Every Orthodox family in Serbia has one patron saint. Each family celebrates the feast day of their saint with a unique Serbian Orthodox religious tradition, Krsna Slava or Thanksgiving, on the day when their ancestors were baptized (Serbians accepted Christianity by families and whole tribes). This same saint is the family’s saint from generation to generation through the centuries. Sveti Nikola (St. Nicholas) is the most common 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.
The Slava celebration includes:
- An icon of the family’s patron saint, in this case, St. Nicholas
- A lighted candle, for Christ the Light of the World
- Slavsko zhito/koljivo, a boiled wheat dish, representing Christ’s death and resurrection
- Slava bread (Slavski kolach), decorated with cross and seal, for Jesus Christ the Bread of Life
- Red wine, for Christ’s precious blood that washes away sin
- A priest, who blesses the home and all present, offering prayers and the Thanksgiving Prayer (molieben) before the icon
- Awareness that Krsna Slava is a great treasure given by one’s ancestors
Slava is feasting, singing, and festival, but also, and more importantly, a time of spiritual renewal and rededication to the Orthodox faith and church. Celebrating Krsna Slava creates confidence, strength, freshness, stability, spiritual and physical peace, and the ability and incentive to do good and to lend help to others. The Slava is a family reunion usually held in the home of the family’s oldest living member to commemorate the patron saint, glorify God, and pray for all members of the family, including those who have died. Friends need not be invited, they simply present themselves for the celebration. The priest blesses the bread, turns and cuts it as a sign of the cross, it is then passed to everyone. The meal is fish, as meat and dairy are forbidden on that day (as it is during the Nativity fast). The Slava candle is not blown out, rather extinguished with wine, then the glass is passed for each family member to take a sip, symbolizing the perpetuity of the Slava and the unity of the family in faith. Serbian Orthodox observe Krsna Slava wherever they live, not just in Serbia.
There is more to Saint Nicholas in Serbia than Slava, though. On St. Nicholas Eve children place a shoe on the windowsill. By morning they find dried fruit, nuts, small toys or new school supplies left by St. Nicholas. It is said that naughty children find an onion.
Families also soak some wheat kernels on St. Nicholas Day, putting them in a small plate or saucer with a candle in the center. The wheat sprouts and is full and green by Christmas—new, young, and green in midwinter—as a symbol of Christ birth.
St. Nicholas was also the protector of Serbian kings, so many of the oldest Serbian Orthodox churches were dedicated to him. More than 600 churches are dedicated to Saint Nicholas in Serbia.