Christmas is probably the most magical season of the year. Slovaks love Christmas and it is the main feast celebrated here. What does Christmas in Slovakia look like? Which traditions do Slovaks still follow and which were practiced by their ancestors? Read about the Slovak Christmas season, traditional Christmas dinner and get into proper merry mood!
CHRISTMAS IN SLOVAKIA
The first checkpoint to remember is Advent (a period of four Sundays and weeks before Christmas). It is when the Christmas season starts. As majority of Slovaks belong to Roman Catholic church, many Christmas traditions are related to religious celebrations. It is also a time of cleaning, baking, shopping for presents and decorating the Christmas tree. Christmas markets are organized in the bigger cities and streets shine bright with dazzling lights.
Slovaks also celebrate the St. Nicholas’ day on the 6th December, or as they call him, Mikuláš. He comes in the evening of the 5th December and gives presents to well behaved children. Little rascals finally have a good reason to clean their shoes. They place them near the door for Mikuláš to fill them with sweets and fruit.
YOUR CHRISTMAS VOCABULARY
Christmas Eve is the most important day of the Christmas season. It is called “Štedrý deň” (translated as the Generous Day) and its actual evening is called “Štedrý večer” (translated as the Generous Evening). The Christmas season is called “Vianoce”. If you want to wish Merry Christmas to your Slovak friends, remember the phrase “Veselé Vianoce.”
HOW DO SLOVAKS CELEBRATE THE CHRISTMAS EVE?
Some families still follow a very traditional way and get a live fish (usually a carp) which is placed in the bathtub for kids to play with until the Christmas Day morning. Some of them even give it a name as if it were a pet. Guys need to man up, kill and gut it. Those preferring convenience and feeling sorry for the fish rather take it out of the freezer. During the day, people cook supper and decorate the Christmas tree (the compulsive ones start days earlier). The Christmas tree is kept until January 6th, which is the Feast of the Three Kings, also called Epiphany. Then children are finally allowed to eat the candies and other sweets from the tree. The religious tradition dictates to fast throughout the Christmas Day. The rumour has it that if you manage to get by without a single bite the entire day, you will see a little golden pig in the evening :)
And guess what, it’s not Santa who brings the present. It’s Baby Jesus! A common tradition is that the children leave the room when Baby Jesus comes with the presents. When the gifts are placed under the Christmas tree, someone rings the bell. That’s the cue children are waiting for. They dash to the Christmas tree to open the presents. Majority of Slovak families open their presents after the main Christmas meal, but some just can’t wait and dine surrounded with torn wrapping paper.
TYPICAL CHRISTMAS DINNER
The Christmas supper varies between regions and families. In general, it has lots of courses including a fish dish, a potato salad (with mayonnaise, pickles and carrots) and a sauerkraut soup – kapustnica, with sausage, meat, dried mushrooms and cream. Every family has its own secret recipe and some might include unusual ingredients such as dried plums or even apples. In some regions, kapustnica is replaced by a milky mushroom soup – mliečna hubová polievka.
Special poppy seed dumplings (“makové opekance” or “bobáľky”) are often served as a dessert. However, cookies are a must during Christmas. Gingerbreads, vanilla crescents or some with walnuts and apricot jam cannot be missing. Each family easily makes more than 10 different types of sweets (!) which are served to their guests over the Christmas season. Gluttony at its best.
CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS AT THE CHRISTMAS TABLE
With richness of Slovak folklore, you shall not be surprised by plenty of traditions still pertaining in majority of Slovak households. Let’s have a look at them.
- Money or carp scale – placed under the table cloth to multiply family wealth (ka-ching!)
- Garlic – to ensure good health for the family – each family member should eat a clove
- Honey – to ensure goodness and abundance (so everyone is nice and good and there is plenty of everything) – either eaten on thin wafers or, what’s interesting, the head of the family makes a honey cross on the forehead of each family member
- Apple – to be cut horizontally in two halves – if the seeds form a star, it symbolizes happiness and good health for the family. If they form a cross, this means problems, illness or even death. So get a bunch of apples and slice until you see the former :)
- Nuts – to be thrown in each corner of the room or at least to be eaten during the Christmas dinner to ensure the abundance
- One extra plate – you need to be prepared for an unexpected guest as a symbol of mercy and fellowship. It is also interpreted as a plate for deceased family members.
PECULIAR TRADITIONS FROM THE PAST
Historically speaking, there was a number of other traditions connected to the Christmas Day which have not survived the test of time. We’d like to mention the truly peculiar ones.
- A female stranger could not enter the house as it would bring bad luck (wicked witches?).
- If family needed to borrow something on this day, it was a bad sign as well.
- Everyone tried to have their behavior under control on the Christmas day as it was believed that the way one behaves on this day, they will behave so the following year.
- Who sneezed in the morning of the Christmas Day, would live up to high age.
- If you broke something on this day, the shatters would bring bad luck.
- One could not hang the freshly washed clothes on this day to dry, as the one to whom it belonged would die.
- The Christmas cookies and bread had to be baked before the sunrise and once the dough was prepared, women touched the fruit trees with the hands that prepared the dough to make sure they will bring plenty of fruits.
- Figurines (or rather voodoo dolls) of domestic animals were made from water and flour in order to make them prosper the year after (the tradition of baking ginger breads in shape of different animals is believed to be inherited from this custom).
- You could not sweep the house because if you did, you would also sweep away dead souls from the house (we don’t want that since we’ve already taken the trouble to prepare the extra plate).
- A chain was placed around the legs of the table to ensure family unity.
- There were many magical rituals to foresee the future, like pouring liquid lead into water.
WHAT DO WE DO AFTER CHRISTMAS SUPPER?
Once dinner has been eaten and presents opened, people usually visit their close family or neighbors and exchange small gifts. Many people attend the Midnight Mass which is the busiest church service of the year.
25th and 26th December are much quieter and are spent with the closest family. Just resting, laughing and overeating :) 26th December is also the day when St. Stephen is celebrated and you can find many events and parties organized that night.
Big thanks to our friend Ali for sharing pictures of her Slovak Christmas:)
Author: Zuzana Mytna