host crosses themselves, takes a glass with wine, pours a small spoonful of wine into it, and pours it onto the wick. Then, the candle and its holder are placed in front of the icon, where they remain until the next year and are lit during communal prayers.
Black Wine, Frankincense, and Oil
During the Slava celebration, black wine symbolizes the spilled blood of Jesus poured over the sliced Slava bread. Frankincense is used for incense, signifying the family’s prayers rising towards God through its pleasant scent. Oil is used for the candle, which also represents the offering made to God.
The Slava meal is prepared as a fasting meal if the celebration falls during a fasting period, such as Wednesday or Friday.
The Most Common Serbian Slavas
The ten most commonly celebrated Slava days in Serbia before Christmas are:
- October 27 – Venerable Paraskeva (Saint Petka)
- October 31 – Saint Apostle and Evangelist Luke
- November 8 – Saint Great Martyr Dimitrije (Mitrovdan)
- November 14 – Saints Cosmas and Damian (Vraci)
- November 16 – Saint George (Đurđic)
- November 21 – Assembly of Holy Archangel Michael (Arandjelovdan)
- November 24 – Saint Martyr Stefan Decanski (Saint Mrata)
- December 4 – Presentation of the Most Holy Mother of God
- December 17 – Saint Barbara
- December 19 – Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker (Nikoljdan)
After New Year’s and Christmas, Serbia also celebrates Saint Stephen (January 9), Saint John (January 20), and notably, in all schools, Saint Sava (January 27) in January.
New cycle of courses in Serbian as a foreign and heritage language.
Within each Slava, in every custom and tradition, lies the true world of Serbia and its people! Serbian Slavas are much more than feasts: they represent a celebration of unity, bidding farewell to one working year and welcoming the new, a time of reconciliation, love, and remembrance of ancestors. It’s a day when home doors are open to all, a gathering of family, godparents, and friends. Above all, Slava is a spiritual experience, an opportunity to honor the saint and spend time with friends in pleasant conversation. Slava unites and brings us closer, and that’s the main characteristic of Serbian Orthodox tradition.
If you wish to learn more about Serbian customs through learning Serbian as a foreign or heritage language, I invite you to join us. Registrations are open, and you can apply by filling out the form at this link.
Author: Marko Radulović, Literature and Serbian Language Professor