“Srećna Slava!” — there are no words that better encapsulate the essence of Serbian identity. The concept of Slava represents the traditional celebration of a patron saint that each Serbian family nurtures over centuries. Extensively investigated, yet never completely defined, the concept of Patron Saint’s Day in Serbian culture has remained an intriguing topic for historians and ethnographers until today. Besides distinctive conceptual specificities, the devout reverence of a patron saint among Serbs is accompanied by a customary religious ceremony and an opulent feast.
Once per year each Serbian family celebrates a patron saint who is a highly revered guardian of the family. One saint can be respected and celebrated by many families and there are a lot of highly respected Orthodox saints. Each saint is celebrated on a specific day and therefore feasts are commonly held throughout the year.
Slava (Patron Saint’s Day), religiously, socially and historically unifies Serbs, however the origin of this religious practice remains unknown until today. It is assumed that the first Serbian archbishop, Sava, assigned each Serbian family a patron saint and established the custom of the celebration in the honor of the saint assigned. Other sources associate the worship of Christian saints with early Christianization of Slavic people, which was meant to eradicate antecedent adoration of Pagan gods. Regardless of the vague origins, the concept of Patron Saint’s Day has been indisputably approved by the Serbian Orthodox church and cultivated until now. Moreover, Slava is an unprecedented notion in Orthodoxy. Serbs are the only Orthodox people with such tradition, while among other Orthodox nations the cult of patron saint is non-existent.
The worship of a saint surpasses social differences. Kings used to celebrate their saints in the past, more or less, in the same way we do today. Material, intellectual or professional statuses of people might vary, but the celebration of a family guardian is nevertheless practiced, with minor variations in customs. The historically assigned and revered patron saint usually remains unchanged for generations. A man starts celebrating the patron saint of his family once he gets married and establishes a separate household, whatever his age, material or educational status might be. Girls adopt the Slava of their husband’s family, but still highly respect the patron saint of their maiden family. The Amaranthine tradition defied wars, poverty, natural disasters and other predicaments. Despite the fact that each foreign invader of the Balkans tried to abolish the celebration of patron saints, the tradition was sustained as a symbol of resistance and disobedience even in war trenches, exile, slavery and isolation.
The profound national and ethnological significance is intertwined with religious practices. The celebration of the Patron Saint’s Day would be incomplete without a religious ceremony and three crucial objects – a wax candle, ritual bread and wheat dish. A yellow, stick-shaped candle made of wax, which is commonly found in Orthodox churches, has always been an absolutely indispensable feature. In extreme situations, the candle could replace all other customary elements. For instance, in war trenches or slavery, people would only light a candle on the day of their patron saint and the conventions would be considered fulfilled. For that reason, soldiers, seafarers and travelers in the past, without exception, carried a candle from their homes – they would light the candle either on the patron saint’s day or in case of death.
Additionally, bread and wheat are equally important, when feasible. The bread should be round in shape; made of flour, water, salt and yeast; with optional decorations and crosses on the top. Wheat is in some regions just boiled while in other regions people grind the wheat after boiling and spice it with sugar, nuts, honey and cinnamon. Religious practices permeate the tradition around the cult of patron saints. In that sense, bread and wheat represent the sacrifice that is meant to propitiate God and the patron saint and, thus, ensure the protection of a household. An Orthodox priest has to consecrate the bread and wheat. The consecration can be performed in churches or at the home of a host. Every home has an icon of a patron saint which is symbolically hung on an eastern wall because the sun rises from the east.
Home-based religious practices have commonly been conducted in front of this icon. The consecration of bread and wheat has not significantly changed over centuries. The priest makes a cross-like cut in the bread and pours wine over it. The family members together, with the priest, then raise the bread and rotate it while chanting. Once the chant is finished, all family members kiss the bread and the consecration is completed. Other optional religious practices include a family prayer before lunch or dinner as well as a seven-day lent prior to the patron saint’s day and communion.
In addition to the spiritual adherence to the religious conventions, the celebration of a patron saint includes a lot of secular joy. The feast in the honor of a patron saint is characterized by the abundance of food and drinks, guests and presents. Patron Saint’s Day is the most solemn day for each Serbian family and the most important holiday in the year. The feast and merrymaking nowadays last only one day. In the past, however, the celebration could extend up to three or even seven days in wealthy households. On each Patron Saint’s Day, people serve the highest-quality food and use the most luxurious cutlery and tableware they possess. If Patron Saint’s Day is celebrated on Wednesday, Friday or during lent, the food would be still opulent, but lean, for example meat, eggs and dairy products would not be served. In other circumstances, Serbian households offer the most varied dishes prepared with the utmost care and skill. The entire family participates in the organization of the feast. The head of a family is supposed to serve drinks throughout the day and, in the past, he was allowed to sit and eat only after the guests leave. In terms of beverages, wine, rakija (a typical Serbian brandy) and coffee were traditionally the most widespread. However, nowadays households procure and serve a plethora of exotic drinks. Traditionally, the feast starts with boiled wheat that each guest should taste upon their arrival and with one or multiple toasts that are intended to invoke good health and prosperity of the hosts. Despite the fact that alcohol is omnipresent during the feast, drunkenness has always been considered great shame.
Guests are a highly desirable, but a non-essential aspect of the celebration. Serbian people are, in essence, sociable and outgoing. For that reason, social interaction has been inseparable from any celebration. For instance, even people who were absent from their homes on their Patron Saint’s Day due to traveling, service in the army, enslavement or war, still used to share food or drinks with their companions and comrades. Invitees on the day include relatives and friends, although certain households prefer to celebrate only with their immediate family. Both customs are absolutely appropriate.
Although the majority of relevant customs were sustained in the original form, guest-gathering has undergone a transformation. Today, you should not attend the feast unless you are invited by the host. However, traditionally, the invitations were based on the concept of reciprocity – if your friends attended your feast, you were supposed to attend theirs in return. The relationships between people in smaller and less urban communities rendered invitations unnecessary. Only the guests from other villages and regions were actually invited, whereby the host would send an apple to the guest’s house as an invitation and a sign of respect. The most honorable guest has always been seated at the central position of the table. In the past, the presence of a priest or a teacher at the celebration was considered a great honor for the hosts.
Nobody comes to the feast without a gift for the hosts. The custom of gift-giving has also slightly changed due to the modernization of lifestyle. Common gifts today include spirits, chocolates, coffee and flowers, while in the past hosts used to receive fruit, homemade bread, cakes or other specialties. Upon leaving the feast, guests are sometimes given take-away packages with food or sweets for other family members that could not attend the celebration. The food is also shared with the poor, with neighbors and even brought to workplaces for colleagues.
Being simultaneously a symbol of unity and distinction of Serbian people, the concept of the glorification of patron saints is practiced always and everywhere among Serbs. Despite the lack of scientific definition and the plight of wars and poverty, the reverence of patron saints has ubiquitously abided throughout the generations. Quintessential Serbian tradition sublimely synthesizes spiritual and worldly essence and adamantly mediates between present and past, heaven and earth.
This overview of the corresponding customs and appropriate behavioral patterns is intended to sustain an exclusive tradition and ensure a better grasp of the importance of the Patron Saint’s Day at an international level.