Sretenje: Serbia’s Statehood day and a Sacred Meeting Day
by Magdalena Petrović Jelić
Most words of any language are polysemous: they have more than one meaning. These different meanings sometimes coincide in another language, but frequently they don’t.
For example, in English you use the verb ‘to meet’ to express three ideas: (1) that you met someone new, (2) that you met someone as you planned and agreed, or (3) that you met someone by accident.
In Serbian, we have three distinct verbs for that:
(1) upoznati is to meet for the first time (“Upoznao sam svoju ženu na fakultetu” – I met my wife at college),
(2) naći se is to meet as agreed (“Hajde da se nađemo sutra u gradu” – Let’s meet tomorrow downtown), and
(3) sresti is to meet by accident (“Srela sam koleginicu na pijaci” – I met my colleague at the market).
The latter verb (sresti) gave the noun sreća (that means both happiness and luck) and the adjective srećan or sretan (happy or lucky). Because luck is something we can only meet by accident.
That’s also the origin of the word Sretenje.
Sretenje as a Christian holiday
Sretenje – the Meeting of the Lord – is a Christian holiday celebrating the day when Christ was first presented at the temple 40 days after his birth. That’s why it’s celebrated 40 days after Christmas. It represents the first meeting of the man with the God.
Sretenje as a Serbia’s Statehood and Constitution day
Sretenje is Serbia’s Statehood day for historical, not religious, reasons. On this day in 1804, the First Serbian Uprising started, the onset of a series of actions that eventually led to liberation from the five-centuries long Ottoman rule.
Also on this day in 1835, the first Constitution was enforced in Serbia. This is why February 15th is also Constitution day.
The Sretenje Constitution was a modern and liberal constitution, and it was the first one in the Balkans. Even though it was abolished after only two weeks, it shows the spirit of the time.
Sretenje in the Serbian folk tradition
Sretenje is equally important for the Serbian folk tradition as it is considered the day when winter meets summer. As the days are becoming longer and nights shorter from this day on, it’s a turning point. That’s why it’s often said “Sretenje obretenje” – from the verb “obrtati”, to turn.
It is also believed that the first person a girl meets on this day will look like her “suđenik” – her destined one or her husband-to-be.
On this day, “mečka Božana” exits her cave after the winter sleep, just like the Pennsylvania groundhog. “Mečka Božana” is the mythical sow bear Božana, a pre-Christian goddess. That’s why she has this sacred name, derived from the word “bog” (god).The legend says if the sow bear sees her shadow, she’ll be afraid and hide back in her cave, meaning winter will continue. But if she doesn’t meet her shadow, she’ll move on to search for food, and that means winter will end.
Nowadays, we turn to the sow bear of the Belgrade Zoo for forecast, even though she lives in captivity and is not a reliable meteorologist.
As I’m writing this, on Sretenje 2019, it’s partly cloudy here in Serbia. I hope that Božana will leave her cave under the clouds so that she won’t meet her shadow this year.