THE SERBIAN SLAVA
by Lev Puhalo
Most non-Orthodox Christians, with very few exceptions, celebrate the day of their birth in a non-religions, non-liturgical manner, usually placing it second in importance to their Christmas and, often, higher than their Easter. Orthodox Christians seldom give their birth date more than a passing notice. For the Orthodox, everything centres on Christ and His Holy Church. The "personal feast day" of the year is not the date of birth, but rather the feast of God's Saint after which one is named. This day is called the "name day", the Imeneny of the Russians, and it is kept in one form or another throughout the Holy Orthodox Christian Church as a feast of deep spiritual meaning.
In addition to the name day, the Serbs have a very special variation of this wonderful tradition. With them, the name day is not an individual event, but rather a family affair. The feast is called, in Serbian, Slava (Thanksgiving or Glory-giving) and is kept on the feast day of the patron Saint of the entire family. The special spiritual depth of the Slava can only be understood when one realizes that the family celebrates it on the feast day of the Saint which has been the special patron of that family for centuries - ever since the family became Christian. For generations, the patron Saint's day has been a special uniting force in the family, bringing it together to give glory and thanks to God the Creator and Saviour.
On the day of the Slava, the home becomes "a church in miniature and the family becomes the congregation, reminding us that the Church is a family magnified". It is the tradition for all members of the family to gather, usually at the home of the eldest living member of the family, to commemorate the patron Saint, to glorify God and to pray for all members of the family, both the living and the reposed. This is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of the Slava: that it celebrates the unity of Christ's Church both on earth and in heaven. The Slava is a sort of spiritual family reunion. Those who are not present in fact are present in spirit; not only living family members who are unable to he present, but also the forefathers of the family who have fallen asleep in Christ, faithful to His Holy Church. The grave does not separate Orthodox Christians one from another.
The Slava is a purely religious celebration and this is epitomized by the slavsky kolach (slava cake) - a special version of the Paschal Kolach (Kulich in Russian) which is baked for the occasion and which bears the family's prosphora seal with the sign of the Cross and the anagram for "Jesus Christ is our victory". The kolach also bears representations of the dove of peace and of the first-fruits of the harvest. When the slavsky kolach is placed on the table, a bowl of kolyivo is placed next to it. Kolyivo (kutiya) is made of boiled wheat mixed with honey and spices. The wheat, of course, symbolizes the Resurrection of Christ and, by that, the hope of resurrection vouchsafed to all who dwell within His Holy Church. The kolyivo, consisting of wheat gathered up and set apart for the feast, also symbolizes the oneness of all true Orthodox Christians everywhere, gathered together and set apart from the rest of the world.
Often, an ikon of the family patron is placed on the table next to the kolach and the kolyivo. The local priest is called to come and bless the home and all those present, offering prayers for the health and well-being of those unable to be present and for the peaceful repose of the forefathers of the family. The highlight of the feast is the service of the Thanksgiving Prayer(molieben) which is served by the priest before the ikon of the family patron saint.
There is a very interesting true story concerning the family ikon left to us by the late archpriest David Popovich who served for many years as the priest at the Serbian church in Youngstown, Ohio. The following article contains this story [Family Icon].