The Serbian word slava has several meanings: glory, glorification, fame of someone’s virtues or good deeds, gratitude, celebration, festivity in general, a day of celebrating a family’s patron saint, an annual church festival of a community, a village, a city or a monastery.
A family feast day venerating a patron saint, slava or krsno ime (literally, a christened name) is particular to the Orthodox Serbs, incorporating all the meanings of the word.
A family patron saint’s virtues are widely well known and his deeds on his way to God constitute a model for the family members. A saint is venerated and shown gratitude because, as an agent of god, he mediates in efforts of all those who wish to get close to God. A family patron saint’s day is normally a family celebration more important than any birthday or other similar festivity and is common to many.
The family patron saint’s day gathers not only all the living family members and friends, but also all the ancestors who venerated the same patron saint through centuries. Therefore, it is a festivity of remembering and a victory over death.
Patron saint’s day is not a festivity of an individual, but of a community. Taking an example from the family feast, now many trade companies, professional associations, schools, cultural, charity and other institutions and organisations, then military units or other various forms and types of “spiritual communities” have adopted a patron saint’s day. Of course, each church has its own patron saint’s day – a memorial of a saint whose name the church bears and to whom it is dedicated.
The origins of celebrating a patron saint’s day probably go back to the times when the Serbs adopted Christianity, with the help of the missionary work of Sts Cyril and Methodius, by the 9th century. St Sava introduced the patron saint’s day ritual into liturgy. Since then, the ritual and the customs that go along, have gradually formed.
The main point of the ritual is expressing gratitude and prayer to God, as well as invoking protection from the venerated patron saint. A priest says a prayer to bless the (boiled) wheat. During the ritual, the icon and a candle, the bread, the wheat and the wine prepared for the feast are frankincense fumigated, as well as the principal room where the celebration takes place, along with all the present members of the gathering, the family and the guests. Immediately after the ritual, without breaking the pace, the priest cuts the bread. Then hymns, troparions, are sung.
After a said prayer, the priest lowers the bread and starts cutting its bottom crust, making a cross movements, then pours wine onto it. While the hymns are sung, the priest, the host and all the present turn the bread clockwise. Then the bread is broken in two and the priest and the host kiss it three times, and the others follow suit.
The best of dishes are made for the feast – if it falls in the period of fasting, the dishes are without any animal or dairy products. Everything is marked by generous hospitality – hosts extend their hospitality to those who happen to call uninvited and has a special obligation to wait upon everyone all the time. The most celebrated patron saints in Serbs are St Nicholas, St George, St John the Baptist and St Michael.
The priest first says a prayer invoking Lord Jesus Christ to bless the offered bread and wine, saying the words three times, “Oh Lord Jesus Christ our God, bless this bread and wine with Thy Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages, Amen.” Then takes the bread with both his hands, lifts it up, turning to the icon, to the east, and says, “Oh Lord our God, we offer these in Thy Glory, and in honour of the Patron Saint, through whose intercession accept, Oh All-Gracious One this sacrifice at Thine heavenly oblation.”
While kissing the broken bread, the priest says, “Christ among us.”
And the family replies, “He is and will be.”