Sunday, November 26, 2017

Una Chicana en Serbia: Celebrating SLAVA

This past week while the U.S. was celebrating Thanksgiving, I was celebrating SLAVA in Serbia.  To Serbians, Slava is an ancient family tradition.  I was quite honored to be invited to a Slava because the ritual and celebration is considered a very intimate gathering only for family members, or those considered family.  So before I continue, I want to thank Dr. Aleksandra Izgarjan and her family for welcoming me and giving me permission to document their Slava. Hvala puno! 

Amelia y Aleksandra
Slava in Serbian translates to "Celebration."  In cyrillic, the word is written like this: слава.  It is a Serbian Orthodox Christian tradition celebrating one's patron saint. However, the ritual originally comes from Celtic roots, celebrating pagan gods, which I will explain later. Most Orthodox Christian families in Serbia claim a family saint that has been passed down through generations. In Aleksandra's family, their saint is St. Michael. Many other families also have St. Michael as their patron saint which made last week a very celebratory week in the region.  Serbians are expected to take a holiday from work and school to celebrate Slava. And since not all families have the same Slava, these celebrations occur at various times throughout the year.  Here's an example:
1. The Archangel, St. Michael:  November 21
2. St. Nikola: December 19
3. St. George: May 6

The celebration began with warm greetings of hugs and kisses. I have always loved this about Europe because such warm physical expressions mirror my Mexican heritage:  greetings with multiple kisses and hugs. After the lovely welcome, I was directed to this bowl below which is called the Slava Wheat bowl or "Koljivo."  Ingredients: ground wheat, nuts, cinnamon.  They gave me a spoon and invited me to taste. The wheat bowl is served to welcome while also acknowledging and remembering the deceased, bringing together all those living and dead.  Of course it reminded me of my Mexican/indigenous heritage when we eat "Pan de Muerto" during The Day of the Dead: all symbolic of life/death, renewal, love.  Following the ritual, I thanked my guests one more time, wished them a happy Slava, and tasted!  It had a lovely light cinnamon taste.  

Slava Wheat Bowl
After taking turns enjoying small spoonfuls from the Wheat Bowl we surrounded the main table where the bread loaves were placed next to each other. In Aleksandra's family, there were two loaves: one which is typical of the province of Vojvodina, to which Novi Sad belongs. This Vojvodina loaf is a sweet bread (the larger one). The second loaf is more typical of Serbian Slava celebrations. This Serbian traditional Slava loaf is always decorated with symbols: roses (which come from the pagan tradition of this celebration), a cross (coming from the Roman Orthodox tradition), and doves and a book may also be added. This particular Slava loaf, however, was made by the baby of the family (she is so creative, smart, and charming). For privacy sake, I am not including photographs of the family members.  See below this picture for a close-up of the smaller decorated loaf . . . 

Slava Bread

A child's version of Slava Bread

This delightful version above (made by a 4-year-old!) has little decorations on it that she wanted to include.  Her loaf has little whimsical snails, flowers (rose buds), turtles on top-- indeed, quite lovely!  

The next ritual:  The Blessing of the "Slavski Kolac" or Slava Bread. The family holds the loaf in unison and as a unit, moves the loaf in a circle. A prayer was recited by all in Serbian as the loaf was turned round and round.  Then, each person pulled off a piece of the loaf.  In the next three pictures, you see the elder in the family pouring red wine onto the loaf.  

During the celebration, there were many toasts. "Ziveli" means "cheers" in Serbian.  Other greetings or toasts on this day are:  "Srecna Slava, Domacine!" meaning "Happy Holiday, host!"  It's important to continually acknowledge the host, especially because they have been cooking for the past day or two to make this feast!


(Above) hummus, mushrooms, zucchini, and also pictured is part of the Slava candle.
 The candle is symbolic of light/strength and endurance.  

The Serbian table above:  Chicken, pork, grilled mushrooms, pickles. And for me (because I do not eat meat), tofu and hummus were also on the table.  Serbians are used to vegan-type dishes because during certain times of the year, they fast and eat a vegan/vegetarian  diet.  Below, are the kinds of candles used during Slava.  Here you have candles with St. Michael.  On the table above, you can see part of the candle (above the hummus). The candle is lighted and stays lighted for all of Slava.  It was indeed a lovely Slava. Of course, it also made me curious about the historical significance.  So I dig deeper into Slava meanings below.  

St. Michael
This picture (left) shows St. Michael's symbolic portrayal of justice: balancing the scales of justice in one hand and holding a sword in the other. These celebrations of saints have direct connections to Pagan gods.  I am thinking here of Chicana theoretical writings regarding Aztec, Mayan, Toltec, etc. godesses/gods (in what is now Mexico) who were then twisted, after Spanish colonization, into Christian iconography so that the colonized would more easily accept the new religion. In Serbia, the Romans colonized the Celtic peoples.  "Singidunum" ("circle or round fort") was the Celtic (Druid) name for Belgrade, Serbia (Celtics were first living in Singidunum as early as the 3rd century BC) before the Roman Republic colonized the Celts in 75BC.  (Click here for info on the Scordisci people.) With Roman invasion and colonization, the Celtic Sun god, Lugh, became the Roman saint, Michael.  I immediately think of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue who was transformed into La Virgen de Guadalupe when the Spanish colonized Tenochtlitlan (now known as Mexico City). The Romans and the Spaniards attached symbols associated with the gods Lugh and Coatlicue to St. Michael and La Virgen de Guadalupe in order to have their colonized subjects then easily connect one with the other.  Example: dressing La Virgen de Guadalupe in similar colors as Coatlicue.  

Below is a picture of St. Michael fighting the dragons (symbol of evil) and here also is a picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe fighting snakes (Catholic symbol of evil).  Coatlicue was the goddess of snakes, also called the "snake woman." To have the Aztec goddess ("snake woman") being killed off by La Virgen was just another visual to encourage the process of colonization.

I am currently living on land once Celtic, once Roman, and in very recent history-- once named Yugoslavia, then Serbia/Montenegro, now Serbia.  I am living on land where its people are currently in the midst of making meaning from the last thirty years of strife, genocide, colonization.  

In my last posting regarding "language," I wrote about how learning the Serbian language is also a lesson in learning how war and colonization create and re-create words and phrases-- each word holding within it a multi-layered history. Food, and celebration with food, also bears the same.  We carry with us so much that has been lost. I keep thinking of Gloria Anzaldúa's chapter in Borderlands/La Frontera, the chapter entitled, "La Concienza de la Mestiza/Towards a New Consciousness," where she writes the following:

El retorno
I stand at the river, watch the curving, twisting serpent, a serpent nailed to the fence where the mouth of the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf.
I have come back.  Tanto dolor me costo el alejamiento.  I shade my eyes and look up.  The bone beak of a hawk slowly circling over me, checking me out as potential carrion.  In its wake a little bird flickering its wings, swimming sporadically like a fish.  In the distance the expressway and the slough of traffic like an irritated sow.  The sudden pull in my gut, la tierra, los aguaceros, My land, el viento soplando la arena, el lagartijo debajo de un nopalito.  Me acuerdo como era antes. Una region desertica de vista llanuras, costeras de baja altura, de escasa lluvia, de chaparrales formados por mesquites y huizaches.  If I look real hard I can almost see the Spanish fathers who were called "the cavalry of Christ" enter this valley riding their burros, see the clash of cultures commence.  (111)

We cannot learn without acknowledging these historical moments.  We cannot celebrate without understanding why and how these celebrations came to be.  I say Hvala puno (thank you, very much) again to the Izgarjan familia for opening their hearts and home to me this week to celebrate Slava, to share in quite an ancient tradition that reaches far back to pagan Celtic rituals.  Gracias!


Unknown said...

So interesting and, as always, so beautifully written.

Amelia ML Montes said...

Gracias, Pat! I always appreciate your comments!