If you have a Serbian friend or have visited Serbia, you probably have heard the word “Slava” mentioned at least once. Having just returned from the Slava of my relatives, I realised its time to share a little bit more about this special tradition.
By definition, Slava is a Serbian Orthodox Christian tradition of commemorating a family’s patron saint. To a Serbian family, it is the most important and sacred of customs; a time when the family celebrates a long line of history and tradition of their acceptance to Christianity generations ago, and commemorate their patron saint’s protection. Slava is passed down from the father to the son, generation after generation, and the feast is celebrated at home with family and close friends.
A traditional Slava is made up of 4 elements which include: Slava candle, Slavski kolac (slava cake), zhito (boiled wheat) and red wine, each holding a special meaning of this sacred custom.
Slava Candle – reminds us that Christ is the Light of the world and should be lit during the Slava. Ideally it should be made out of pure bee wax and most families purchase candles with a picture of their patron saint on it.
Slava Cake – this element represents Christ’s body and the ultimate sacrifice He made for us. The cake is actually more of a bread, made with a simple recipe and is adorned with decorations such as the cross.
Boiled Wheat – a sign of Christ’s Resurrection, this dish is usually made with overnight boiled wheat, walnuts, nutmeg, sugar (and if you like, a hint of rum). When guests attend the feast, the host typically serves them with this dish and a sip of wine as a welcome.
Red Wine – a symbol of Christ’s blood. .
On the day of the Slava, the family partakes in Holy Communion in their church after which the priest venerates the patron saint’s memory in a small service. He then blesses the Slava cake by slicing it in the shape of a cross and pours wine; he also blesses the wheat and lights the candle.
The family then prepares a large feast in their home with delicious food items including various cold appetisers and salads, soup, traditional sarma (minced meat wrapped in sour cabbage), roasted meat and many desserts to name a few. My father’s aunt is the best cook in the world and her homemade delicacies always leave us stuffed for days (see below) 🙂
My family’s patron saint is St. Nicholas – the protector of children, the poor and sailors. St. Nicholas devoted his life to helping the poor and is known for performing many good deeds, which have inspired the story of Santa Claus. While in Eastern Europe we commemorate him on December 19th, Western Europe commemorates him on December 6th through various traditions.
There is a Serbian proverb which says “Where there is Slava, there is a Serb”, showing how important this custom is to a Serbian household. It is also inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list as a protected tradition.
While living in Nigeria, we didn’t have the possibility of attending an Orthodox service and so my parents improvised the best way they could to maintain this sacred custom, and in a way, create our own special tradition 🙂