Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Slava and other traditions: an attempted explanation

As Christmas draws nearer perhaps you are curious about the Serbian holiday traditions. If so I am here to try and explain what I know so far of these traditions. The majority of Serbs are Orthodox Christians, some are Catholic and some Islam which means there isn't one wholly practiced celebration. As I understand it, way back in the 7th century Christianity emerged from the Byzantine Missionaries in previously pagan Eastern Europe. Then there was the Great Schism which divided the Orthodox East, the Byzantine sectors in Serbia, and the Catholic West, the Roman sectors. And Islam came to be with the Ottoman Empire's influence.

The Catholics would celebrate much like in America celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25th, attending midnight mass, lighting the advent wreath, and I'm guessing other usual customs but I'll admit I don't believe I know anyone in Novi Sad who is Catholic, it's quite a minority.

The majority -- the Orthodox Christians -- celebrate different days based on their family saint or slava. Slavas are generally passed down from the father's side and each family celebrates one by hosting friends and family. There are hundreds of saints in Orthodox Christianity who could be celebrated but the most common is Sveti Nikola or St. Nicholas! This celebration falls on December 19th, last Sunday, and my host mother's parents had a grand celebration in their beautiful farm house in Cerevic, a small village a few kilometers from Novi Sad.

We arrived at their house around 11am and left half past four and half the time was spent eating the delicious food prepared throughout the previous week. Until around 3pm it was just our family, the grandparents, and Irena's brother's family, well not just it was about a dozen people but that was nothing compared to the total influx of guests. From 3 until 9pm there would be up to forty friends and neighbors of my host grandparents coming through to help celebrate good ol' St. Nick and considering the village has less than 2,000 people forty's quite a number. In the time we were there I met eight people who were all thrilled that an American was learning about their traditions and each explained to me their family's saints and traditions. And though these stories were certainly entertaining, we left partially because of the diminishing breathing room. Though their property is big, the kitchen, living room, and dining room don't have an unlimited capacity so it was quite comical the way people kept on having to play musical chairs as more and more showed up.

Getting down to traditions, it is customary to have an icon of the family's patron saint at the dinner table, a lit candle, Slavsko zhito: a sweet wheat/nut dish that you eat a spoonful of upon entering the house, and Slavski kolach (Slava bread) decorated with cross and seal. Right before the meal the bread is turned three times while a prayer is recited and then broken again and again until everyone has broken themselves a piece. Inside the bread there is a trinket or coin and the one who breaks off the bread with it is to receive luck. Comically enough no one found the trinket so there was a joking hypothesis that the slightly less observant grandfather gobbled it up along with the yummy bread.

We also danced the traditional kolo dance to traditional Tamburaši folklore. To do so you link arms, hands, or whatever else you can hold onto and do a sort of grapevine to the right and left with a few more jumping steps and then throw in any sort of enthusiastic cheer when so inspired. Twas a lot of fun trying to do so with fifteen people from age 2 to 80-something in an intimate living room. The dance sort of just continues until someone falls, and even then sometimes the person's just hoisted up and taken along for the ride again. After this dance came the meal.

The table setting. The icon is the bottle in the center and the bread has a cross on it though it may be difficult to make out.

And this is about 1/2 the food, seriously. Before this came soup and after multiple cakes, baklava, sweet rolls, and an assortment of domestic cookies and not all the main course food could fit on the table at one time.

Though my host sister didn't participate in this since it's not her direct family's saint, children put a shoe on the windowsill the eve before and in the morning the shoe is filled with dried fruit, nuts, or small toys left by Sveti Nikola and the naughty find a sole of onions.

Families also might plant wheat kernels with a candle in the center and the buds that sprout by January 7th signify Christ's birth.

Why January 7th? This is the day Christ was born by the Julian calendar used by Orthodox Christians. My host family celebrates this day, Božić - Christmas, as their slava . This falls on our second to last night in Novi Sad so I'm very excited to spend my last week helping to prepare this celebration for my family's extended family and friends and really anyone who decides to show up. I think that last part is what I like most about this celebration: the fact that guests need not be invited they simply present themselves for the celebration and the more the merrier is collectively embraced.

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