If you have seen a production of, or listened to the music from, Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”, you actually have some passing knowledge of one of the tiniest but fiercest corners of Serbdom, the Black Mountain – Crna Gora – Montenegro. Disguised with the pseudonym Pontevedro in the operetta, Lehar included elements of Montenegrin life throughout every aspect of the production. Premiering in 1905, the two leads, Mizzi Gunther (playing the eponymous widow, Hanna Glavari, a Pontevedran expatriate in Paris) and Louis Treumann (playing the dashing Prince Danilo), wore stage versions of traditional court costume; characters’ names were reflective of the region and the ruling dynasty, the Petrović-Njegoš family; an aria titled “The Song of the Vila” hearkened to the mythological vile (pl.) of Serb folklore, beautiful but temperamental female fairies who inhabited forests and mountains. The operetta was, in many ways, a Viennese nod to the Slavs of its kingdom, even though Montenegro lay beyond its boundaries. The land of mountains and eagles had never been fully conquered through five centuries of Ottoman presence in the Balkans; little did the Viennese know that in less than a decade, Montenegrin Serbs would be fighting off their armies, too.
Like most Slavic groups, the Serbs have a tradition of patrilineal descent reckoning, and this is reflected in many aspects of the culture, for example, inheritance of the slava or family patron saint. The kindred of a Serb can include individuals spanning ten generations; the Ѕerbian language has carefully defined these people with respect to their various roles and relationships in a rich vocabulary of kinship terminology.
Serbs still widely celebrate their old calendar (julian calendar) new year. Unlike the gregorian new year, which they often call kalendarska or gradjanska nova godina (calendar or civil new year), the 14th of January is called many things: srpska nova godina (Serbian new year), pravoslavna nova godina (Orthodox new year), and confusingly, stara nova godina (old new year). However, the oldest traditional name for this day is Vasilica – the feast of St. Basil.
Probably one of the most well-known paintings in the art heritage of Serbia, “Preparing the Bride” by 19th century Serbian painter Paja Jovanović, is a favourite of mine. It has been reproduced on cards, posters, as needlepoint, even on the lids of chocolate boxes, and is a snapshot of a time that has past but is still somehow remembered by the collective Serbian psyche.