Slava: Hygge, Serbian-Style

In the past few years, many have started looking for advice up north in Scandinavia, especially Denmark, in order to help us cope with gloomy winters.

Denmark has a well-deserved reputation for great design and high quality of life, but it is hygge, a famously untranslatable lifestyle concept, roughly meaning something like cosiness, that makes many trendy Europeans scour lifestyle websites and coffee table books seeking advice on how to make their homes and lives more comfortable.

Often the advice centres on making things pleasant and enjoying the moment: taking bracing walks in the cold, decluttering, inviting friends over and lighting candles (fun fact: Denmark lights the most candles per capita in Europe).

This hype, of course, has reached Belgrade’s hipsterdom, and there is now even an indie DJ night dedicated to celebrating and creating hygge. While advice from the Nordics is always welcome, be it on making furniture, or building a fair and prosperous society, in Serbia we have our own local arrangements to make the winter merry and bright.

Here, slava reigns supreme.

Slava is a Serbian tradition of celebrating a family’s patron saint, commonly done annually in a family’s home. The tradition of celebrating slavas is an ancient one: it was allegedly devised in 11th century when Saint Sava, the first archbishop of the autonomous Serbian church, decided to strike a compromise between his flock clinging to ancestor worship and Christian theology.

After a period of suppression by the Communist party, when religion was frowned upon, slava is now ascendant and was even inscribed in UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in 2014.

Most Serbs celebrate slavas in autumn and winter, with Saint Nicholas (December 19), Saint Michael (November 21) and Saint John (January 20) among the most popular.

Although the history and ethnology of slava is fascinating, it is the actual fact of celebrating a slava that brings so much joy to the host family and guests.

Unlike the Danish obsession with light and fresh air, slava is strictly an indoor pursuit, as family and their guests (who are not invited, butoften just show up), huddle in dark, smoky rooms to escape the miserable weather.

Although customs vary between regions, and families, there are three staples of slava: a candle bearing an image of the saint, slavski kolac (a ceremonial bread) and zito (a delicious wheat and walnut based dish prepared in memory of ancestors).

If the slava falls on a fast day (which it often does) food is supposed to be posna (pesco-vegan). Alcohol, thankfully, is always present.

Given the importance of slava and many customs around it, things usually start out rather anxiously.

First, hosts normally toil for several hours to prepare various dishes to impress their guests, with special attention given to a dessert consisting of a variety of petit fours (sitni kolaci), the complexity and number of which, in the olden days, was a measure of the hostesses’ home-makingand, often, general ability.

If the slava is posna, then there is also an additional undercurrent of stress for the hosts stemming fromthe prohibition on meat and dairy, which, as connoisseurs of Serbian cuisine know, is a rather large task.

When the guests start arriving, occasionally joined by a priest to bless the house, there is a new wave of anxiety. Invariably, a know-it-all starts pointing out various inconsistencies with this or that custom, while the hosts have to nod and make excuses in trying to be nice to their guests.

Then there is often an awkward breaking of the kolac, which requires the whole group to get together and, in nine out of ten cases, either accidentally spill wine, break crockery, or cause a minor fire.

Although things start getting cosy after the first shots of rakija (ideally mulled) have calmed everybody’s nerves, awkwardness returns as the feasting commences and conversations start flowing. The topic is usually why single youths of marrying age in host family are still single, but then turns to other deeply personal things, ideally not shared in groups of people with whom one occasionally has only fleeting connections.

In line with Danish suggestion of using parlour games to bring about hygge, at slavas it is customary to start chatting about local and global politics to diffuse the situation. The enthusiasm for participation in this favourite slava pastime is usually inversely correlated with knowledge and positively correlated with amount of alcohol drunk, so it is soon that the most fanatical stories start floating around, with everybody chipping in with details of their favourite conspiracy theories.

As things start getting heated again, it is often that everyone just agrees that the world is a harsh place, and that the only things that matter are health, family and friends.

After this catharsis, petit fours, a quarter of which always turn out misshapen or worse, are forensically examined and recipes are exchanged. Late at night, the guests file out of the house rosy and merry, often ignoring the cold.

The next day, select guests return to discuss goings on from the last night over the surviving petit fours and coffee. The host family, freed from required fasting can then let their hair down, congratulate themselves on good hosting skill and can look forward to going to their friends’ slavas to be wined and dined.

Slava, like hygge, also travels well: no matter how much of an unaccomplished homemaker one is, people are keen to be entertained. Having served my friends in London a rather paltry dinner of corn bread, salad and homemade quince rakija (no petit fours, sadly) under a slava candle, they immediately invited themselves to the next one.

Who knows, maybe it will be soon that slava becomes the next great Serbian cultural export, like ajvar or the word vampire, filling the minds of trend-conscious middle-class homes around the world and making them obsesses over the walnut content of zito.

I certainly hope so, as attending slavas is the best winter pastime I can imagine, much better than hygge-induced obsessive candle lighting.

This post originally appeared in Belgrade Insight and was published on Balkan Insight portal (link)

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