Serbs will remain incomprehesible to the foreigner who has never attended a patron saint’s day celebration, (Slava, or Krsna slava) whose season begins in fall and runs through the end of winter.
What is a Patron saint’s day, Slava? Of all Eastern Orthodox Christians, Serbs are the only ones to still respect this ancient custom of celebrating the family saint or patron of the household.
The Patron saint’s day (Slava) is imbued with meaning through various symbols, an icon depicting the saint, the ritual cake, a candle which must remain lit the entire day and sweet ground wheat.
A foreigner in our parts should be warned not to take an already used teaspoon when trying the sweet ground wheat and not to eat the whole portion but to just take a symbolic mouthful.
In addition the water in the glass is not intended for drinking – you place the spoon into it after you’ve taken the wheat. Some have a tendency to overdo the celebration a bit…
The majority of ‘slava’ days fall during one of the four fasts, when it is forbidden to eat anything but vegetables, bread and fish. Those whose bad luck is to have a slava day in fall, during the pre – Christmas fast, can hardly imagine their festive tables without roast pig, lamd and porc apic; they eat fish mostly when vacationing – at the sea. Their love for roast meat is so great that now apply for a SPECIAL PERMIT from their priests to excuse them from the fast and reportedly the request is granted, so that for three days of Saint Nicholas his icon is ‘forced’ to watch feast tables straining under mountains of pork and lamb, not to mention Russian salad.
On the Patron saint’s day, when one should be devoted to the saint being celebrated, spirituality and to God, the main toppic at the dinner table is – POLITICS, which is discussed with such a bitterness that neither a long fast nor months of prayer in a monastery would be enough for atonement. The Serbs celebrating the patron saint’s are also faced with another great problem: as everyone has relatives and frinds whose political views range from the extreme left to the extreme right, they can hardly assemble them in one place without risking the outbreak of civil war on the day that the household’s well – being – through the protection of patron saint – is celebrated.
Families have therefore invented a strategy to separate guests, so that the rightists , for instance, come on the first day, leftists the next day while the third day is reserved for the politically undecided, who are served leftovers.
This, however, is not the most important change in feast – day celebrations. Since ancient times, this has been an intimate family festivity attended only family members, the closest relatives, neighbours, marriage witnesses (‘kumovi’), godfathers and godmothers. The feast consists of a festive but not overly vavish meal, cakes and some drinks – for the sake of custom!
Today this has radically changed: nobody celebrates the patron saint with a midday supper. Rather the celebration is held almost exclusively in the evening and continues on until the ‘small hours’ of the morning.
The feast days lost their intimate atmosphere long ago and have turned into grand parties, where guests often don’t have a chance to meet the host nor find their way through the crowd of people to the table with sweet wheat.
… However, dear foreigners, do accept any invitation you receive to someone’s patron saint celebration (or Slava); nowhere else will you better familiarise yourself with the Serbs and their hidden spirit than when seeing between ‘gibanica’, as a hot snack, and sour soup as a pick -me -up at the crack of dawn.
Momo Kapor ,, A Guide to the Serbian Mentality”