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Slava: A Serbian Orthodox Celebration

Updated on September 5, 2014

Almost Ready for Slava

This table has everything needed to celebrate Slava but the zjito, which will be there soon.
This table has everything needed to celebrate Slava but the zjito, which will be there soon. | Source

Slava Means Day of Glory

In my husband's family, Slava is a bigger holiday than Christmas. In our family it is celebrated on December 19th every year, since Kosta's family's patron saint is St. Nicholas. Not all families celebrate on the same day. Families celebrate on the Saints Day on which the first ancestor was baptized and converted from paganism to Christianity. Thus the Slava celebration is the anniversary celebration of the day the family became Christian.

Each family has its own way of celebrating and it can vary from year to year according to circumstances. But whatever the circumstances, if it is at all possible, there are five important things normally present.

First is the Slava candle which it lit on a candlestick that has been passed down from father to son through the generations. There is also a small dish of oil with a floating candlestick that is lit by the wife. Most families also have a picture of their patron saint.

The family also prepares two ceremonial foods: the Slava cake and a wheat dish called zjito (not pictured here.) It is traditional in Serbia that everyone visit their friends who are celebrating their Slava. Usually this is a brief visit, since people usually have many families to visit on the same day. You stay home on your own Slava and greet your friends. It is a holiday, and you don't go to work or anywhere else unless you absolutely have to.

Non-product photos and text B. Radisavljevic, Copyright 2010

Maybe you've been born into a Serbian family, as was my husband, and have celebrated Slava for as long as you can remember. Or maybe you've been invited to join a Serbian family at its celebration and you came here to find out what it's all about.

How familiar are you with the Serbian Slava celebration?

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The Slava Cake (or Bread)

Every family had it's own way of making the Slava bread or  Slavski Kolac. My mother-in-law-made this one.
Every family had it's own way of making the Slava bread or Slavski Kolac. My mother-in-law-made this one. | Source

My First Slava

I attended my first Slava celebration at the home of my husband's parents.

Kosta and I were just friends then, and he invited a group of his friends to celebrate with his family in their home. When we entered, we were invited to have a spoonful of zjito, as is the custom. I will talk more about zjito later on.

While we were waiting for dinner to be served, we sat around and talked and sampled some of the goodies Kosta's mother had prepared. Then we sat down to enjoy a special dinner together -- as special as Thanksgiving and Christmas are in many American households. After dinner there was more time for conversation and eating the various desserts that seems to be everywhere.

Since I was one of Kosta's newer friends at the time, I was probably the only one there attending my first Slava.. I believe many friends of the family had come earlier in the day to greet Kosta's family. They had stayed to talk for a bit and had some zjito and various other treats which were scattered around the room. By the time we arrived, they had left. They were part of the Serbian community in Kosta's neighborhood and so they were familiar with the customs and used to visiting friends who were celebrating a Slava. Naturally, I assumed that this was the way families celebrated Slava. Little did I know then that I would someday be celebrating Slava in my own home, and that our celebration would be much different than the simple one I had first observed.

Music to Listen to During Slava

Polyphonic Orthodox Hymns / Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian Polyphonic Choirs
Polyphonic Orthodox Hymns / Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian Polyphonic Choirs

This is a collection of Orthodox church music from most branches of the Orthodox church, including Serbian Orthodox. It would be the ideal background for Slava.

 

The Music of Slava

Amazon has a lot of Serbian Orthodox music available in both CDs and for digital download. Even if you can't understand Old Slavonic, the music is beautiful and will set the tone for observing the true meaning of Slava. It is a Day of Glory, and the elements symbolize the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Before this article moved here from Squidoo, there was a way to embed the music in this spot from Amazon's samples so you could listen while you read. The only way I can do that here is to embed a video of Serbian Orthodox worship music. If you like, play it to put you in the mood while you read the rest of this article.

Serbian Orthodox Worship, Psalm 135

Great Orthodox Choir Music You Can Download

If you like this music, you can download your favorite songs or the entire album by clicking through to Amazon where you can hear the entire album. One of the longer Serbian selections is available only as part of the album.

Some Slava Information from Serbian Orthodox Sources

Although my husband was raised Serbian Orthodox, we now belong to a Presbyterian church, so we do not do everything considered essential by the sources listed below. Most notably, since there is no Serbian Orthodox church in our vicinity, we do not engage the services of a priest to bless our Slava Cake. And our framed icon of St Nicholas that has been passed down through the family has been missing since the big earthquake that occurred just after Slava in 2003. Note: I did find it in 2013.

Do You You Need an Icon?

Print St. Nicholas Orthodox vintage religious Icon - size 4 (ICON-057)
Print St. Nicholas Orthodox vintage religious Icon - size 4 (ICON-057)

This St. Nicholas icon print was made in the Holy Land.

 

How We Adapted the Celebration of Slava - Once the candle was passed to Kosta by his father, it became our celebration.

Source

By the time time started celebrating Slava in our home, our children had come to live with us, which is one reason Kosta's father felt it was time for us to host the celebration. Kosta had only recently realized the Christian symbolism in the Slava when on his first year to host Slava, he had started to cut the Slava cake all the way through. His father stopped him and insisted the bread had to be broken. Only then did Kosta realize that this was really a celebration of Holy Communion. It had never been explained to him during all those years of family celebrations. It was the equivalent to him of finding out when he was forty that Easter meant more than the Easter bunny bringing eggs to children. Kosta had always celebrated with his family because it was a tradition, and after he became a Protestant Christan while in high school, he had always just halfheartedly gone along with it.

Once he saw the real meaning of Slava as a celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, though, he was able to fully embrace it, and saw it as a way to share his own faith with his friends who were not Christian believers. When this happened, it made a drastic change in our Slava celebration. Whereas before it meant making the zjito and Slava cake, and maybe having special friends and Kosta's parents for dinner, it now became a very big deal.

Since we never knew any other Serbs anywhere we had lived, we had to invite friends and neighbors to come so they would know about it. But since the tradition was that you would just drop in, and RSVP was not considered necessary. I had to prepare a lot more food. Kosta would basically tell everyone he saw and everyone at church to drop on by that day anytime between 9 and 9. He also led them to expect there would be hot food available from lunch time until about 8 PM. This made my job in the kitchen rather large. Can you imagine planning an open house for an undetermined amount of people that would last all day?

The children really embraced Slava, and Jason would go all over the neighborhood inviting all his playmates and their families to come on over. Many of the playmates came on over several times during the day -- whenever they got hungry. Their parents usually came in the evening at dinner time. But the children helped with the house cleaning and meal preparations and running to bring more food and drinks from the refrigerator in the garage, and it all worked out and we had good times with our friends and neighbors.

One unique thing Kosta added to our celebration was to explain to visitors who had never come before what all the symbols and ceremonial foods meant and how they were used. For example, each year a portion of the last year's candle is lit the night before Slava to indicate that the family has been faithful in keeping their covenant with God during the year. The morning of Slava, the new candle is lit by the father. It symbolizes the light of the Gospel of Christ and the covenant that has passed through the generations to be faithful to Christ. Then the mother lights the wick floating in the bowl of oil, symbolizing that she will be faithful in praying for her husband and supporting him during the year as he protects and nurtures his family in their faith. The Slava cake represents Christ's body, who was the Bread of Life. The wheat (zjito) represents the resurrection of Christ.

The Slava cake itself is also full of symbolism. We have a wooden stamp we use to emboss the symbols for the names of Christ on the cake. Kosta and the children would make doves of dough to place around the cake before it was baked. It was Jason's idea to add a dough-sculpted Bible to the center of the cake, so we did it. Find out how we make the Slava cake here.

On the day after Slava, Kosta serves communion to his family. It is then he cuts a sign of the cross into the bottom of the bread and pours a bit of wine on it. Then breaks it and gives it to everyone in the family. Before that, in preparation for this day, we have been encouraged to make peace with and offer forgiveness to all who ask it of us. Slava is a time of reconciliation. Sometimes special friends have been invited to share this time with us. See the steps in breaking the bread below.

In the picture above, Kosta is explaining the symbolism of the cake to one of our visiting friends.

Slava, 2009 - Day One, Dec. 19, 2009

Click thumbnail to view full-size
We have lighted our candles at the beginning of Day 1-- the day when we expect to have guests dropping by to great us.The Slava cake and zjito are ready. Each guest will be offered a spoon of zjito to taste as he or she arrives. The cake is saved for the family on day 2.The table is set with snacks for guests who arrive early. The hot food will be set out closer to meal times. One of our guests helps himself to zjito.One of our favorite guests finally looks at the camera at the right time.Kosta is interacting with this guest. He misses having children around.These two guests are interacting with each other.This is the kitchen after everybody is gone. I'm too tired tonight. I will face the clean-up later on.
We have lighted our candles at the beginning of Day 1-- the day when we expect to have guests dropping by to great us.
We have lighted our candles at the beginning of Day 1-- the day when we expect to have guests dropping by to great us. | Source
The Slava cake and zjito are ready. Each guest will be offered a spoon of zjito to taste as he or she arrives. The cake is saved for the family on day 2.
The Slava cake and zjito are ready. Each guest will be offered a spoon of zjito to taste as he or she arrives. The cake is saved for the family on day 2. | Source
The table is set with snacks for guests who arrive early. The hot food will be set out closer to meal times.
The table is set with snacks for guests who arrive early. The hot food will be set out closer to meal times. | Source
One of our guests helps himself to zjito.
One of our guests helps himself to zjito. | Source
One of our favorite guests finally looks at the camera at the right time.
One of our favorite guests finally looks at the camera at the right time. | Source
Kosta is interacting with this guest. He misses having children around.
Kosta is interacting with this guest. He misses having children around. | Source
These two guests are interacting with each other.
These two guests are interacting with each other. | Source
This is the kitchen after everybody is gone. I'm too tired tonight. I will face the clean-up later on.
This is the kitchen after everybody is gone. I'm too tired tonight. I will face the clean-up later on. | Source

Traditions

Source

Feeding the Poor

Kosta told me that one historical aspect of Slava was that the poor were invited to share in the Slava feast, so that they would not be hungry. Today's churches and Christians are still concerned with feeding the poor of their communities, especially during the December holiday season, but also year round.

Slava Dinner Day 2

The table is set for dinner with the Slava cake waiting on the right side.
The table is set for dinner with the Slava cake waiting on the right side. | Source

The Second Day of Slava

The second day of Slava is when the family observes the more spiritual aspects of the holiday. Normally we eat the Slava cake, which is really a sweet bread, along with some zjito, for breakfast. But before that we go through the steps below in preparing the bread for this observance. Because we were up very late the first night, and we still had to travel to the other location where we celebrate, we ate zjito at home for breakfast and then decided to have our communion after lunch at the other house where we actual did our celebrating.

The first time we celebrated Slava at our home after Kosta's father passed the candle to him, he was about to cut the bread all the way through when his father stopped him and explained the bread had to be broken -- not cut -- apart. That's when he first realized he was actually about to serve communion with the bread and the wine, in memory of the death of Christ, whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

Preparing to Serve the Slava Cake - Slava, Day 2, Dec. 20, 2009

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Kosta is now getting the cake out of its dish and ready to cut.He makes two cuts so that they form a cross.He then pulls the bread apart a wee bit.Then he pours a bit of wine so that it touches all four pieces of the bread before he breaks it.Kosta breaks the bread.The bread is now completely broken and ready to share with any family who are there.
Kosta is now getting the cake out of its dish and ready to cut.
Kosta is now getting the cake out of its dish and ready to cut. | Source
He makes two cuts so that they form a cross.
He makes two cuts so that they form a cross. | Source
He then pulls the bread apart a wee bit.
He then pulls the bread apart a wee bit. | Source
Then he pours a bit of wine so that it touches all four pieces of the bread before he breaks it.
Then he pours a bit of wine so that it touches all four pieces of the bread before he breaks it. | Source
Kosta breaks the bread.
Kosta breaks the bread. | Source
The bread is now completely broken and ready to share with any family who are there.
The bread is now completely broken and ready to share with any family who are there. | Source

Did You Learn Anything New About Slava?

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    • BarbRad profile image
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      Barbara Radisavljevic 2 years ago from Templeton, CA

      I had never heard of it either until meeting my now husband. That's why i expected most other Americans without close Serbian friends or family members had not heard of it either.

    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 3 years ago from California

      Fascinating traditions. I had never heard of Slava. Thank you for teaching about it and sharing your family's practices.

    • BarbRad profile image
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      Barbara Radisavljevic 3 years ago from Templeton, CA

      Everything about that earthquake is blurred now. It all happened so fast, but the cleanup still is not entirely done, since we need a new bookcase to replace the one that collapsed and the books are still in boxes. Too much else happened too soon after the earthquake that took all our extra time and energy.

    • ecogranny profile image

      Kathryn Grace 3 years ago from San Francisco

      Thank you for celebrating your family's traditional holiday. I had never heard of Slava. I was struck by the difference between the two types of candles used--a tall candlestick and candle for the man of the house and a bowl with oil for the woman, symbolizing, it seems the masculine and the feminine, respectively. Lovely!

      Your story of losing the St. Nicholas icon in the earthquake, then recovering it years later is most intriguing. Perhaps one day you will tell us more about finding it again.

      Thank you again. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Slava.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 3 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      This was so interesting and I appreciate learning more about Slava. Thank you.

    • BarbRad profile image
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      Barbara Radisavljevic 4 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Tipi, I think traditions are important, especially if you have children, since they provide a framework for life through the year and a connection of being part of something bigger than yourself. But I also think it's important that we know the reasons behind the traditions, so that they aren't just meaningless motions we go through to keep our families happy.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      You've introduced Slava and your family with a heart full of love and meaning, I found myself smiling sweetly many times....so beautifully presented! I love how you emphasize the teaching of traditions in such a practical hands on manner.

    • BarbRad profile image
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      Barbara Radisavljevic 4 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @Pangermia: Thanks for stopping by to comment. I think the important thing is to know what you are celebrating and why. After all, it's a lot of work if you don't have a reason other than "We've always done it."

    • Pangermia profile image

      Pangermia 4 years ago

      Nice to see hear how you are adapting the slava. I'm having the same issues now as I decide how to integrate Serbian and American traditions together for my daughter. Lucky girl -- Santa will come 2x for her (Catholic xmas and New Year's, Serbian style). Zivili!

    • BarbRad profile image
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      Barbara Radisavljevic 4 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: My husband's family evidently didn't observe this as a fast. They just observed the feast part. Although we are Protestant, it was through his Protestant faith he was able to see the Christian symbolism, since his father had never explained it and they rarely went to the Orthodox church. When my husband was still in the old country where people observed Slava, it was wartime and then the country was occupied and taken over by atheistic Communists after the Germans left. So going to church wasn't part of his childhood. Staying alive and out of jail was the preoccupation.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Most interesting. I'm in Scotland, but my dad was a Serb. He passed last year.Unfortunately, he never fully explained the Slava traditions to me, though I knee about the lighting of the candle, and the fact that he only ate fish and vegetables on the 19th December.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      @BarbRad: Orthodox Holy Communion is only ever done as part of the Divine Liturgy, our Sunday service, and it's possibly the most sacred of the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) we have. We believe the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion, and its never a private celebration. If there's no Orthodox church nearby then an Orthodox Christian goes without Communion, there's no way to bless it themselves. But none of that is meant to be a negative criticism of your wonderful article, which I do really enjoy (I've read it several times). It's more for informational purposes for those who may be reading. As Protestants of course the teachings of the Orthodox Church don't dictate what you believe, so you may regard this as communion. Thank you again for taking the time to write it.

    • BarbRad profile image
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      Barbara Radisavljevic 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: My husband seems to think that if the priest has blessed the bread and wine, it's communion. Maybe the manner is which it's done and with whom is also a factor. Ours was aways immediate family and it was a serious time the morning after the major Slava celebration. But we are Protestants, and you're probably right that most Orthodox believers wouldn't call it Holy Communion. But maybe some would and you just haven't met them yet. Not everyone lives near an Orthodox Church, especially where we live.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      With all due respect, the Slava bread may be meant to remind us of Holy Communion, and is certainly meant to bring to mind Christ as the Bread of Life, but no Orthodox Christian would think that they were celebrating Holy Communion at the Slava celebration. You may have added that as Protestants to your Slava, but it is not the traditional interpretation of the ritual.Otherwise a very helpful and interesting article. My Slava is coming up, the first I'll be hosting, and I wasn't entirely sure what I might do!

    • Frischy profile image

      Frischy 5 years ago from Kentucky, USA

      Very interesting! I love learning about the holidays and traditions of other cultures.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I did a good job on the quiz, enjoyed this lens too, wouldn't mind having a piece of cake right about now too!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Our neighbors are Serbian and Croatian, and we enjoy special treats from all their family celebrations. We have been learning more about Serbian Orthodox traditions because of them, and your web page here is wonderful and helpful. Thank you and blessings on you.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Hi. We live in South Africa, and we've been invited by some new Serbian friends to celebrate Slava tonight. Your information has been most helpful in understanding the traditions. We are Chrisitians, and so the spiritual significance in important to us. Typically what does one wish the family upon arrival?

    • hysongdesigns profile image

      hysongdesigns 5 years ago

      A wonderfully written lens. I love to learn about other cultures, their traditions and how they came about.

    • BarbRad profile image
      Author

      Barbara Radisavljevic 5 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Congratulations! I hope it will be a very happy event. Try to relax and just enjoy it. I tended to worry too much about not doing everything up to the expectations of my inlaws.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I'm so glad you posted this information! This year is the first time I will be celebrating Slava with my new husband and I really hope to make it special :-)

    • profile image

      greece123 6 years ago

      the two headed eagle

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      @BarbRad: Actually, it depends on the family in question. Our Serbian and Macedonian family and friends generally bring a dessert and/or liquor of some type. Some also bring flowers. The most important thing to bring, in my opinion, is your desire to be with friend and family (that and a healthy appetite!).

    • BarbRad profile image
      Author

      Barbara Radisavljevic 7 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Carol,Sorry if I'm too late, but I've not had good computer access this weekend. I think either wine or chocolate would be appropriate, though I don't believe a gift is expected. It's not really a gift giving occasion, to th ebest of my knowledge. If you are invited for dinner, then any hostess gift is appropriate.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Thank you for all your information in regards to Slava. We are invited to a Slava tomorrow & am looking forward to it. Was wondering what is appropriate to bring to the family. Your help would be greatly appreciated. Was thinking of wine and/or chocolate.

    • BarbRad profile image
      Author

      Barbara Radisavljevic 7 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Glad this was useful to you. Enjoy your time in Belgrade. They may celebrate the holiday a bit differently than we do, but there should be some similarities in meaning. Everything depends upon how religious the family celebrating it is.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      thank you for this information. i was bapised in the scottish presbyterian church but was never religious. I am still not, but I am god mother to a little Serbian boy and so i was baptised in the Serbian Orthodox church. I now live in canada but am presently in belgrade, where i will participate in my first slava. thank you for clarifyung what it all means.

    • YsisHb profile image

      YsisHb 7 years ago

      Congratulations for your wonderful lens. It is indeed precious to keep traditions alive and to pass them on to the next generation.I belong to the Greek Orthodox church. As you know, it is dogmatically exactly the same as the Serbian one. (I can hear the words Kyrie Eleyson and Cristos, the names of saints etc. and I think I can understand some parts of the divine liturgy, like the reading of the Evangile, the Apostole, etc.). However we have no such tradition as the Slava. It seems to me that it is a great honour to the ancestors who were first baptised and of course, they do worth it. The music is so peaceful and beautiful! (I am listening to it for the fifth time). Thank you for the opportunity you gave me to know it since I had never listened to the Serbian chant before. In some parts I can find some similarities with the Byzantine one. Is the language Serbian or Russian?My experience of learning about our traditions is slightly different. I think that more than through explanations, it iwas through songs and chants, through smells, tastes and symbols and the spiritual environment created, that I have got emmerged into our traditions.

    • BarbRad profile image
      Author

      Barbara Radisavljevic 7 years ago from Templeton, CA

      @anonymous: Dee, I'm glad I was able to help. I am in the process of reading a thesis by a theology student who has traced a lot of the Slava traditions to their roots. I was actually surprised to see that my husband's family celebrated differently than many families. There are many variations, depending upon location, among other things. I imagine most people celebrate the way their parents did. I was surprised that some families don't grind the wheat for zjito. Others have much more complex rituals in the way they handle the Slava bread and and serve it. Some families leave the candle up all year. So I guess there is not one right way to celebrate. And you will have the freedom to do it your way.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Thank you for all this information. We are in Australia and now my Mother and Father-in-law have died we are the only ones willing to continue with the Slava. We too will have to adapt the traditions as we attend an Anglican church now [there is no Serbian Orthodox church near our home]. I remembered parts of the Slava ceremony but not all. In our family we too break the bread and sprinkle it with the wine - then we say the Our Father while we rotate the bread with the family members holding it. We are lucky to have the family Icon and votive light [also St. Thomas]. We will be celebrating Slava this year for the first time. God Bless you.

    • JuneMary LM profile image

      JuneMary LM 7 years ago

      I knew nothing about this.It's good to learn about other people's traditions and celebrations.

    • Fcuk Hub profile image

      Fcuk Hub 7 years ago

      Hi, we Slovaks have nearly same traditions. Nice lens.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      I consider is to be my family birthday! Not that religious really, but you can take it that way!The slava cak should not be cut by knife. You break it on for parts and spill a little wine on it, after (this part I learned last year with my more knowledgeable friend around) you say a blessing to it while rotating around while all family members holding it. my 5 cents,ThanksDR

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 8 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      I'd never heard of this holiday until now. Thank you for educating and entertaining me with the story.

    • Mihaela Vrban profile image

      Mihaela Vrban 8 years ago from Croatia

      Beautiful lens Barbara! Yes, Slava is similar to the name day although not the same. Love how you got into details here! :) Blessed by an Angel!I pozdravi supruga! ;)

    • lakern26 lm profile image

      lakern26 lm 8 years ago

      Wonderful lens! I've never heard of this holiday, but thank you so much for the introduction. Beautiful symbolism!

    • BarbRad profile image
      Author

      Barbara Radisavljevic 8 years ago from Templeton, CA

      [in reply to theraggededge] I took your suggestion. Thanks.

    • profile image

      myraggededge 8 years ago

      So much incredible detail, BarbRad. Thank you for sharing these celebrations and customs with us. I loved the Serbian Orthodox music too... maybe you could put it at the top of the lens so that we can play it as we read through? Uh oh.... I've just given myself a suggestion here! 5*s