Serbian “Slava” on the UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

In November 2014, UNESCO inscribed Serbian “Slava” celebration of family saint patron’s day into the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. “Slava” celebrations are nowadays dedicated to Christian saints, but they keep the good deal of ancient customs which were actually centered around the ancestral spirit guarding over each Slavic family. These customs were so persistent that adopting them was necessary in order to perform Christianization of Serbian tribes.The domains of Intangible heritage which “Slava” covers are defined as “oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage” and “social practices, rituals and festive events”.

imagesFor a Serb, to celebrate the “Slava” is not only a matter of religiosity but also of ethnic identity. Some of those protective saints are canonized Serbian kings and leaders, especially from the Middle Ages. They are honored by feasts attended by extended family and sometimes lasting for three days. Celebration includes bloodless sacrifice, special “Slava” cake previously consecrated in the church, red wine to pour over the cake, and a wax candle with the image of a patron saint. Wheat is also consecrated in the church and is usually called “koljivo” in Serbian. Most of the times, water used for making the cake is blessed by the priest several days before, in a special ritual. When “Slava” begins, the candle is lit and the sign of the cross is cut into the cake by pater familias – the oldest male member of the family, who also pours the red wine over the sign. Then, the cake is rotated by the hands of all of the attendees, and each guest has to eat at least a tiny part of “Slava” cake. The same goes for the wheat, previously cooked and deliciously mixed with sugar and walnuts, which is omitted only when the saint is considered “still alive” (For example, St. Archangel Michael never died, he presides in Heaven,31123909 so there is no need to prepare a meal traditionally linked with the deceased).  After taking some of “Slava” cake, “koljivo” and wine, the head of the house or someone else known for oratorical skills makes a toast and gives many thanks to the saint and to the ancestors for watching over the house. He pleads for prosperity , fertility of crops and livestock and well-being in general, declaring that the feast may begin. During the festivity, the candle must be burning all the time. This is why special, huge candles are made for the purposes of “Slava”. Women play important role as they display culinary skills of all of the meals, and special esthetic decorations of “Slava” cakes. Exhibitions of such cakes are not a rare thing in Serbia. Women also pass an oral tradition and teach younger generations about the origin and importance of “Slava”, its particular rituals and traditional dishes.

Patron saint is something that is inherited from earlier generations, and often families aren’t certain for how long their particular “Slava” has been celebrated in the house. Ancient, beautiful and very valuable icons, candlesticks and festive pottery are sometimes found in ordinary homes, because generations took good care of their “Slava” and related objects. The most frequent Serbian patron saint is St. Nicholas, celebrated on December 19th. In the rural areas, the whole villages have their unique patron saint, and inhabitants sit and eat together during huge feasts organized in front of the local church. Thus, the social function of “Slava” is as important as the religious one, since it cherishes the sense of community and hospitality. Relations are being discussed, new arrivals introduced, old affairs settled, since it is a holy day. Kinships, friendships and neighborhood ties are strengthened, and the whole community is bound with the aura of sacredness. This is why “Slava” still has some tribal and ancestral atmosphere, which was successfully blended with Orthodox Christianity. However, non- Orthodox neighbors are very often invited to such feasts and if you’re planning to visit Serbia in winter months, this is exactly the time of many patron saint celebrations! Be aware that, although it is proclaimed “Intangible heritage”, your post-“Slava” weight gain or consequences of “rakia” overdrinking will be more than tangible! We strongly recommend moderation – and you’ll learn it is not easily approved by Serbian hosts. :) Welcome and enjoy!
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Vesna Adic

Vesna Adic holds an MA degree in Art History from the University of Belgrade and has graduated with the Mention of Excellence from the Paideia Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She is a certified curator, an experienced public speaker and a freelance writer. Her major interests are history, 19th century art & literature, music and traveling.

    • Sergej

      I would like to suggest to the author to better check some facts…and then re-write the article…

      • Vesna Adic

        Dear Sergej, if I had any real intention of altering the article, I could have asked you to be more specific about “some facts” you’re pointing at. But the truth is I’m happy with the text as it is, together with more than 550 people who enjoyed and shared it. Anyways, you’re more than welcome to click “Submit” and offer your own version! Cheers!

    • Sergej

      I would like to suggest to the author to better check some facts…and then re-write the article…

    • Frank Höno

      thank you for this informative article.

    • Dejan

      Nice Article, thank you!

      Few facts to correct if you don’t mind:

      – Orthodox priests are the ones who cut, bless the cake and zito (bread and wheat).
      – Probably the biggest misconception is about wheat. Wheat should always be present (doesn’t matter if St. Elisha or St. Archangel Michael / Ilindan i Arandjelovdan) – you can find this in Church books, for example “Moja Slava” (urednik episkop backi Irinej) pg 29 and 30.

      • meettheslavs

        Hi Dejan.

        You may be right about what church books say. However, church books are not always followed. A lot of priests just say “do what you forefathers did”. It all depends on which part of the country you come from. I know a lot of places in Serbia where bread is cut at home and not by the priest.

        • Dejan

          I have a story I heard many years ago from the person that was present and told me what happened, it still brings tears to my eyes:

          In WW2 he was arrested and put on a train to a Nazi concentration camp (obviously lived thought it to tell this story). Cargo train was overcrowded with people, they were cold, hungry… It was end of January, few days on the train… Jan 27th comes (St. Sava), 1 person had saved a slice of bread for Kolac, no wheat of course, no priest either to cut the Kolac, but they all got together and celebrated Slava of St. Sava, sang troparions and said prayers as good as they could. I am sure that it was more God-pleasing than many Slavas we celebrate today with nice looking Kolac and zito and icons and priests etc…

          Nevertheless, this story was an example of an extreme situations. There are others that might fall in this category, such as a remote village without a priest, communist times and being scared to celebrate Slava and go to Church etc. I do believe that some priests said what you told us, but my opinion is that those are all edge cases that can be mentioned to spice up the story, and not be presented as a rule.

          • meettheslavs

            Good points. Sadly Slava is becoming more of “drink and eat as much as you can” rather than it’s original purpose.

    • Liam