Symbol of togetherness and duration

The family saint patron’s name day or Slava has become part of UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Slava is a particular characteristic of the Serbian people and the most important family holiday. Each Serbian Orthodox home has an icon of their patron saint – the protector, and Slava is passed down from one generation to the next.

Slava cake at the heart of the feast

Slava cake is actually an expression of thanksgiving to God, and therefore most of the attention is devoted to its kneading and decoration. It is customary to call a priest before Slava into the house to consecrate the water that the kneaded ceremonial yeast bread will be made with. The ritual of preparing the bread cake takes place on the day before Slava, the cake is ornately decorated, because it is “an image of faith, hope and love”. The symbols used to decorate are at the core of the Christian faith: the cake is always adorned with a cross and Christ’s stamp IS – HS – NI – KA, which is an acronym taken from the Greek language which means “Jesus Christ conquers”. In addition to these symbols, the top part of the cake often bears the figurines of doves representing the Holy Spirit, books symbolising the Word of God and the Holy Script, ears of grain and vine grapes symbolising prosperity and abundance…

The sublime meaning of bread breaking

Early in the morning, on the day of the Saint Patron’s Name Day, the cake, wheat and wine are taken to church to be consecrated, and sometimes the priest comes to the house of the celebrating host to perform the ritual there. A hymn to the saint is sung before the offered gifts and prayers are recited for the well-being and health. The cake is cut in the shape of a cross, on the bottom crust and is poured with the wine. The cruciform cake cutting signifies Christ’s suffering, and wine pouring symbolises blood that he shed for our salvation. The highlight of the ritual is the ceremonial bread breaking, when the priest, together with the host – the oldest man in the house – and family members, raises it up. Then, everyone gets together in a circle spinning the cake, kissing it three times, and then the priest says:  “Christ is among us,” and the host and family members respond:  “He is, and will be.”

The holiday of getting together

The second part of the celebration takes place in the house: first, the host, in the presence of family members and friends, lights the Slava candle and the hanging light before the icon of the saint, and then takes a piece of the cake and a mouthful of grain, taking a sip of the consecrated wine. All family members, relatives and guests start the celebration with the same ritual. Slava is then, along with toasts, continued with a feast. If the day dedicated to the saint falls during the Christian fasting, there is only meatless food on the table, while in other periods roast meat is always prepared.

There are 78 patron saints celebrated in Serbia, but the most common family protectors are St. Nicholas, St. John, St. George and St. Archangel Michael. There are so many families celebrating these four saints that it is often said that these are the days when one half of Serbia prepares the celebration, while the other half are guests.

Icon, candle and wheat

As a rule, every house has at the place of honour on the wall facing east an icon of the patron saint, the icon of Jesus Christ and the icon of the Holy Mother of God. The Slava candle is usually made of pure beeswax: as bees are virgins, the candle symbolises purity and innocence, and the flame of the lit candle is the symbol of joy of the holiday and the light of faith.  The Slava wheat denotes a sacrifice of gratitude to God for the fruits of the earth, as well as the memory of the saint and the memory of ancestors.

Prepared by: Milena Mihaljčić
Photos by: Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade