Part III: The Serbian Community of Cleveland
Serbia has many national and religious holidays replete with unique rituals and customs. These celebrations played an important role in the survival of the Serbs in the past, particularly during those centuries when the nation was enslaved by the Turks. At times, festive events were used to organize uprisings against the Turks. However, some of the events are purely religious and celebrated among Christians everywhere. Yet even such holidays as Christmas and Easter have aspects unique to the Serbian culture.
Since Serbian liturgy follows the Julian calendar, Christmas is celebrated January 6. Although many Serbs have adopted the modern custom of displaying a Christmas tree with family presents beneath, the old traditions are cherished and still practiced. In many homes the father awakens the children early Christmas Eve to help him bring in the badnjak (oak branches and logs) from the woods, after which comes one of the most exciting features of Christmas – the barbecuing of a pig on the open fire outside the house. In the Orthodox faith, one is not allowed to eat meat or dairy products on Christmas Eve, so it is a torture to watch and smell that succulent pork and not be able to eat it until after midnight. Supper, however, is rich and plentiful. Twelve main courses, delicious though meatless, are placed on the table when the family returns from the long Christmas Eve vesper services. These services are an opportunity for people to visit with others whom they may not have seen since Easter. On both holidays, the church is crowded; many people attend only on special occasions.
Another custom in the home is to scatter straw about the floor of each room and then to form a cross of straw on the supper table symbolizing the stable in which Christ was born. Also, the father carries badnjak from room to room, saying prayers to protect his household from evil and sickness.
A Serbian table on Christmas Eve is set with the bozicnjak –a cake with various designs and pictures rolled out of dough baked on the cake top. Fruits and nuts are placed around the cake, symbolic of the fruits of the earth. A candle is set alongside its holder filled with grains, and a dish of wheat, planted on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 19, completes the setting.
Christmas Day is strictly a family day; one is not supposed to go visiting. A special kind of bread called chesnitsa with honey on top is baked for Christmas Day dinner, and a silver coin is hidden inside the bread. At dinner, the housewife breaks the chesnitsa into pieces, serving one to each member of the family and setting aside a piece for a poor traveler should he knock upon the door. Whoever is lucky enough to get the piece with the coin inside, has good fortune for the year long.
St. Sava’s Day
St. Sava relinquished his father’s throne in the 12th century to become a monk. Through his wisdom and patience as a spiritual leader, both the Serbian church and nation grew and prospered. After his death, his grave became a place of veneration for the Serbian faithful. He became a saint and a legend even for the moslems. This so enraged the Turks that they exhumed his body and burned it, hoping to destroy every vestige of him. Instead, his fame spread and he is still revered by Serbs around the world. His feast day is January 27th.
In addition, in Cleveland, the Serbians celebrate their favorite saint within the Serbian community. These programs are customarily prepared by the Sunday School teachers.
Serbian Easter differs little from the way other Christians celebrate Christ’s Resurrection. On Lazarus Saturday, eight days 173 before Easter, instead of palm branches symbolizing Christ’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, the Serbian Orthodox bless pussy willow branches and distribute them after the church service. On Easter Sunday Serbian parents rise before their children to hid ornately decorated eggs in unlikely places in the yard and garden. As soon as the youngsters get up, they grab their baskets and hunt for the eggs and chocolates the Easter Bunny has left them for being good children. After church services, they break the eggs.
St. George’s Day (Djurdjevdan)
Like Easter, St. George’s Day signifies the beginning of Spring. The ritual involved in the festivities is related to the legend of St. George and the Dragon. st. George is pictured as a brave young knight on a beautiful white horse. As the story goes, the towns-people-are obliged to surrender a lovely maiden each year to the dragon or suffer dire consequences. St. George slays the dragon with his spear, saves the maid and delivers the town from future sacrifices.
In Yugoslavia, villagers would go to the woods on St. George’s Day, May 6th, and gather greens to decorate their homes and yards. Young men would rise early in the morning and ride their horses through the village seeking the company of pretty girls. This outing was called uranak, which translates roughly into English as early rising. In Cleveland, uranak is usually celebrated with singing, dancing and picnicking.
This holiday commemorates the loss of the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1389. With that battle, the Serbs lost their independence to the Turks. Although the Serbs knew they were heavily outnumbered, they chose to lose their lives rather than their dignity. In Serbian literature, the “Kosovski Ciklus” (Cycle of Kosovo) describes this battle and the courage of the Serbs who died defending their freedom.
The story is told that on the eve of the battle, Tsar Lazar, leader of the Serbian forces, sent a spy to discover the position and number of Turkish armies. On his return, the spy reports:
“Da se svi mi u so pretvorimo, Ne bi Turkom Zasolili Rucka.” Translated loosely, this means, “There are so many Turks out there that, should we turn into salt, we would not be able to salt their dinner.”
Before World War II, ‘Vidovdan was the last day of school in Serbia, and students received their report cards and awards in a special ceremony. Communist Yugoslavia no longer celebrates this historic day. Legendary Kosovo is now an autonomous province where Serbs are powerless and the Albanian minority prevails.
Cleveland Serbs celebrate Vidovdan with enthusiasm. Serbian Sunday School children receive their diplomas now just as they did at the turn of the century. After the ceremony in the church and school, the people move to the St. Sava picnic grounds for singing and dancing, and refreshments late into the night.
Serbian Njegos Day
Njegos Day began in 1935 when Serbs from. all over America and Canada came to Cleveland during Labor Day weekend to join Cleveland’s Serbs and Slovenes in dedicating the Yugoslav Cultural Gardens of Rockefeller Park. The Serbs erected a statue of the noted Petar Petrovic Njegos, bishop, poet and statesman, in the Cultural Gardens. Each year, on Labor Day weekend, Serbs from near and far convene to pay homage at the Njegos statue. Afterwards, celebrating continues at the St. Sava picnic ground with music, soccer games and refreshments. Hot barbecued lamb and pork are the special treats of this day.
Serbian Unification Day
The origin of this event goes back to World War I. The Kingdoms of Serbia and Crna Gona (Montenegro), working together against Austria-Hungary, decided to unite under one crown. On November 26, 1918, the Montenegrin National Assembly voted to join the Kingdom of Serbia and this date was generally accepted among the Serbs in all parts of Yugoslavia to be Serbian Unification Day. It was first celebrated locally in 1973, under the auspices of the Council of Serbian Organizations of Cleveland.
Next to Christmas, Slava is the most festive day in Serbian homes. Serbs became Christians in the eighth and ninth centuries, and the Slava refers to the saint’s day on which the particular family accepted Christianity. The household is placed under the spiritual protection of that saint. Slava celebrations are held the year around. Some of the best known Slavas are St. Jovan (John), January 20th; St. George, May 6th; St. Paraskeva (Petka), October 27th; St. Michael the Archangel November 21st and St. Nicholas, December 19th.
The Serbian family displays an icon of its patron saint on the eastern wall of a room with kandilo (an ornamental, oil filled glass) hanging in front of the icon and a branch of badnjak (oak) behind the image. Family members pray before the image, especially during times of difficulty.
In celebrating the Slava, the first order of the day is to take the slavski kolac (Slava bread) to church to be blessed. In the evening the feast will take place. As friends and relatives arrive, they greet the host with “Srecna Slava!” (Happy Slava), after which it is the custom to “kiss each member of the family on both cheeks. The hostess then offers the guests zito (wheat), a specially prepared wheat which is cooked, ground, mixed with ground nuts, sugar and spices and decorated ornately on top. Before tasting this delicacy, the guest makes the sign of the cross. No expense is spared in the feasting that follows.