Serbian feast reflects rising religious nationalism

The celebration of the slava feast throughout Serbia blends secular, familial, and religious elements, but the observance is also increasingly tied to the Serbian Orthodox Church and nationalism, writes Sabina Hadzibulic in the journal Temenos (53:1), the journal of the Finnish Society for the Study of Religion. Besides Christmas and Easter, slava is the most important celebration in the life of every family, with historians tracing the celebration of a family’s patron saint back to medieval times. Hadzibulic writes that traditionally the slava meal started in the church, with a bishop or priest consecrating the bread, and then proceeded to each home (considered a “small church” in Orthodox tradition) where family and guests made prayers and toasts. Although the celebrations were suspended during the communist era, they have regained their significance post-communism, even transcending the private family sphere and becoming more public, especially because of their large size.

The slavas have entered the school system and, more recently, state universities, with more specifically religious meanings, such as the role of St. Sava in the nation’s history, raising objections from the Muslims of Western Serbia and others concerned about religious freedom. The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch and numerous church and government officials preside over one slava celebration in Belgrade as participants hold aloft icons and the cross of Jerusalem. At the ceremony’s conclusion, the mayor of Belgrade lights the ceremonial candle and carries the icon of the Ascension of the Lord into the building of the Municiple Assembly, where the celebration of the breaking of the bread follows. Hadzibulic concludes that the “revival and new visibility of the slava tradition has emphasized its religious and ethnic dimensions. It has become a channel to advocate nationalist ideas and conservative political attitudes, allowing no room for alternative identities, loyalties, and ways of belonging.”