Of all Orthodox Christians, only Serbians have a slava -- the custom of celebrating a family's patron saint's feast day. Other Slavs celebrate a personal patron saint day as the Poles do with imieniny, but not a family patron saint.
The tradition dates back to the ninth century when Serbs gave up their pagan beliefs and accepted Christianity.
One theory is that each village or tribe adopted a collective saint as its protector; another is that the saint on whose day a man was baptized became his family's patron.
In commemoration of their conversion or spiritual birthday, each family began a yearly celebration to honor their saint, passing the tradition down from generation to generation.
The most common Slavas are St. John the Baptist on Jan. 20, St. George on May 6, St. Michael the Archangel on Nov. 21 and St. Nicholas on Dec. 19, but there are many others.
The Religious Aspect of Slava
Serbian priests visit homes in their parish to bless slavski kolac (a special slava bread), zhito, also known as koljivo (boiled wheat with honey and walnuts) and red wine, and light a special beeswax candle before any feasting can begin.
Kolac represents Christ as the bread of life. Zhito is symbolic of Christ's resurrection and commemorates departed family members. Red wine is symbolic of Christ's blood, and the candle proclaims Christ as the light of the world.
Kolac is a round 6-inch-high yeast bread with braided dough around its perimeter, a cross on the top and a pecat or seal with the letters IC, XC, NI, and KA, which stand for "Jesus Christ the conqueror." A Cyrillic "C" in each quadrant of the cross stands for samo, sloga, Srbina, spasava, which mean "Only unity will save Serbs."
Feasting Figures Prominently
While slava is about faith and family, it's also a festive occasion and food figures prominently -- everything from soup to sarma (Serbian stuffed cabbage) to dessert.
Hot food is on the table for every guest from as early as 1 p.m. until late at night.
Often, tables are set up in the basement of homes to accommodate the many guests and running up and down the stairs so many times takes a toll. Many Serbian women will tell you their knees would be in better shape if it hadn't been for so many slavas.
The preparation begins weeks before. A menu might consist of chicken noodle soup, sarma, spit-roasted lamb and pork, breads, and pastries that run the gamut of potica to strudels to nut rolls to krem pita, tortes, cookies, wine, slivovic (plum brandy), and good, strong coffee. It's definitely not the time to begin a diet.
Some cooks go so far as to make their sarma with kiseli kupus (whole soured cabbage heads). And no slava feast would be complete without appetizers of smoked meats, sausages, feta cheese, kajmak and pogacha (a yeast bread).
The family hosting the slava never sits. They serve their honored guests all day long. It's no small feat keeping the food hot, the dishes, glasses and silver clean, all with a pleasant smile on the face.
Despite the hardships a slava might cause the hosts, they are delighted to continue to observe this tradition as a means of staying in touch with the old ways.