Written by: Olivera Tolimir

If you’ve ever dipped a toe into Serbian customs and traditions, you must have heard about Slava. It’s well-known that every Serbian house has its patron saint. The most common patron saints in Serbia are Saint George, Saint John the Baptist, and Saint Nicholas. 

A family honors their saint on his feast day by gathering dear people, eating, and drinking. But Slava is a lot more than that. Did you hear about the ten facts you must know about it?

Pagan Roots

You probably know Serbs are Orthodox Christians. Since other Orthodox Christians don’t celebrate their family patrons, this custom makes us a bit specific. But did you know Slava has pagan roots?

Back when Slavs were polytheists, every house had its deity. It’s believed that the Serbian first archbishop Saint Sava, in the 13th century, helped Christianize this deity’s celebration by turning it into the honoring of Christian saints. However, there is no proof for these claims.

You Only Need Three Things

Serbs tend to make a big deal of organizing feasts for their Slava. It means they make as much food as they can. Some even go so far as to renovate parts of their house. But that’s not necessary.

There are only three things you need to celebrate this holiday:

  • slavski kolač
  • koljivo
  • slavska sveća.

Slavski kolač (Slava’s cake/bread) is a special bread that has to be consecrated by a priest. The priest and the host rotate the slavski kolač three times, say the prayer, and then the priest breaks it and pours it with red wine. It’s usually decorated with edible shapes, such as a cross, book, grapes, or letters that symbolize Christ’s victory.

Koljivo (žito) is boiled wheat mixed with walnuts and honey/sugar. The priest also consecrates it by praying and pouring red wine on it.

Slavska sveća (Slava’s candle) is a long candle bought in a church that’s supposed to burn during the feast day. 

Food: Lenten or Mouthwatering?

As we’ve already said, Serbs try hard to be perfect hosts. They make tons of different kinds of food. But there’s one limit regarding the type of prepared meals. If our saint’s day falls during the fasting period, we choose groceries accordingly. This is called posna (lenten) Slava.

Fasting for the Orthodox Christians means not eating anything of animal origin except fish. So, we prepare fish soup, fried fish, potato salad and cakes made without milk and eggs.

If Slava is mrsna, we can prepare any meal we like. There’s usually meze (a plate with different kinds of ham, cheese, and other finger food), chicken soup, sarma, roast pork or lamb, Russian salad, and various cakes.

Some people are so excited about the feast that they forget the essence of the celebration. So, they prepare pork even during the fasting period. It’s a big mistake against the church rules.

Besides, lenten food can be at least equally (if not more) delicious as mrsna!

I Don’t Wanna Work Today

Did you know that every person in Serbia has a day off for their Slava? This holiday is of great importance for every Serb. Most of us are very busy from the early morning on this day. We have to go to church, pick up the roast, arrange the table, prepare meze and welcome our guests!

All the listed tasks would be impossible to achieve if we had to work from 9 to 5 that day!

Don’t Show Up Empty-Handed!

This one is plain and simple – always bring a gift when you come to Slava! A gift for this occasion usually consists of a bottle of wine, 200 grams of coffee, and a bar of chocolate. If hosts have more children, bring a bar of chocolate for each of them!

Not Being Invited

If your friend invited you to honor their patron saint with them once but didn’t invite you the year after, don’t feel insulted. 

We like to say, Na slavu se ne poziva! It means that we don’t invite guests to Slava. Instead, those close to us already know when and where to come.

So, if someone invites you once, it’s assumed you’ll show up at their door to celebrate their patron saint with them every year!

Srećna slava, domaćine!

Don't forget to kiss a host three times on the cheeks!
Don’t forget to kiss a host three times on the cheeks!

When we arrive at our hosts’ house, we congratulate them by saying, “Srećna slava, domaćine!” It means, Happy Slava (holiday), host! To the hostess, we say, “Srećna slava, domaćice!”

Then we give them a gift, handshake, and kiss them three times on the cheeks. Don’t forget – three times is a must!

Like Father, Like Son

Slava is a family heritage. It’s transferred from father to son (yes, it’s an old patriarchal thing).

While kids are small, it’s easy. But what happens if your friends have an adult son and daughter? Do they still celebrate with their parents?

It depends. If children live with parents, the answer is yes. If a daughter is married, she’ll usually adopt her husband’s patron. Sometimes families celebrate both husband’s and wife’s Slava. If a daughter is single, she still honors the same saint as her parents.

If the son’s married, but his father still wants to be the organizer, the son will come as a guest with his family. When the father decides to pass it on, the young man starts organizing the event in his house.

Patron of the School

Do you know families aren’t the only ones to have their patron saint? A lot of cities, villages, and institutions have Slava, too.

For example, Saint Sava is a patron of all schools, teachers, and students. He’s honored in every school in Serbia on the 27th of January. Belgrade has its own saint, too. Do you know which one?

UNESCO’s Register

In November 2014, UNESCO officially recognized the importance of the Serbian Slava, so it became a part of its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage. We’re pretty proud of this fact!

What customs have you already known about? Which ones do you find the strangest?

Do you want to be sure you know everything about a slava before going to one? Book a lesson with one of our teachers!