Traditions and customs of Serbia

What traditions and customs are there in Serbia?

Before part of Serbia and Montenegro, we see the customs and traditions of Serbia.


Food in daily life

The staple foods of the Serbian diet are bread, meat, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Breakfast usually consists of eggs, meat, and bread, with a dairy paste called kajmak. Lunch is the main meal of the day and is usually eaten around three in the afternoon. A light dinner is eaten around 8:00 PM

Bell peppers are a common ingredient in many dishes. The national dish, called cevapcici, are small meat burgers, highly spiced and prepared on the grill. Other Serbian specialties are proja, a type of cornbread; gibanica, a thin, crunchy pastry often served with cheese and eggs; sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with meat; and djuvéc, a vegetable stew.

Pita (a type of strudel) and palacinke (pancakes) are popular desserts. Coffee is prepared in the Turkish style, boiled down to a thick, potent liquid, and served in small cups. A fruit concoction called sok is another favorite drink. For alcohol there is beer and a fruit brandy called rakija.

Food customs on ceremonial occasions

The Christmas party is a very elaborate occasion. On Christmas Eve, people eat Lenten foods (no meat or dairy) and drink hot punch (hot brandy with honey). The next day, the meal usually consists of roast pork and a round loaf called cesnica.

On Krsna Slava, the day of a family’s patron saint, another round bread, called kolac, is served, as well as zito, a sweetened boiled wheat dish. For Easter, boiled eggs are a traditional food. The shells are dyed and decorated with elaborate designs.


Wedding celebrations often last for days. Before a couple enters their new home for the first time, the bride stands in the doorway and picks up a child three times. This is to ensure that the marriage is blessed with children. Marriages are generally not arranged. Under Titus, women gained equal rights in marriage and divorce became easier and more common.


Kisses are a common form of greeting, for both men and women. Three kisses, alternating cheeks, are usual. Serbs are hospitable people and love to visit and chat. Upon entering a home as a guest for the first time, one usually brings a small gift of flowers, food, or wine.

It is also customary to remove your shoes and put on a pair of slippers before entering the house. Hosts are expected to serve their guests; slatko, a sweet strawberry preserve, is often offered.


Religious beliefs

Sixty-five percent of the population belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Nineteen percent are Muslim (the majority of these people live in Kosovo, and most are Sunni, although there are also some Shiites); four percent are Roman Catholic; one percent are Protestant; and the remaining 11 percent practice other religions.

Before World War II there was a sizeable Jewish population. It was reduced from 64,405 in 1931 to 6,835 in 1948.

Many of those who did not die in the Holocaust immigrated to Israel. Today the Jewish population is about 5,000, organized into 29 communes under the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia. The Eastern Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054, in what became known as the Great Schism.

Many of the fundamental beliefs of the two churches remain the same, with the fundamental difference that the Eastern Orthodox religion does not recognize the authority of the Pope. Instead, they have a group of patriarchs who have equal status.

The Serbian Orthodox Church was founded in 1219, and its rise was linked to the rise of the Serbian state at that time. A central figure in the church is Saint Sava, the brother of Stefan Nemanja, the first king of Serbia. Since its founding, the church has promoted Serbian nationalism and fought against the dominance of the central authority of the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople.

Religious professionals

The patriarchs hold the highest position in the Eastern Orthodox Church and are responsible for most official decisions. Priests are the main religious figures in the community and are responsible for conducting services and advising their parishioners.

Unlike Roman Catholicism, they are allowed to marry. There are also monks, who are celibate. Only monks, not priests, can obtain the position of bishop.

Rituals and sacred places

Religious ceremonies are held in churches, elaborate and beautifully designed buildings, many of which date back hundreds of years. Each family has a patron saint, who is honored once a year in a grand celebration called Krishna Slava.

A candle is lit in honor of the saint and special foods are eaten, including round bread kolac. A priest comes to the house to bless it with holy water and incense. The family and the priest stand in a circle around the kolac and sing a special song.

Christmas (celebrated on January 6 and 7 in the Eastern Orthodox Church) is an important holiday. Christmas Eve, called Badnje Vece, is celebrated with a huge bonfire in the cemetery and the singing of hymns. On Christmas morning, a selected young man knocks on the door and “brings Christmas into the house” by sticking a stick in the chimney.

The number of sparks that are released predicts how lucky the family will be in the coming year. Easter is also a big holiday. In addition to church services, they are celebrated with dying eggs and traditional kolo dances.

Death and the afterlife

Funerals are large and elaborate occasions. In the cemetery, in honor of the deceased, a plate of salads and roasted meats is presented, which is repeated one year after death, at which time the tombstone is placed in the ground. Headstones often bear photographs and inscriptions.

Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in heaven, hell, and purgatory, a concept of an afterlife in which one is rewarded or punished according to their actions in this life.

Secular celebrations

The main secular celebrations are: New Year, January 1; International Labor Day, May 1; Uprising Day in Serbia, July 7; and Republic Day, November 29.

The arts and humanities

Arts support

The communist government had a fairly strict censorship policy, but state-approved artists did receive funding. Today, there is practically no funding (public or private) to support the arts. The National Theater in Belgrade hosts ballet performances. There are also traveling folk groups that perform throughout the country.


Serbian literature has its roots in the epic poetry of Kosovo from the 13th century. The 19th-century Serbian poets Jovan Jovanovic Zmaj and Djura Jaksic gained prominence beyond the nation’s borders. Contemporary Serbian writers include Milorad Pavic, Vladimir Arsenijevic, and Ivo Andric, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 for his novel Bridge Over the River Drina.

Graphic arts

Serbia is known for its wool, linen and hemp fabrics. These materials are also woven into rugs in complex geometric patterns. The decoration of Easter eggs is another form of traditional art. They are colored with natural dyes and adorned with intricate patterns and designs.

Many churches and monasteries are decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Contemporary painting often incorporates religious and historical concepts as well as modern aesthetic principles.

Serbia has produced several nationally recognized painters, including Milic Stankovic and Olja Ivanicki. Ivan Generalic is well known for his primitive style depictions (some of them quite political) of Yugoslav life.

The artists have not been deterred by the economic or political situation, and have started exhibiting installations in bombed-out buildings in Belgrade, shows they call “Phobjects.” Contemporary art can also be seen on the street in surrealist popular political posters that are hung in towns and cities.

Performing arts

A type of traditional Serbian music is performed on a guslari, a single-stringed instrument played with a bow, which the musician accompanies with sung ballads that convey both news and historical events. Another type of folk music is called tamburitza.

It is played by groups of musicians with string instruments similar to mandolins and banjos. The gadje, a bagpipe-like instrument, is also common. Albanian music in Kosovo has a more Arabic sound, echoing the influence of the Turks, and Gypsies dance to a type of music called blehmuzika, using a brass band.

Serbian folk dances are called kolos, and are performed by professional companies, or by guests at weddings and other special occasions. They involve a group of people holding hands and moving in a circle. A specific kolo music accompanies the dance.

During the Turkish rule, when people were forbidden to hold large celebrations, they often spread news through the lyrics and movements of the kolo tradition. The traditional accompaniment to the dance is a violin, and occasionally an accordion or flute. Costumes are also important parts of the dance; even today traditional regional costume is worn for performances.

Western rock music is very popular with younger audiences, and Yugoslavia has produced some local stars. Many of them use the form to convey political messages.

There is also a long film tradition throughout the former Yugoslavia. The first film recordings date back to 1905, and the first feature film was made in 1910. After World War II, the industry grew considerably, thanks to government funding of productions.

In 1939, director Mihail Popovic received acclaim for his landmark film Battle of Kosovo. In the 1980s, Sarajevo film director Emir Kusturica won first place at the Cannes Film Festival for When Father Was Away on Business.

His films showed the terror that the communist government inspired in the people. In the 1990s, production in the film industry declined, but some of the films that were produced tackled the difficult subject of civil war, such as Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, directed by Srdjan Dragojevic. Goran Paskaljevic, another Serbian director, produced the acclaimed film Powder Keg in 1998.

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