Serbs are the people with rich tradition, who, due to various historical circumstances, faced great temptations to preserve it. However, many Serbian customs have been lost or suppressed over a long period of time. Today, in the changed circumstances, within the Serbian entity, there is a growing tendency to renew most customs and weave them into the context of modern life. The most common and well-known customs among Serbs are the customs of the life cycle, which are related to birth, baptism, marriage and death.
Slava, also called krsna slava and krsno ime (literally “christened name”) is the Serbian Orthodox tradition of the veneration and observance of the family’s patron saint. All Serbs celebrate Slava, every family has their own patron saint that they celebrate on the feast day. It is of pre-Christian origin.
The most common feast days are St. Nicholas (falling on December 19), St. George (May 6), St. John the Baptist (January 20), Saint Demetrius (November 8) and St. Michael (November 21). Given dates are by official Gregorian calendar. Serbian Orthodox Church uses Julian calendar that is late 13 days.
Vidovdan (“St. Vitus Day”) is a Serbian national and religious holiday, a slava (feast day) celebrated on 28 June, in use by the Serbian Orthodox Church to venerate St. Vitus. The Serbian Church designates it as the memorial day to Saint Prince Lazar and the Serbian holy martyrs who fell during the Battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Empire on that day in 1389. It is an important part of Serb ethnic and Serbian national identity.
Vidovdan is sacred to Serbian Orthodox Christians and the cult was especially active among the South Slavs, who had transformed the pagan Slavic god Svetovid into the Sicilian martyr who exorcized the evil out of Diocletian’s son. Through the centuries, Serbian historical events such as the defeat at the Battle of Kosovo became sources for spiritual strength and patriotism. It was not a coincidence that Gavrilo Princip assassinates the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Vidovdan, triggering the First World War.
The Serbs celebrate Christmas (Serbian diminutive form of the word “bog”, meaning god, it refers to Jesus being born as the son of god) for three consecutive days, beginning with Christmas Day. The Serbian Orthodox Church uses the traditional Julian calendar, as per which Christmas Day (December 25) falls currently on January 7 of the Gregorian calendar. This day is called by Serbs the first day of Christmas, and the following two are accordingly called the second, and the third day of Christmas. During this festive time, one is to greet another person with “Christ is born!”, which should be responded to with “Indeed he is born!”
This holiday surpasses all the other celebrated by Serbs, with respect to the diversity of applied folk customs and rituals. These may vary from region to region, some of them having modern versions adapted to the contemporary way of living. The ideal environment to carry them out fully is the traditional multi-generation country household. In the morning of Christmas Eve a Serbian Badnjak Oak is felled, and a log cut from it is in the evening ceremoniously put on the domestic fire. A bundle of straw is taken into the house and spread over the floor. The dinner on this day is festive, copious and diverse in foods, although it is prepared in accordance with the rules of fasting. Groups of young people go from house to house of their village or neighbourhood, congratulating the holiday, singing, and making performances; this continues through the next three days.
On Christmas Day, the celebration is announced at dawn by church bells and by shooting. A big importance is given to the first visit a family receives that day. People expect that it will summon prosperity and well-being for their household in the ensuing year; this visit is often pre-arranged. Christmas dinner is the most celebratory meal a family has during a year. A special, festive loaf of bread is baked for this occasion. The main course is roast pork which they cook whole by rotating it impaled on a wooden spit close to an open fire. It is not a part of Serbian traditions to exchange gifts during Christmas. Gift giving is, nevertheless, connected with the holiday, being traditionally done on the three consecutive Sundays that immediately precede it. Children, women, and men, respectively, are the set gift-givers on these three days. Closely related to Christmas is New Year’s Day by the Julian calendar (January 14 on the Gregorian calendar), whose traditional folk name is Little Christmas.
On Easter people greet each other with “Christ is risen!” and the reply “Indeed he is risen!”. Decorating eggs is a very strong tradition, as well as the game of egg tapping.
Traditionally, honoured guests in a Serbian home are greeted with bread and salt and/or a spoonful of slatko. Furthermore, it is common for guests to bring something sweet to the host when going on a visit, even if they’re only stopping by for a short time.
Serbian has a long tradition of humour and popular jokes. The most common type of humour is Black Humour and Serbian jokes are often imitated by other peoples from the Balkans, often with a twist. As with many other peoples, there are popular stereotypes on the local level: in popular jokes and stories, northern Serbs of Vojvodina (Lale) are perceived as phlegmatic, undisturbed and slow; Montenegrins are lazy and pushy; southern Serbs are misers; Bosnians are raw and simple; Serbs from Central Serbia (Sumadija) are often portrayed as capricious and malicious, etc. Also, policemen and blondes are mocked as being stupid.
Despite the occurrence of vampiric creatures in several ancient civilizations, the folklore for the entity known today as the vampire originates almost exclusively from early 18th-century Serbia, when oral traditions of the region were recorded and published.
After Austria gained control of northern Serbia, with the Treaty of Passarowitz in 1718, officials noted the local practice of exhuming bodies and “killing vampires”. These reports, prepared between 1725 and 1732, received widespread publicity. The English term was derived (possibly via French vampyre) from the German Vampir, in turn derived in the early 18th century from the Serbian word vampir.
Disunity and discord
Disunity and discord have acquired in the Serbian popular imaginary a notorious, quasi-demiurgic status. They are often perceived as being the chief malefactors in Serbian history, causing political or military defeats, and threatening to tear Serbian society completely apart, often quoted as the source of Serbian historic tragedies, from the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. Even the contemporary notion of “two Serbias” – one supposedly liberal, pro-western and pro-European, and the other conservative, nationalist, Russophile and Eurosceptic – seems to be the extension of the said discord. Popular proverb “two Serbs, three political parties” and even the unofficial Serbian motto “Only Unity Saves the Serbs” illustrate the national frustration with the inability to unite over important issues.
Serbian epic poetry
Serbian epic poetry is a form of epic poetry created by Serbs originating in today’s Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and North Macedonia. The main cycles were composed by unknown Serb authors between the 14th and 19th centuries. They are largely concerned with historical events and personages. The instrument accompanying the epic poetry is the gusle.
Serbian epic poetry helped in developing the Serbian national consciousness. The cycles of Prince Marko, the Hajduks and Uskoks inspired the Serbs to restore freedom and their heroic past. The Hajduks in particular, are seen as an integral part of national identity; in stories, the hajduks were heroes: they had played the role of the Serbian elite during Ottoman rule, they had defended the Serbs against Ottoman oppression, and prepared for the national liberation and contributed to it in the Serbian Revolution.
The gusle instrumentally accompanies heroic songs (epic poetry) in the Balkans. The instrument is held vertically between the knees, with the left hand fingers on the neck. The strings are never pressed to the neck, giving a harmonic and unique sound. There is no consensus about the origin of the instrument, while some researchers believe it was brought with the Slavs to the Balkans, based on a 6th-century Byzantine source. Teodosije the Hilandarian (1246–1328) wrote that Stefan Nemanjic (r. 1196–1228) often entertained the Serbian nobility with musicians with drums and “gusle”. Reliable written records about the gusle appear only in the 15th century. 16th-century travel memoirs mention the instrument in Bosnia and Serbia.
It is known that Serbs sang to the gusle during the Ottoman period. Notable Serbian performers played at the Polish royal courts in the 16th- and 17th centuries, and later on in Ukraine and in Hungary. There is an old mention in Serbo-Croatian literature that a Serbian guslar was present at the Polish court in 1415.
The traditional folk dance is a circle dance called kolo, which is common among Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians. It is a collective dance, where a group of people hold each other by the hands dancing, forming a circle (hence the name), semicircle or spiral. Similar circle dances also exist in other cultures of the region. The most popular kolos are Uzicko and Moravac.
Dancing tradition in Serbia is represented by various styles of dances in the country. As with other aspects of Serbian culture, different forms of dances originated in different parts of Serbia,developed according to the local traditions and also acquired elements from other parts of the country.
The Serbs are a highly family-oriented society. A glance into a Serbian dictionary and the richness of their terminology related to kinship speaks volumes.
A special place in family relations is occupied by one person who is not blood related to anyone in the family – “kum”, the godfather. Kum is the protector of the family, and “kumstvo” is a spiritual kinship. This custom is known to all Slavs and originates from pre-Christian times. Kum used to be a mediator between the family and the ancestors, and the Church connected the tradition to Saint John the Baptist – the godfather of Christ. “I declare you my kum by the God and Saint John” would be said when someone was asked to be a godfather. Traditionally, kumstvo can never be refused. Kum should be present in all important events – at the wedding, as well as at the baptism, when giving the name to the child. The godfather takes care of the spiritual path of his godchildren. Kumstvo is inherited and transferred, but sometimes, if it is unsuccessful, it can be terminated. A neighbour is never taken as a kum – with whom one can always quarrel, and kumstvo is sacred. “Godfather, then God” – used to be a saying in some parts of Serbia, while in others they were more moderate – “What God is in heaven, the Godfather is on Earth”.