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Culltural rituals and globalisation: Hallowe’en and Slava

2 November 2009

Eroticdreambattle – Not Paella: “In Leeds, the Muslim kids went trick-or-treating with witches’ hats over their hijabs. It was unspeakably cute.”

I once knew a couple of American kids in Namibia (now comfortably middle-aged) who were discussing what they should do about Hallowe’en. They realised that Hallowe’en was not big in Namibia. None of the other kids at their school were doing anything about it, and it did not seem to be important to them. They realised that they could not go around trick or treating, because nobody they went to would have a clue what they were on about. And at that moment they were very aware that they were far from home, far from their familiar culture.

I suppose it is the absence of familiar cultural rituals that makes people, particularly children, feel alienated in a strange culture. There was another American family in Namibia with a much younger child, about two or three years old, and the older children eventually did some Hallowe’en things for him. He was too young to miss them, but the older ones may have thought that it was part of his cultural heritage that he perhaps needed to know, for when the family returned to the USA.The parents may have thought so too.

The only thing that I knew about American Hallowe’en rituals back then came from American comics, Peanuts was one, where Charlie Brown was obsessed with a great pumpkin and the moon, and Nancy and Sluggo, who spoke about carving faces in pumpkins. Our pumpkins don’t lend themselves to that kind of treatment. American pumpkins seem to be round and yellow, ours are flat and white. I suspect that that was the limit of knowledge of most people of my generation in Southern Africa. I was Anglican back then, and I was also aware of Hallowe’en in a more generalised Anglican sense — a major saints day, observed with a First Evensong. In some parishes the First Evensong was quite a solemn affair, observed with incense, and the singing of long hymns like For all the saints who from their labours’ rest which had a kind of bitter-sweet joyful sorrow to them.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluya! Alleluya!

It was sung to the grand music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, with loud organ twiddly bits between the verses. It also has echoes of Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire at the end of The Lord of the Rings. That was my main association with Hallowe’en, and another was Charles Williams’s novel All Hallows Eve, which features two dead girls, one bound for heaven and one for hell.

It’s a little bit different now, but not much. South Africa has some awareness of Hallowe’en, manifested by posters advertising (adult) fancy dress parties, and an increase in the number of slasher movies shown on TV. But still no trick or treat, and certainly not for children.

But on Saturday we’ll be having our own alien cultural ritual, our family Slava.

Slava (which means “praise”) is a Serbian custom, unknown even to most other Orthodox. We were introduced to it by Jonathan and Vera Proctor, who were in our parish about 20 years ago, when Jonathan was completing his degree studies in South Africa. He’s now a priest in the USA, and his wife Vera is of Serbian ancestry, and so they had a Slava, and invited fellow parishioners to attend. Many Orthodox Christians celebrate name days (rather than birthdays). That is the day of the saint whose name they bear. But the Serbs had the Slava, which is a kind of family name day. It falls on day of the saint on which the first members of the family were baptised. It commemorates the family becoming Christian. It recalls the living and the dead members of the family — the living with the Slava Kolach, a special kind of bread, and the dead with koliva, the main ingredient of which is boiled wheat, to remind us of what our Lord Jesus Christ said, “except a corn of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains a single seed, but if it dies it becomes many” (John 12:24) and also I Corinthians 15:37-44. And the hymn of the Dance of Isaiah from the marriage service is also sung, as a reminder of the importance of the family.

At the time it also seemed appropriate for Africa, where traditionally the living and the dead of the family have been seen as one spiritual community, and so we adopted the Slava as a family custom too. Our Slava is the feast of St Michael and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven, which falls on 8 November, because that was the day in 1987 on which we were received into the Orthodox Church. And, perhaps also appropriately, we were married on 29 September, which is the Western equivalent, the feast of St Michael and All Angels, commonly known as Michaelmas. This year, therefore, it will also be the celebration of our 35th wedding anniversary. In the Orthodox Church every saint’s day has the equivalent of the Anglican “First Evensong” the night before, because the liturgical day begins at sunset, so Sunday Vespers is sung on Saturday evening, and that is when we have our Slava.

I’ve written elsewhere about what has been called “cultural appropriation” — where Christians observe Ramadan, and perhaps where Muslim children in Leeds observe Hallowe’en. Is keeping Slava in South Africa an inappropriate form of cultural appropriation, or is it inculturation? Time will tell.

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