Celebrate St. Nick with a Serbian-style 'slava'



Hey baby . . . What's your slava?

If Don Juan had been Serbian, he might have tried that line.

Or so implies this one-liner (spotted on a website devoted to all things slava ) that gives a humorous nod to the idea that slavas are like astrological signs -- every Serb has one.

Slava, or Krsna Slava as it is sometimes called, is the treasured Serbian custom of celebrating the family's conversion to Christianity by honoring the family patron saint. As the joke implies, slava is such an integral part of Serbian culture that two Serbs, meeting for the first time, will often kick start the conversation by inquiring about their respective slavas.

Driven underground during Communist rule, slava celebrations are enjoying a popular resurgence among Serbians in their homeland and elsewhere.

Franklin Park residents Miroslav and Divna Djokic brought the custom with them when they came to the United States in the early '90s from their native Belgrade. Every Dec. 19 on the Greek Orthodox church's feast of St. Nicholas, they open their home to Serbian and non-Serbian friends alike for a traditional slava celebration.

Because it is in December, first-time guests often mistakenly think the Djokics' slava is a Serbian Christmas party. In fact, slava can occur at any time of year depending upon when the feast day of a family's patron saint falls.

The slava tradition dates to the ninth century when Sts. Cyril and Methodius traveled from village to village converting families and tribes from paganism to Christianity.

According to the website "Serbian History 101 with Baba Mim" (babamim.com/slava), tradition holds that Serbian families adopted a patron saint whose feast day was on or near their date of conversion. Patron saints are passed down through the male head of the household for generations. Families celebrate their slava on or near their patron saint's feast day.

The Djokics' present day slava is quite different from the ones she, a pediatrician with Primary Care Health Services, and he, a pathologist with UPMC, remember as children. When they were growing up in Communist-ruled Belgrade in the '70s, slava celebrations tended to be quieter affairs.

"Celebrating slava was not looked favorably upon by the Communist authorities in the former Yugoslavia," he said, "So I think most people in the cities, who had government jobs or jobs with big companies where they were at the mercy of Communist Party officials if they were seen as being overtly religious or nationalist, were like mine and celebrated slava in the nuclear family."

Today, however, many Serbians, including most of the Djokics' fellow parishioners at Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Baldwin, are embracing old-fashioned slava celebrations complete with church services, elaborate food and lots of friends and family.

"We've returned to the way it used to be in old times when it was really a major celebration," Mr. Djokic said.

The family's slava happens to fall during a fast period in the Greek Orthodox Church, so their celebration is meat-, dairy- and egg-free. But it retains most other aspects of traditional slava celebrations.

At its core, slava is a religious celebration, so the family begins the day with church services and Holy Communion. They keep an icon of St. Nicholas on a dining room wall and light a slava candle symbolizing Christ as the light of the world.

Some of the slava food goes to the church as well. Serbian families take the slavski kolach and the zito to be blessed by the priest.

Though the name literally means slava cake, kolach is actually a bread decorated with religious symbols -- often the dove of peace. Mrs. Djokic uses carved wooden stamps to decorate her family's kolach.

Zito is a boiled wheat cake that typically includes walnuts, nutmegs, cloves and honey. It is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ and of deceased family members. Mrs. Djokic places the zito on a platter accompanied by spoons and invites her guests to take a symbolic bite in remembrance of loved ones who have died.

Zito isn't the only slava dish in which nuts figure heavily.

"To have a good dessert, it has to have walnuts in it. There are no children with nut allergies in Serbia," Mrs. Djokic joked.

Her favorite dessert is suva pita, a baklava-like pastry that her mother and grandmother taught her to make.

Now she is teaching the old recipes to her children -- Milica, 13, Pavle, 11, and Maksim, 8. It is the passing on of family traditions that the couple said they value most.

"It represents the focal point of our family life," Mr Djokic said. "We're all looking forward to it. This is something that entails a lot of preparation. ... That kind of excitement and enthusiasm is something that I really like about slava ."

And in case you're wondering, the Djokics don't mind in the least when guests mistake their slava for a Christmas party. They're just grateful for the freedom to share this small slice of their homeland, Mr. Djokic said.

"It brings out the uniqueness of our family in this society. ... It's this little part of our tradition that we bring here that enriches society as a whole, just like other immigrant customs."



Sarma

These are rolled cabbage or grape leaves, but the fasting variant. Divna Djokic says some ethnic and specialty stores sell the whole pickled cabbage leaves in jars or frozen, but you also can substitute grape leaves.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1 cup rice
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 1 sour cabbage in whole leaves (or 1 jar grape leaves)
  • Water to cover

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a skillet. Saute onion for approximately 20 minutes or until golden.

Add sunflower seeds and rice to onion. Saute 5 minutes.

Add seasoning (salt, pepper, paprika) to taste to sunflower seed and rice mixture. Stir to combine.

Separate cabbage or grape leaves. Put 1 tablespoon rice mixture in center of cabbage leaf. Roll leaf closed. Repeat with remaining rice mixture and leaves.

Place stuffed leaves into deep baking dish. Cover with water. Cover with lid or aluminum foil.

Bake at 350 degrees for 2 to 3 hours or until leaves are soft and slightly golden.



LIMA BEANS GRATINEE-PREBRANAC (Serbian Style Baked Beans)

Divna Djokic's version is vegetarian to comply with the Advent fast. You can top the dish with bacon or sausage.

  • 1 pound large dried lima beans
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, sliced in thin circles
  • 2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons sweet paprika
  • 2 to 3 bay leaves
  • Reserved cooking water

In a large pot, bring lima beans to a boil. Boil 10 to 15 minutes and drain.

Add fresh water to cover beans by 2 inches. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer approximately 2 hours or until beans are tender. Drain, reserving water.

Heat olive oil over medium heat. Saute onion slices for 20 minutes or until golden.

Add garlic and seasonings to taste to onions. Mix well and sauté 1 to 2 more minutes.

Combine beans, onion mixture and reserved water in a deep baking dish.

Add bay leaves.

Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour or until top is golden and water is absorbed.

Suva Pita

  • 1 pound ground walnuts (you can can use a meat grinder to grind them)
  • 4 to 8 ounces raisins
  • 8 ounces plus 1 pound granulated sugar, divided
  • 4 ounces oil
  • 1 pound phyllo pastry sheets No. 4 (14-by-16 inches)
  • 16 ounces water
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced with peel

Mix walnuts, raisins and 8 ounces of sugar in a bowl.

In a deep dish, place 1 phyllo sheet. Sprinkle with oil. Repeat phyllo/oil layer twice more.

Layer next phyllo sheet. Sprinkle with 3 to 5 tablespoons of walnut mixture.

Layer next phyllo sheet on top of walnut mixture. Sprinkle with oil. Repeat phyllo/oil layer twice more.

Layer next phyllo sheet. Sprinkle with 3 to 5 tablespoons walnut mixture.

Alternate oil and walnut mixture layering process until walnut mixture is gone. The last layer should be 3 phyllo sheets sprinkled generously with oil.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In the pan, cut phyllo into 1-by-2-inch rectangles.

Bake until golden, around 30 minutes.

While suva pita is baking, boil water and 1 pound granulated sugar until sugar is dissolved and mixture starts sticking. Add lemon slices.

Pour warm sugar and lemon mixture slowly over baked suva pita. Let stand overnight.Cut into small pieces before serving.

-- Divna Djokic



CHOCOLATE BAJADERA

This is a non-fasting version.

  • 8 ounces granulated sugar
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons water
  • 5 ounces ground walnuts
  • 5 ounces ground petit beurre cookies
  • 4 ounces butter, unsalted
  • 8 ounces dark chocolate, divided

Bring water to a boil. Add sugar. Boil until sugar is dissolved.

Add ground walnuts, cookies and butter. Mix until dough forms.

Divide dough in half. Press dough onto an 8-by-16-inch piece of cardboard. A shirt box works well.

Melt 4 ounces dark chocolate. Mix thoroughly with remaining dough.

Spread chocolate mixture on top of light-colored dough.

Flip the bajadera so the chocolate mixture is on the top and the light dough on the bottom.

Melt remaining 4 ounces of chocolate. Spread a thin layer of melted chocolate on top of light dough layer.

Refrigerate, uncovered, overnight. Cut into 1-by-2 inch rectangles before serving.


Alisha Hipwell is a freelance writer living in Bradford Woods: ahipwell@zoominternet.net .




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