Serbia, officially known as the Republic of Serbia since 2006, is an Eastern European country with a population of around seven million people, bordering Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, among other nations. Serbia’s capitol city, Belgrade, is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and the largest city in Serbia. The Serbian nation has a rich history, having undergone many changes throughout medieval age, the reign of the Ottoman Empire, the Balkan Wars, the World Wars, and the Cold War. Throughout this time, Serbia has developed and maintained a unique and fascinating culture, in terms of religion, writing, hospitality, cuisine, and more. If you are traveling to Serbia, studying the Serbian language, or you’re simply interested in the customs of the Slavic world, learning about Serbian culture will teach you more about life in this fascinating country.
Serbia is a predominantly Christian nation. More specifically, about eighty-five percent of the population belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Additionally, about five percent of the population is Roman Catholic, while about three percent is Muslim. The people of Serbia began to be converted from pagan religions to Christianity in the early years of the seventh century, along with the other inhabitants of modern Slavic countries. A small population of Serbians converted to Islam under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, though today Christianity is without a doubt the most recognized religion in the country. The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of several facets of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and the Serbian Orthodox Church is the second oldest Slavic Orthodox church, after that of Bulgaria. Orthodox churches are found all over the Serbian nation, with some structures dating back to the medieval period. Peter’s Church, located in Stari Ras, Serbia, is the country’s oldest church, as well as a World Heritage site.
In Serbia, lunch is considered the most important meal. Today, Serbians eat three meals a day, but the concept of a breakfast meal was not adopted in Serbian culture until the late 1800’s. Due to Serbia’s location and its bordering regions, the cuisines of the country is a unique blend of Eastern European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern food. The national dish of Serbia is called Ćevapčići. It consists of ground meat patties, which are prepared with heavy seasoning and served hot, in the form of kebabs, gyros, or on their own. Other traditional Serbian foods include: podvarak, roasted meat served with sauerkraut; Serbian salad, made with feta cheese and fresh vegetables like cucumber and tomatoes, seasoned with oil and hot pepper; Sarma, usually minced meat wrapped in chard or cabbage leaves; and Česnica, a traditional Serbian bread most often prepared on Christmas. Serbian people often prepare food in their homes rather than purchasing it from a grocery store; a popular example of this is the process of pickling food, which many Serbians will do themselves instead of buying pickled goods.
The national drink of Serbia is called rakija. It is a kind of brandy made from fermenting plums, the way grapes are fermented to make wine. Rakija is often referred to by the name of a popular brand of the drink, Slivovitz. Beer is very popular and widely consumed in Serbia, as is Turkish coffee, which is popular throughout the entire Balkan region. Turkish coffee is brewed and served with coffee grounds still in the coffee; the grounds are left to settle at the bottom of the coffee cup.
Though modern Serbian literature features a variety of well-known authors and genres, the most prominent aspect of the Serbian literary tradition is the country’s history of epic poetry. Epic poetry, one of the earliest forms of literature, is still being written in Serbia today, and this type of writing dates back to the fourteenth century in Serbia. These epic poems describe historical figures, famous events, Serbian mythology and religion, and celebrated battles or wars. A popular example of epic poetry material is the Battle of Kosovo, a struggle between Serbian and Ottoman forces that occurred in 1389. The poems are often performed to musical accompaniment, like folksongs, and dancing often occurs as well, but there is also a huge canon of written epic poetry that Serbians, and people around the world, read privately.
The most popular form of dance in Serbia, and throughout the Balkans, is known as kolo. Kolo is folk dancing, in which several people, a minimum of three but as many as dozens, stand in a circle, wrap their hands around each other’s waists, and perform a series of synchronized steps. This kind of dancing is often seen at weddings and other social and cultural events, and it is accompanied by music of the same name, which is normally played with an accordion.
In Serbia, if you visit someone’s home as a guest, you will most likely be welcomed into the house by the host presenting you with a spoonful of slatko. Slatko is a preserve, like a jelly or jam, made from fruits or rose petals. Slatko is often made with strawberries, plums, and cherries. Guests in a home are usually given a spoonful of slatko and a cup of water to wash it down. In a similar sense, if you are visiting someone’s home, it is common to bring something sweet with you as a gift to the host, even if the visit is to be of a short duration. This tradition of guests and hosts exchanging sweet foods is upheld all over Serbia today.
Though Serbians observe many religious traditions shared with other Orthodox churches, the tradition of Slava is exclusively practiced in Serbia. Slava is a religious tradition in which each family has a specific patron saint. Family life is very important to Serbians, and a lot of emphasis is placed on family activity and togetherness. Each family celebrates the feast day of their patron saint annually, paying homage to and venerating that particular saint by celebrating and preparing food and drink. In other Orthodox cultures and churches, name days are celebrated on an individual basis; if someone is named after a specific saint, a celebration is held on that saint’s feast day for that individual, much like the way a birthday is celebrated. Only Serbians observe a name day on a familial, cohesive basis, rather than individually.
The religious concept of pobratimstvo refers to an Eastern Orthodox ceremony in which men are bonded and thereafter considered ‘blood brothers.’ It is a way of two non-related people to establish and recognize relationship that is as meaningful and close as that of literal brothers. This practice was common during the time of the Ottoman Empire in the Slavic areas of what is now Eastern Europe. It was most often used to bond together soldiers of the same regiment or group, to emphasize a spirit of brotherhood that would help them face battles and enemies together.
This is just a peek into the fascinating culture of the Serbian nation. The culture of Serbia is related to the culture of its neighbors, including Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria, all of which have rich histories and traditions. The practices and traditions of the Orthodox Church, as well, are found throughout the European continent near the Balkans and the Mediterranean. If you are interested in the country of Serbia, any of these customs, or Eastern Europe in general, learning more about the language and people of Serbia will develop your knowledge of this interesting country, and prepare you for potential travels there.