top of page

Some Serbian traditional customs you'll want to discover (part 2)

Serbia is believed to be a stunningly beautiful and a peculiar little country with a soul, its own customs and traditions which seem to be specific for the Serbs only with some minor variations in the Balkans surely. In a land where modernization and globalization tend to be rather sluggish, people are turning their attention to villages and a traditional way of life. In such circumstances , people have gotten close to each other and over time they seem to have formed new rites, ritual customs slightly different from those way back but still with the patina of the bygone times.

Serbs tend to be mainly Orthodox Christians, who seem to be very proud of their nation, history and religion. Many a family celebrate their own religious festivity, normally referred to as the Serbian "Slava", which was enlisted into the UNESCO protected cultural heritage list. It is a holy day dedicated to one particular saint, often referred to as 'crveno slovo' # a red letter day in our Orthodox religion church calendar. Funnily enough, the red letter day has nothing to do with The Scarlet letter, the book by an American author , Nathaniel Hawthorne and an eponymous US movie starring Demi Moore. ( In fact far from it , to be honest , since the scarlet letter in the book and the movie are the reference to shame and adultery.) Red letter day in Serbian culture is a holy day when one is not supposed to work, do the laundry, needlework and such but rather leave it for another day.

To get back to the Serbian slava in Serbian religious - cultural milieu, on that very day, family members and their nearest and dearest celebrate the day of their family saint. Saints of huge importance in the local culture tend to have an equally important slava day, such as Saint Nikola, Saint Jovan, Saint Archangel, Saint Sava (i.e. all state schools celebrate this saint on January 27the each month in a year), etc. The goals of every 'slava goer' is to see as many members of one's extended family and friends gather together in order to spend time together, go to church for the Church liturgija (the equivalent of which is the Mass in Roman Catholic Church) and in the evening to welcome quests (i.e.close friends and relatives into their home for the slava dinner ). Slava tradition tends to be passed on from father to son, in that the son ( or the daughter in some instances ) is given the right to celebrate his /her father’s slava (that is : once the father is too old to be the head of the family), all of which is a particular rite of passage in societal, cultural terms . Some newborn babies are named after the saints if they are born on that very day when they celebrate (for instance if someone is born on December 19th, i.e. on the Day of Saint Nikola, he or she will be named Nikola or Nikolina). The Serbs who are religious believers do believe the saints bring love and affection, good health, great success, peace and tranquility and 'many happy returns of the day'.

The birth of a baby is believed to be the happiest day in the life of every human being. There is a tradition locally dating back from yesteryear which may come across a little awkward to some of you , which goes like this: When a man fathers a baby i.e when his wife delivers a baby, an old Serbian custom is once they hear the good news, to tear off the man’s shirt to pieces for good luck that very night of the celebration of the baby birth. His best man often is the first person there to start with the 'shirt tearing'. The people at the celebration party literally take him by his shirt sleeves , collar and/or lapel and start 'savagely' pulling and tearing it to pieces until it turns to shreds. Mind you, most of the theatrics in this are done with an intentionally added dramatic stage effect just for the fun of it all. It is believed to bring good luck into the life of a newborn baby and the whole family.

Another quirky little local custom is as follows:

When a baby is born, a maternity ward nurse wraps a small red thread around its tiny wrist. There is a somewhat superstitious belief among the locals that the red thread protects the baby from bad luck and hmmmm witchcraft. Oh , yes, you heard it well... On a related note, there is a belief related to visiting a newborn baby and its mother for the first time after the childbirth . First of all, you need to wait for the proverbial 40 days before you decide to drop by, unless the mother of the baby says otherwise. It’s time for rest for the woman who has just delivered a baby to be able to withstand the pressure of birth and properly recover and for the baby to gain some physical strength. When you come and visit for the first time, there is a custom about the presents for the newborn baby. The gift should be made of gold (for instance a gold necklace, gold earrings or perhaps a gold bracelet) or alternatively a hefty sum of money). Visitors should put presents in the baby's cradle right next to the baby's body or underneath its cushion if the baby is asleep); it apparently brings good luck and wealth too.

And now let me tell you something about another local ritual related to water:

Water is key to everything on this planet which can seep and leak through every single little pore and meanders its way everywhere . Water is bound to make its way in its own way. There are so many proverbs and sayings related to water , one of which is even a Serbian equivalent to the English proverb *Still waters run deep - Tiha voda breg roni. Bearing that in mind, in Serbia there is an old custom about sprinkling a few drops of water along someone’s back for good luck and success. If you are a school boy or a school girl about to start a new school year, your parents should splash some water from the bowl full of water right behind you when you leave the house on your way to school . The same goes for university students and/or anybody about to set off on an important journey. Metaphorically speaking, water is ubiquitous on Earth. It flows around with ease, it winds around and meanders its way all around us. This minor local aforesaid ritual should be a sure sign that if your significant other sprinkles a few drops of water (or possibly a splash) after you, you should fare well too in whatever you decide to do.

And to round off this short snippet of Serbian rituals and customs , here is a list of a few Serbian proverbs and sayings:

1. Tiha voda breg roni - Still water runs deep

2. Od izvora tri putića - There are three little pathways from the water spring ( which is a metaphor for one's crossroads in life and difficult life decisions we make once we are given a choice or once we have life challenges to face up to

3. Voda sve opere do čista obraza . Water cleanses everything i.e exposes all the immoral dirt and immoralities but the scrupulous/morally clean/'pure' person ; obraz = cheeks, face

4. Duboka voda je bistra a plitka mutna - Deep water is clear and bright , whereas the shallow one is muddy. ( a metaphor for a deep, profound person is clear, bright, intelligent, philosophically deep, the shallow, narrow minded person is muddy/ unclear/ rotten/dirty/nasty /vulgar etc

*submitted by Marija Bačić , a student of tourism studies , University of Belgrade

*co-author, translation support & editing by Natasha from

1,455 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page