Slava: a spiritual family reunion

2 slava dishes photo

 

A Slava day defines you, as a Serb

Where I come from, under the wing of the Orthodox Christian church, there is a custom which hinges on a saint’s identity and which is  I believe unique to the Serbian Orthodox faith. This is something that we know as “Slava”.

The word literally means “Celebration” – or maybe “Thanksgiving”. It is not an individual but rather a family celebration, and it is kept on the feast day of the patron saint of the entire family. The identity of this saint depends on the day on which the family celebrating the Slava first became Christians. The Slava of a family is something that unites the entire family under the banner of this commemoration of their first acceptance of their faith, and the same saint has been celebrated by individual families for centuries, for generations.

Even during the most suppressive of the Communist years, when the church was not popular and the people were hardly church-going on a regular basis, the Slava was kept – because in a  lot of ways it is embedded in a secular as well as a religious bedrock.

A Slava day defines you, as a Serb, in much the same way that keeping Seder would identify you as a Jew. There are celebrations and traditions which are passed down from generation to generation together with the icon of the family saint which is a treasured heirloom from the old to the young over the passage of decades and centuries.

In the traditional religious sense, on the day of the family Slava the family home is literally considered consecrated, if just for the day – it becomes a church, and the family within its congregation.

It is a day for the family to gather from near and far, traditionally at the home of the oldest living member of the family – the holder of the family icon. The gathered people, from great-grandparents to babes in arms, gather together to celebrate the existence of that family, to pray for the shining futures of the young ones, and to remember the ones who have passed from the family circle.

This is perhaps one of the most poignant and moving aspects of this tradition – the dead, the beloved ancestors, are not forgotten. The Slava has been called a “spiritual family reunion” by some, and while some may recoil from that, I think it is beautiful. In this church, in this culture, death has no dominion, and the grave does not sunder loved ones.

Those of us who have gone ahead are as present at these family celebrations as the noisiest of toddlers being kept a solicitous eye on by young parents. We are all one, we are family, we exist in a timeless place where there is always a memory. My own grandparents, two decades and more dead now, are as present to me on Slava days as if they were still sitting across the table from me at the family feast. I have loved them; they loved me; they live within me, always, under the blessing of the Slava.

The religious aspects of the celebration are – perhaps inevitably, given the identity of the celebrants – wrapped up and embedded in that feast. The family gathering generally culminates in a shared  smorgasbord which the women of the family labor for days to produce.

But there are two things on the menu that have deep religious and spiritual significance. One of them is the so-called “Slavski Kolac” (it’s pronounced “slavsky kolach”, and literally means Slava cake) which is a sort of bread baked specially for the occasion. It bears on its crust the sign of the cross.

But before you even get to the table you are greeted with a bowl of a special dish known as “Koljivo” (pronounced “kolyivo”) which is a dish made from wheat, nuts, sugar, and cloves. It is offered to visitors at the door in a bowl, and a spoonful is taken almost as a ritual greeting with “Sretna Slava!” (Happy Slava!) offered in return. The wheat has deep ecclesiastical meanings of its own – symbolizing such things as the Resurrection of Christ – but this is… a remembrance dish, made and offered and consumed in remembrance of all those who are only here with the family in spirit.

Every morsel of koljivo I take on November 11, my own Slava day, serves to take my mind back to those vanished and beloved grandparents whom I carry in my heart.

a slava feast and candleAnother of the Slava traditions is the candle – one that is supposed to have been purchased at the Church, or at least blessed by a priest, and which, once lit, is not permitted to be snuffed out. It must be allowed to burn down naturally  until it gutters out of its own accord. To do otherwise invites death into the family. (In practice, this has often meant that somebody has to sit up with the candle until the wee small hours,  until the moment it dies – leaving unattended open flames in a household, particularly one with (for instance) pets, is not a good idea and it needs to be supervised;

I have resorted, on occasion, to having the guttering candle tucked away in a metal foil nest in the bathtub in a bathroom firmly closed to unauthorized entry, if it persisted in still burning at two or three in the morning – but nothing on earth would  induce me to be practical and just snuff it out and go to bed. It must be allowed to burn down in God’s time, not my own.

Slava is passed on through the generations – but it gets complicated by intermarriage and the lineages of the families which celebrate different saints. It is usually the husband’s patron saint that the family takes on when a newly-wed couple choose their Slava – but the family icon is kept and treasured by the eldest member of the family and that only gets passed down to the next heir after he inherits the mantle of Eldest.

In my own family it was an interesting wrinkle that my grandmother and grandfather proved to have the same Slava day. This is very unusual, especially if the saint is a relatively minor one, and in this case the saint in question was St Avram, or Avramije – which translates into Abraham in the more westernized versions and when I was younger I was extremely puzzled for a long time as to what the Jewish biblical patriarch Abraham had done to deserve being turned into a Christian saint. But this was a different Avram, whose feast day fell on November 11, and my grandparents both held allegiance to him as their families’ patron saint –and thus he became ours.

This particular family, mine, has almost disintegrated in some respects – my grandparents had no sons, only two daughters, and each daughter produced a daughter in her turn, and one of those (my cousin) married a Jewish man, and so out of faith, and has only daughters herself in any event and the other (myself) married a relatively agnostic American and has no children who will ever embrace Slava. The two cousins, myself and my aunt’s daughter, both still keep Slava anyway, and our husbands have been trained to accept this and even to partake in it, being “adopted” into the family and the faith.

But after us, the branch grinds into dust because there is no son to inherit, no more generations to carry it further.

This “adoption” is partly possible because of the dual religious/secular nature of the celebration – because a big part of the family Slava is, well, family. And food. Traditionally anyone who calls at the door wishing the family a happy Slava must be fed; the women make appetizers and entrees, roast beasts of every stripe, and soups, and salads, and sweets of every description from tea cookies to rich cakes, and it’s all brought out and set out around the icon of the family saint, for the nourishment of the living and the souls of the dead. There is so much light, and love, and laughter, and remembrance.

It is truly a celebration, a celebration of life and of living, and it is a protection and a shelter against the onslaught of a world that does not care. FAMILY cares, and you will always have family – and the family will always have their Slava.

I will be celebrating once again, with the koljivo and the candle and the icon, come November 11. In honor of that St Avram on whose feast day, once, a long time ago, the distant ancestors whose blood now flows in my veins laid down their pagan beliefs and embraced Christianity. In memory of their blood and their bones, and the laughter and the loving arms of the grandparents who once loved me.

Happy Slava.

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What is Slava?

Where I come from, under the wing of the Orthodox Christian church, birthdays have long been secondary in importance to one’s “Imendan” (name-day) which is celebrated on the day that belongs to the saint after whom one is named.

It is in some ways akin to the naming rules of some religious more Western countries where it’s the Catholic faith that holds sway and whatever the actual name given to a baby might be, there has to be an honest-to-goodness saint’s name embedded in there somewhere. In Serbia, where I was born, the “Imendan” was the important personal celebration.

A Slava Dish photoBut more than that, there is another custom which hinges on a saint’s identity and which is I believe unique to the Serbian Orthodox faith. This is something that we know as “Slava”.

The word literally means “Celebration”  or “Thanksgiving”. It is not an individual but rather a family celebration, and it is kept on the feast day of the patron saint of the entire family. Continue reading

Slave’s novel a best seller, 150 years later

In 2002, a novel thought to be the first written by an African-American woman became a best seller. Called “The Bondwoman’s Narrative,” the book was signed ‘by Hannah Crafts.’

In a story in the New York Times, Julie Bosman notes that the novel “as praised for its dramatic depiction of Southern life in the mid-1850s through the observant eyes of a refined and literate house servant.”

But one part of the story remained a tantalizing secret: the author’s identity. That literary mystery may have been solved by a professor who says that the author was Hannah Bond, a slave on a North Carolina plantation owned by John Hill Wheeler.

Around 1857, Bond disguised herself as a boy and escaped, fleeing first to upstate New York and then to New Jersey, where she eventually married and found work as a schoolteacher.

The slave’s novel

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The Mything Links

A while back, Neil Gaiman wrote in the Guardian about ten mythological characters who haunt him.

One whom he singles out is Coyote, the Native American creator and trickster, a character dear to me as he appears in all four of my young adult Worldweaver series. He’s been an incredible character to write and a very difficult one to get a complete handle on – which is all as it should be.

But my own list of favorite characters from fable and mythology would also have to include:

Isis

She was one helluva capable multi-tasker as a Goddess – that, or nobody had a clue as to what she really was. In ancient Egypt, she was worshiped as the ideal mother/wife (the Ultimate Woman) as well as being in charge of such overwhelmingly sweeping subjects like Nature, and Magic. She is described as being a friend of the downtrodden – but she also apparently listened closely to the prayers of the aristocracy. She restores life to the dead.

And at least one source cites a popular image of her, suckling her son Horus, as something that the Christians picked up and transformed, like they did with so many pagan rites and images, into Mary suckling the Baby Jesus.

Isis is a Goddess motherlode. Dip in and you’ll find EVERYTHING you need, sooner or later. I kind of always admired that. It takes cojones to be all things to all people all of the time.

Bast

Keeping it Egyptian for the moment, Bast. Oh, come on. I see the Cat Goddess every day in my own domestic shorthair when she Strikes Up the Regal Pose – and then goes goofy in the very next moment.

There is something utterly irresistible in imagining the Egyptian depictions of the dignified Bast playing at the shenanigans that our beloved pets do – and I am certain Bast PLAYS. She’s a cat, after all.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Bast. And when one of my beloved cat companions passed, I wrote prayers in their name to the goddess who rules their kind and commended their souls into her keeping. In some ways, I believe completely in the existence of a goddess, or even just a spirit, who takes care of these creatures who were so loved during their time on earth when it comes their time to leave it. It makes it easier, in a way, to say gooddye.

Koschei the Deathless.

Him, too, I tossed into the soup in one of my books. How could I not use such an astonishing character, one who can only be killed by breaking a needle against his forehead – and the needle is in an egg – and the egg is in a duck – and the duck is in a rabbit – and the rabbit is in an iron chest – which is buried under a tree – which is on a lost island somewhere in the middle of a trackless ocean?

Vasilisa Prekrasnaya, or Vasilisa the Beautiful

She comes from Russian mythology and fairy tale. I was always particularly fond of the story where the three princes (the two older brothers and the proverbial Ivan, always the youngest of the three Russian princes in fairy stories) are asked by their father to shoot their arrows into the air – and where the arrows land, if there is an eligible bride waiting there, then that is whom they will marry.

The eldest of course gets a duke’s daughter; the second son gets a rich merchant’s daughter; the hapless Ivan shoots his arrow into the swamp and it is picked up by a frog whom he is then, by the decree of his father the King, obliged to marry. Shenanigans ensue when it turns out that she is in fact an enchanted princess and shows up the other brothers’ brides in ways that bring out an excess of schadenfreude which it was quite unseemly for me to feel as a young girl. I LOVED this story.

Dragons

Like Professor Tolkien, I crossed paths with the image and the concept of a dragon and after that I ‘desired dragons with a profound desire’.

It was dragons who pushed me into Anne McCaffrey. It was a dragon who ruled “The Hobbit”. Even the HBO version of Game of Thrones is much better with dragons. Dragons are something visceral and fundamental and dammit if they never existed *they should have done so*.

There was a ‘documentary’ that we had taped which covered the subject of dragons, of how some version of them appeared in just about every culture on Earth even when such cultures were widely separated by time and space – and the documentary treated them as UTTERLY REAL, as something that had to have existed in order for them to have left such a lasting impact on the human psyche everywhere.

We lent the tape of the documentary to someone who never gave it back and I am really sorry that we lost it, because it was a magnificent piece of filmmaking. It separated dragons into species (mountain dragons, forest dragons, water dragons…) and traced their relationships; it explored how dragons breathed fire and how they flew; it explored their lifecycle from eggshell to death, and told the story of how they became extinct in the end, just like the dinosaurs did.

There you go. An overview of a personal mythology Top Five.

What’s YOUR favorite myth? And who lives in it?”

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31-Day Blog Challenge, #28

FAVORITE RECIPE

At a certain time in the lives of every family of Serbian origin there comes a special day – their Slava day.

It stems from the day on which their pagan ancestors accepted the Christian faith – and every family has their own day, their own saint’s day, their own “slava” which literally means “celebration”.

For that occasion, something is made that has a deep significance on the day – something called “koljivo”. It is a dish made with wheat berries, and it is made in remembrance of the family members who may no longer be amongst the living – in memory of those who have gone, a spoonful of this wheat is offered to every visitor who steps across the threshold on this day. I love this thing, but because it’s so culturally significant it isn’t something that is made every day.

This is a dish of memory and remembrance and prayer; it’s an invocation of beloved ghosts. I will give you the recipe here but I advise making this on a special occasion you hold holy in your own culture and your own world – on a day on which you want to bring forth memory and have it bless a gathering of family and friends, like the gnarled old hand of a favorite grandmother.

The recipe itself is very simple.

You decide how much of this thing you want to make. Then you measure out equal amounts of wheat berries (bulgur wheat is good), sugar, and ground-up walnuts.

Set the sugar and the walnuts aside for now, and put the berries into just enough water to cover them, and bring to the boil. Let it boil for a couple of minutes, then discard that water, replace with fresh water, repeat the process. Do this three or four times – or until the wheat berries begin to soften. You’ll see them – and sometimes hear them – pop.

When they are ready, crush them into a paste – we traditionally use a meat-grinding thing where you pour the berries into the top opening and turn a handle and the mill grinds up and extrudes the well-cooked wheat into ropes of wheat puree – but I am guessing that more modern kitchens might do something similar with a blender or a food processor. The idea is to get a smooth even-consistency paste, however you achieve this.

When you’re done, mix the wheat paste with your sugar and your walnuts. It is optional whether you want to add some raisins in there – but it’s nice with them, so you might as well. Then you sprinkle on some clove powder – and here you have to use your own judgment, I LIKE it strong, but not everybody can cope with that, so use as much as you feel enhances your senses.

Mix it all together with a wooden spoon until you have an even texture, and refrigerate.
Blessings on everyone who uses this to celebrate some special day in their lives. Take a spoonful, wait for it to melt away on your tongue, and let the memories come.

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Asbestos-bound first edition of Fahrenheit 451

Cory Doctorow at BoinBoing reports that on eBay — a first edition of Bradbury’s anti-book-burning classic signed and numbered by the author — and bound in asbestos, to save it from the firemen depicted in the book…It’s in pretty rough shape, but it’s a much-sought-after rarity (albeit one that should be kept in an airtight plastic bag). Bidding starts at $600.

Asbestos edition of Fahrenheit 451

 

Alma Alexander

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