Major holidays in Serbia are pretty much the same as elsewhere in Europe, but there is one family holiday that is associated almost exclusively with Serbia. Every orthodox family has its patron saint, and all family members are entitled to a day off work (children are entitled to a day off school, also) as if it were a national holiday. On that specific day, families invite their friends for dinner as they thank their patron saint for successful year. Patron saint is transferred from father to son and women claim their husbands’ saint as they marry.
It is beautiful and unique expression of the Orthodox faith that is deeply implanted in Serbian Christian soul. Krsna Slava is an exclusively Serbian custom. It is the most solemn day of the year for all Serbs of the Orthodox faith and has played a role of vital importance in the history of the Serbian people.
Our forefathers accepted Christianity collectively by families and by tribes. In commemoration of their baptisms, each family or tribe began to celebrate in a special way to honor the saint on whose day they received the sacrament of Holy Baptism. The mother church blessed this practice and proclaimed Krsna Slava a Christian institution.
According to the words of St. Paul (Phil. 1:2), every Christian family is a small church, and, just as churches are dedicated to one saint, who is celebrated as the protector of the church, so Serbian families place themselves under the protection of the saint on whose holiday they became Christians and to whom they refer to as their intercessor to God Almighty. To that protector of their homes, they pay special homage from generation to generation, from father to son, each and every year.
The celebration of Krsna Slava requires the Icon of the family Patron Saint and several items that symbolize Christ and the believer’s faith in his death and resurrection: a lighted candle, Slavsko zhito, Slava’s bread (Slavski kolach), and red wine.
The lighted candle reminds us that Christ is the Light of world. Without Him we would live in darkness. Christ’s light should fill our hearts and minds always, and we should not hide the Light of Christ in our lives.
Slavsko zhito – boiled wheat (koljivo), represents the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ reminded us that except a grain of wheat die it cannot rise again, even as it was necessary that He die, be buried, and on the third day rise again so that we all can triumph over death. The Slavsko zhito is prepared as an offering to God for all of the blessings we have received from Him; it also is to honor the Patron Saint and to commemorate our ancestors who lived and died in the Orthodox faith.
Slava’s bread – Slava cake (Slavski Kolac), represents Jesus Christ as the Bread of Life. It is also symbolic of our thanks to God for being saved through Its Son. During Slava, the priest cuts a cross in the bread, which reminds us of Christ’s death on the cross for the remission of our sins. The red wine, of course, represents Christ’s precious blood, which was required to wash our sins away. Note that understanding the symbols of Slava helps us understand the meaning of the celebration.
On the day of the Slava, the family attends church services and partakes in Holy Communion. Following the service, the parish priest is received in the family’s home. He performs a small service which entails venerating the Saint’s memory, blessing the slavski kolač and koljivo, as well as lighting the “slava candle”. Though not necessary, it is common for the priest to bless the house and perform a small memorial service for dead relatives. The most common feast days are St. Nicholas (falling on December 19), St. George (May 6, see Đurđevdan), St. John the Baptist (January 20), Saint Demetrius (November 8) and St. Michael (November 21). Given dates are by official Gregorian calendar. Serbian Orthodox Church uses Julian calendar that is late 13 days. For example, St. Nicholas date is December 6, but by Julian calendar this date is 13 days later, when by Gregorian calendar is December 19.
Many Serbian communities (villages, cities, organizations, political parties, institutions, companies, professions) also celebrate their patron saint. For example, the city of Belgrade celebrates the Ascension as its Slava. Sveti Nikola (St. Nicholas) is the patron saint for so many families that there is a Serbian saying for St. Nicholas Day, 6 or 19 December, “Half of Serbia is celebrating their Slava today, and the other half is going to a Slava.” It is a very important day for Serbian Orthodox. Observance of the Slava is performed also by cultural and social organizations, cities and even military units. In addition to relatives, kumovi and friends are assembled that day, the home is open to ALL who come. Emotions of the celebrants are charged with the noblest motives. They have a readiness and desire to welcome and offer the best in friendship, food, drink , and all is ready and prepared in prayer. The host does not sit that day. His duty is to welcome and serve, “Da sluzi Krsno Ime.” There are many beautiful zdravica’s” (toasts) pronounced and heard on that day by the host and the guests invoking blessings of God and the Orthodox Saints and exchanging the best wishes for each other. This is a day for great spiritual rejoicing.