Mitrovski Zadušnice: The Serbian All-Souls’ Day Heralding the Start of Winter
There are times when you don’t need to look at a calendar page to know that the Days of the Dead are upon you. All of Nature seems to be a manifestation of the restlessness of spirits on the move, of hungry ancestors clamoring for your attention and your ritual foods. It’s the way that fog banks roll into the city on a strong north wind, blotting out the rising sun. It’s the way that the chill autumn rains beat upon your windowpanes as you curl up under the covers at night, trying to blanket all thoughts of your own mortality out of the province of conscious awareness. That’s what’s been happening in my experience here in Chicago as of the past 72 hours, and it’s all very fitting as tomorrow marks one of the biggest All Souls’ Days (Zadušnice in Serbian, from the root word duša, which means “soul”) in the Serbian calendar.
There are four Zadušnice in a year, and they always fall on a Saturday, the day of the week devoted to the dead in Serbian culture. Two of them precede the onset of the Lent and Advent seasons. The third is the Saturday preceding the Feast of the Holy Trinity (commemorated on October 12). But the greatest of these is the Mitrovski Zadušnice, so named because it is the Saturday preceding the Feast of St. Demetrios (November 8), or Mitrovdan.Mitrovdan is the traditional reckoning of the start of winter; it has a lot of curious folk beliefs and supernatural lore associated with its observances, which you can read all about in this post I wrote last year.
At each of these cardinal turning points in the wheel of the year, you’ll notice, an All Souls’ Day comes first. This to me is a very profound teaching, a reminder that placating the dead has to be the first and foremost ritual consideration. What progression you make in life is chiefly due to your ancestors. And while the official Serbian Orthodox Church doctrine is quick to point out that you’re praying for the souls of the dead, not to them, the time-honored rituals and customs attest otherwise.
Kosovar Serbs commemorate Zadušnice amidst the vandalized graves of their deceased relatives in Kosovska Mitrovica, northern Kosovo. Note the eggs and grapes this widow is placing on her husband’s grave, ritual foods symbolizing the life force and resurrection. As with widows in other countries where Eastern Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion–Greece, Russia, Bulgaria, etc.–Serbian widows wear all black for the rest of their lives. Photo credit: Novosti, Republika Srpska.
Feeding the Dead and Other Grave Matters (Yes, That’s a Pun)
Both at one’s home altar for the ancestors (every Serbian home has one, and it has to be facing east; aside from pictures of the dead, it is adorned with icons of the family’s patron saint, who is also seen as the seat of one’s ancestors [if you’re curious, mine is St. John the Baptist]) and at the grave of the deceased, special ritual foods take center stage. While you certainly offer to your dead family members the foods and beverages they enjoyed in life–my brother Mark gets mounds of my dad’s BBQ chicken; my Uncle Milan, a former lawyer in Belgrade who smoked pipe tobacco and enjoyed fine cognac in his leisure time, has tobacco smoke blown into his photographs on my altar and cigarettes and shots of Crown Royal left on his grave–you also prepare for them a very specific ritual food to be blessed in church or at the graveside (the ceremony of that blessing is called parastos) and consumed at the graveside.
Singing dirges for the dead in a cemetery-wide parastos ceremony. Note all the little cups of žito to serve to the dead with lit beeswax candles in them. Photo credit: Kurir, Republika Srpska.
The staple ritual food–the preparation of which is a religious ritual in itself, as you recite the names of your ancestors and pray while you cook it–is called žito (pronounced ZHEE-toe; it’s also called koljivo, or KOHL-yee-voh). It consists of boiled bulgur wheat mixed with honey and covered by finely ground walnuts, over which raisins or almonds are formed into the shape of a cross. During the parastos ceremony, during which hauntingly beautiful dirges are sung for the dead and their names chanted followed by the refrain of “Memory Eternal” (Večnaja Pamjat), the priest, deacon, or bishop will bless the žito with consecrated wine. When the parastos concludes, dollops of the žito are lovingly placed on the grave of the deceased for her or his spirit to eat (with consecrated wine spilled onto the grave afterwards) and everyone takes a spoonful to eat as well. This is an act of sympathetic magic: the deceased’s soul is strengthened with every bite of žito consumed by the living.
Žito for the dead.
The remaining žito is taken home, with a generous dollop given as an offering at the ancestor altar. What’s left of it from that point onwards is consumed by the living; my parents like to refrigerate theirs and savor it for breakfast the following day. It is a very tasty, high-protein vegetarian dish!
Try the Recipe
If you’d like to incorporate this ritual food to offer to your own ancestors, here’s a good recipe:
1 tablespoon honey 1 lb. granulated sugar or confectioners’ sugar 2 pkgs. vanilla sugar (may be purchased at ethnic or specialty store)
Package of almonds or raisins for decoration
Reserve 2 rounded tablespoons of sugar and ground walnut mixture and set aside for topping. Clean and wash the wheat thoroughly. Pour cold water and bring the wheat to a boiling point. Keep it covered while cooking. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Drain the water and add fresh water and bring to a boil again. Repeat the above two more times (everything blessed comes in threes in Serbian lore), then let cook until the wheat is tender but not mushy. Drain and rinse with cold water. Spread the wheat on a clean, dry cloth to dry for 1 hour, then grind wheat in a grinder. Combine wheat, sugar, the ground nuts, vanilla extract, and honey. Shape into a mound on in a serving dish–use your finest crystal; your ancestors are worth it! Sprinkle the sugar and walnut mixture, which was set aside, over the top. Decorate the top of the mound forming a cross in the center and a circular border trim using either raisins or almonds (I’ve seen versions with chocolate chips too, which is appropriate when making offerings to dead children).
The Samhain Season in Perspective: A World of Ancestral Observances
It’s not lost on me that tomorrow’s Mitrovdan Zadušnice takes place during the time of the waning moon and during astrological Samhain, when the Sun reaches 15 degrees through its transit of Scorpio. The Great Gates to the Lands Below swing wide open, and the ancestors are ready to greet us and welcome our nourishment of foods and lit beeswax candles. And so we picnic at their graves.
When I was little, I used to talk about these All Souls’ Days customs with relish until some of my classmates in the Catholic grammar school that my brother and I attended showed their xenophobic colors, commenting on how “weird” and “un- American” Zadušnice observances sounded–why this boiled wheat, why not pancakes from IHOP? Why picnic on the graves–isn’t that morbid? And then the more theologically astute would provoke with: If the dead literally eat those foods that you leave behind on their graves, then that means they’re not in Heaven; wouldn’t you want your grandparents in Heaven, instead of lurking around their graves waiting for your wheat? Are they vampires?! (These questions were posed to me before I began my independent studies in ancient Egyptian religion; when I learned about the concepts of the ba and the ka, however, I sure was better poised to debate!)
A very well-fed ancestor at Zadušnice.
Thank goodness for my fellow first-generation Mexican- and Chinese-American friends! Aside from being the child of off-the-boat immigrants like me, they totally got what Zadušnice was all about. I learned of the ways that my Mexican friends’ Día de Los Muertos customs in early November were alike and different from my own culture’s (I was so relieved to have picnicking with the dead in common with them!), as well as my Chinese friends’ annual ancestral observances during the Qing Ming festival each April, wherein they clean the graves of their ancestors, bring them ritual foods and light candles and incense like I do, and even burn paper money on their behalf so they could receive material blessings in the Otherworld! I thought that last bit was really cool! Years later, living in Hawaii, I would make it a point to visit Chinese cemeteries during Qing Ming and respectfully walk around the main thoroughfares in silent prayer, connecting emotionally to the sight of total strangers’ devotional rituals to their dead when I was thousands of miles away from the graves of my own.
Qing Ming observances in Singapore. Photo courtesy of travel2singapore.com.
As I prepare to conclude this blog post, I turn to look out my Loop office window and I see that the sun has nearly set. As in Judaism, in Serbian Orthodox Christianity, the days are reckoned from sundown to sundown. So it is already almost Mitrovski Zadušnice. When I get home from work, I’ll light special blessed beeswax candles at my home ancestor altar, then I’ll incense the photos of my dead relatives (I include family pets) and ancestors of spirit (Donna Cole Schultz, Deena Butta, her son Maris Butta, Lady Olivia Robertson, Lady Loreon Vigné) with frankincense incense.
What is remembered, lives. Večnaja Pamjat. May their memories be eternal.