Let the Slava Season Begin!

St. Gregory Icon - Our Patron Saint

It’s that time of the year again, Slava Season!  It’s hard to believe that four years have gone by since the very first Slava I attended in San Diego, CA when I had just started dating my Belgrade raised boyfriend. This was the beginning of Serbian culture shock for me.  On the drive over, I rehearsed “Srećna Slava” (Happy Slava), eager to show off my new phrase to all the guests. It was only after being met with a blank stare several times that I realized what wasn’t right: saying “Srećna Slava” isn’t like saying “Happy New Year” or “Merry Christmas” – a phrase used to greet anyone on that holiday, it’s more like “Congratulations” or “Happy Birthday”, said only to a particular individual.  I must have sounded ridiculous going around saying it to everyone, not just the Slava host. This tiny but significant detail could have saved me from appearing ignorant. Alas, it was somehow left out of my Slava briefing, and seems to have set the tone for the following years of my Serbian interactions.  Preparation and a sincere desire to understand the culture left me just as confused and isolated as if I hadn’t made any effort.

Back to my first Slava – so it’s November in San Diego, and my Serb and I arrive at the door, dressed up and hungry, and carrying a bottle of wine.  The host greeted us with 3 swift kisses on our cheeks and triumphantly held up a bowl of a mushy looking substance and a wooden icon of a saint. My boyfriend crossed himself (a very unusual act to protestant Christians in the US) before swallowing the stuff with a spoon. I stared at him curiously and suddenly realized I was expected to follow suit.  (Zhito is the sweet gruel-like substance made of wheat, ground nuts, and sugar, and its tradition at Slavas symbolizes the resurrection and is served in memory of deceased family members. Yummy.)   Several hours later, I began to grow weary of all the nodding and smiling as I stood quietly alone in my English Only mind, separated from the Serbian Only socializing. The few English words that punctuated the constant Serbian chatter were directed at me: “Eat something!”. “Try this, you’ll love it!” or “Have some slivovitz!”.  At some point, amidst the turbo folk, the kolo dancing, the sweet wheat gruel, the oily peppers, and hours of loud, raucous laughter to jokes I couldn’t understand, something didn’t feel quite right, and I ended up hunched over in the host’s toilet, vomiting up all kinds of bizarre ethnic food I had ingested against my will.

Zhito

Four years and many misunderstandings later and I’ve become a seasoned pro at this Slava thing. I show up well fed, thick-skinned, and ready with a bottle of slivovitz and a joke about Mujo and Haso, the Bosnian hillbillies. By now, I’m actually excited to attend them. I find myself whining to my husband in our unique language, Serblish, to stop checking himself out in the mirror and go already – “C’mon baby…… Idemo na Slavu!! I’m ready sada! Let’s Go Bre!” With a few ground rules and a thorough pre-game briefing, we can both have fun and no one gets hurt.

Our Tried and True Slava Survival Briefing:

Home Team Rules

1)       No launching into a long-winded conversation in Serbian when I’m standing right there, thereby effectively eliminating me from any hopes of participating in conversation.

2)      He starves himself before we go; I come prepared with a full tummy. I’ve accepted the fact that most traditional Serbian food doesn’t agree with me much. So though I appreciate the hard work and effort of the hosts, I unfortunately cannot participate in the feast.

3)      Don’t ask me to eat something in front of the host. Chances are I won’t like it. Someone is bound to end up embarrassed or offended, or worse yet, vomiting in the toilet.

Its Slava season everyone, get ready, I may show up at a Slava near you!

Though I joke about the culture shock of a Slava, I do appreciate its essence. A Slava is a holiday set aside for each family to recognize the patron saint that protected them during ancient times. Though Slavas still hint at tradition with slavski kolac (blessed bread) and zhito (sweet gruel), their celebration has evolved into something more secular.  I believe that a Slava is still the best place in America to witness the Serbian spirit. After all, it’s an event for giving thanks for all the blessings in one’s life and for welcoming friends and family into one’s home to celebrate their national identity and good fortune. A wise one said that “Slava is a day not only of feasting, but also a day of spiritual revival through which the Serbian national soul is formed and crystallized.” Tako Je, Bre! Let the Slava Season Begin!

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11 thoughts on “Let the Slava Season Begin!

  1. And Serbs are the only Orthodox Christians with this holiday tradition. It is by far the best way to experience Serbian culture. :))) Couldn’t agree more! My Serb’s Slava is this month, too. Sveti Nikola and so will I have similar issues of the English/Serbian boundaries. Serblish only carries us so far. 🙂

    But I love žito!! And I hate that Serbian food doesn’t agree with your stomach. I love Serbian food and wouldn’t know what to do if I couldn’t enjoy it. But you do have the luxury of having everything else around you… if I couldn’t eat Serbian food, I’d be in trouble. Hehehe…

    Srećna Slava to you and yours!

    • Definitely the best way to experience the culture! Yay for slavas! Of course, that first slava was the beginning of my introduction to Serbian cuisine, and it was a little too much for me to handle, I do have a sensitive stomach in general. But after being in Belgrade a bit, and learning more about what I do and don’t like, I’ve been doing much better with the Serbian food, and I actually do like a few things, like Burek and Baklava! 🙂 Hope you enjoy lots of great Slavas this winter!

  2. I am attending my first Slava on Sunday. We are going to one of my husband’s co-workers, and she has been so good to my family, I would like to take her a hostess gift. Could you suggest something appropriate to take?

    • Absolutely! I reccommend bringing her a decent bottle of red wine and a bouquet of flowers, – just don’t bring ones that are predominantly yellow and or white. Those colors are for mourning, and this is a celebration! If you’re up for it, you can even say to her “srecna slava”, pronounced: “sre chna slah vuh”, or just say, “Happy Slava!”

      Hope you have a great time! 🙂

  3. I, too, am married to a Serb and yesterday was our Slava. Unfortunatley my in-laws died many years ago and I only hear stories about the wonderful celebrations. We live far from my husband’s relatives and only our celebration each year is to acknowledge the day and remember our relatives.

  4. Funny post!

    It’s my families Slava day today but none of us can meet up until the weekend. (I’ll probably stop eating now in preparation!) How did you feel the first time you tried Slivovitz? Rocket fuel huh?

    Serbian greetings from the UK. Have a great day!

  5. My husband and family have been very kindly invited to our first Slava this weekend by the Pop’hristic family in London and we are really looking forward to it. Christine & Pete Jackson from Brum.

  6. Slava’s are very sacred rituals. Normally only reserved for immediate family. Today is my baba’s slava (St. Luke) and we will celebrate it at a chinese restaurant (her choice and I’m not complaining.) As you can tell we’re very traditional ;p
    It’s a shame you don’t like serbian food but keep an open mind I’m sure there’s something you will like. (burek is very popular and agreeable with most palates, even my bf likes it.) Anyways Srecna Slava and Happy Halloween!

    • Screcna slava! I love the Chinese restaurant idea. I guess she chose to keep the part of slava that was important to her – to get family together and celebrate.
      The post you read was written awhile back when slavas were still pretty new to me. Now I love them. I hope we get invited to some this year 🙂

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