By Dr Maria Vivod
Revena was an annual winter custom held on ‘Clean Monday’, the Monday before Ash Wednesday in the Northern Serbian region of Vojvodina. According to the Vojvodinian tradition this Monday was dedicated to cleaning up the house before the Easter-lent: all the ‘fat’-food was to be either eaten or given away (usually distributed to members of the Roma community).
The festival was run by an association of women who gathered and shared food as part of a semi-private feast. Food and drinks were brought by each participant for the occasion and the related expenses were covered equally amongst all the women. Men were not welcomed – if by some mistake a man appeared, they were ridiculed and/or publicly humiliated. During the feasting certain songs were played and sang, which were reserved for this particular occasion. The lyrics of the songs were explicit, jesting and lascivious, as well as the greetings, toasts, and benedictions, which replaced the usual, well-coded speech-formulas used under ‘normal’ circumstances. The female members of the community and their female-relatives gathered in the host’s house. The ‘host’ each year was chosen according to several criteria: they either needed to have enough space to welcome all the participants, and/or not have too many potentially disturbing household-members (including little children, bed-ridden family-members, etc.). In many cases the hosts were the village-spinster or a woman without children. The preparations started a week before the event with the logistics being discussed and shared over who would bring what kind of food and who would dress up in which manner. Cross-dressing was a usual part of the revena. Besides the abundant eating, drinking and banqueting, a revena involved hiring a musician (traditionally a bagpiper, before the widespread use of the accordion). The costs of the hire were equally distributed amongst the participants. In the host’s house no cooking was done on the day of the feast, except for the preparation of a soup made ‘from a mature hen’.
The usual greeting was ‘Long live Saint Brcko [brtsko]!’ in whose name all the participants drank. ‘Saint Brcko’ – an invented ‘saint’- was used instead of the usual codified (male) saints of the orthodox Christian pantheon, in whose name the feast was given. ‘Brcko’ most likely stems from the Serbo-Croatian vernacular idiom: brkuša (‘the mustached’), which signifies the word for ‘cunt’. The standard, codified celebrations, such as weddings, mourning and annual feasts of Christian saints were mimicked, jested and ‘staged’ during a revena, in which the participants were the main actors and the public at the same time. The participants, some dressed as men, played improvised leading male social roles from these communal events (such as a groom, a best-man, or even a priest).
In some villages, each participant before entering the house had to prove that she was truly female by lifting up her skirt, showing her private parts. Those men from the household who insisted on staying were usually brutally mocked and sometimes stripped naked and thrown out onto the street.
Besides eating and drinking, games were played, such as the ‘shaving-game’ – in which one of the participants played a barber and shaved the guests by using sour-crème to ‘shave’ the ‘beard’ off her ‘clients’. Each of the ‘shaved clients’ paid money for the barber’s services where the money was then given to the musician. Some revene lasted until the next day or for two more consecutive days. The next morning, the husbands would wait on the street for their wives holding wheelbarrows, offering a ‘carriage’ to those too drunk to go home: some women sat in them, some refused. These men were given small change for their ‘cab-services’ (as women used to say). The last revena was held in 1972. After that, the socialist celebrations of Woman’s Day, March 8th, slowly replaced the rural revena: men and women gathered and celebrated, and the revena-games fell almost into oblivion. Then, at the beginning of the 2000’s successful attempts were made to revive this almost forgotten custom of the day when women ‘misbehaved’.
About the author:
Dr Maria Vivod is an ethnologist, anthropologist, translator, and scientific researcher at the French research unit Dynamiques Européennes in Strasbourg, France. Dr Vivod holds a degree in French Language and Literature from the University of Novi Sad (1996) and a PhD in Sociology and Demography with a specialization in Ethnology (2005) from the University of Strasbourg. She is also the author of dozens of scholarly articles written in English, French, German, and Hungarian.