Christmas in Slovakia

By Juliana

December 18, 2007

This year I will spend my second Christmas in Edinburgh, more than one thousand miles away from my family in Bratislava. Even though I’m looking forward to it I believe that everyone who ever lived abroad will agree that no matter how jolly and great experience you make of the festive Christmas dishes and traditions in the foreign country, it never feels the same as Christmas you know from home.
Traditionally, the festival of Christmas in Slovakia would start by Advent, a four week period of prayers and fasting. In the households four candles in Advent wreath would be burned one by one every week to mark each of the four Sundays preceding the Christmas Eve.
In town centres Christmas markets would take place offering food delicacies such as cabbage soup and dishes of fish and meat barbecued directly in front of you, sweet wafers, lokše (baked potato pancakes), honey cakes and hot grog, punch or Christmas mead, hand made decorations and various gifts from wood, glass, ceramics, metal or straw. The tradition of Christmas markets in Slovakia is still very strong today and every winter when the small wooden stalls open and the smell of cinnamon, mulled wine and baked sausages fills the chilly air I find the main square in Bratislava transformed in a lively and joyful place for meeting with my friends and relatives.
Right before Christmas vats with live carp and Christmas trees appear for sale and while most Christian countries consider the Christmas Day (25th of December) as the most important day of Christmas festival, in Slovakia the Celebrations center around the eve of the 24th.
Despite the more recent warm winters there are still good chances that on Christmas Eve the towns and villages wake up into a white morning with snow covering the landscape. From early morning in every house the feverish preparations take place with father’s dexterity and precision soon being tested when he has to put the Christmas tree up and slaughter the carp for the festive supper. Children are then usually in charge of decorating the Christmas tree before they run outside to play in the snow. Traditionally the trees were decorated with small apples, walnuts, home made wooden or straw decorations, baked gingerbreads in the form of Angels and other religious symbols, candies and candles to remember all those who passed away. The Christmas tree was then kept until 6th of January, the feast of the Three Kings.

The Slovak words for Christmas Eve are literally “bountiful eve” and the bounty of this sacred evening lies in the wide range of festive dishes, of which there had to be twelve different kinds. The dinner starts with the whole family gathering around the table. A place would be also left vacant for the welcome traveller. In religious families a prayer would be said and the father would take a little honey and make a small cross on the forehead of each family member. Then a toast would be made and thin wafers imprinted with scenes of the holy birth, called “Oplatky” would be served with honey and sprinkled with bits of fresh garlic. These wafers are common to both Poles and Slovaks living on either side of Tatra Mountains, Europe's second highest mountain range. In the past snow conditions often prevented the villagers from travelling to church for the Midnight liturgy and therefore the village priest would have given the blessed wafers to the faithful to enjoy at the Christmas Eve supper as a reminder of the Eucharist.
During Christmas different soups are served but most popular is the sauerkraut soup with potatoes, dried mushrooms and prunes. Evangelic families prefer to add pork and sausage to the sauerkraut soup, while catholics would only eat meat after the Midnight Mass.
Next come "opekance", small raised dough pieces with milk sugar and poppy seed.
The main course is almost always the carp, a fresh water fish, breaded and fried and served with potato salad.
Many superstitions and traditions with some originally celebrated as winter solstice rituals and dating back to pagan times were adopted by Slovak Christian community and are now directly associated with Christmas and the Christmas Eve in particular. Garlic always had to be on the Christmas table to ward of demons while a scale or two of the carpe were hidden under the tablecloth to bring wealth into the house. The poppy seed was strewn at the portal in order that the evil spirits might be occupied with picking up each morsel and thus would not enter the house. It was believed that whatever one did on Christmas Eve, one would do all year round and that nothing should be lent, because all the family's property would then be "lent out". Many of these rites are still alive nowadays.
A variety of cakes follow the main dinner such as “štedrák” with thin layers of dough and various fillings: marmalade, walnut, poppy seed and cottage cheese. “Vianocka” is sweet yeast white butter bread with raisins. Also gingerbreads, especially nicely decorated with different drawings and ornaments are a Slovak speciality. They often serve not only as food but also as a decoration of the Christmas table or tree.
No matter how special the dishes are children usually rush through the festive dinner as it is only afterwards that they can unwrap the presents left under the Christmas tree by Christ child himself.
At midnight people would attend the mystical Midnight mass where the birth of Jesus the saviour is celebrated through the singing of beautiful “pastorale”, musical compositions in a soft, rural style, based for the most part on nativity playas and performed by the church choirs.

The 25th and 26th are still part of the festive holidays and people would spend them with their friends and relatives. Family visits take place and you can hear the Christmas carols everywhere. Alternatively, many who feel like relaxing in a more active way head for the white slopes of Slovak mountains where the skiing season has just began.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Posted by: Milan on Dec. 19, 2007, 12:07 a.m.

Comment: Vlado, you couln't describedchristmas any better! Too bad, that not too many of our kids/grandkids ever experieced the environmet, customs,the whole atmospher of the holly period!

Posted by: Marta on Dec. 19, 2007, 2:13 a.m.

Comment: I think that Juliana /she is daughter of our friends/ describe the Christmas in Slovakia precisely and nice. I don't have anything to add. Maybe only that big Christmas tree is standing in every town. In Bratislava in front of Slovak National Opera

Posted by: Stano on Dec. 19, 2007, 6:03 p.m.

Comment: ....rozumel som prd, priznávam, ale keď som to už dostal, tak som si pozrel fotky a tie sú pekné:)

Posted by: Daniela on Dec. 28, 2007, 3:36 a.m.

Comment: Thank you for sharing such wonderful memories of Christmas in your country. I can almost smell the cinnamon, mulled wine and baked sausages you describe! Maybe some day you will combine the traditions from Slovakia with some new Scottish ones and enjoy an even richer Christmas experience. That's what happened to me, many years after my family emigrated from Italy to Canada. My children now have the best of both worlds when it comes to family values and traditions.

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Thanks for reading.

„Dávej pozor na to, co si přeješ, mohlo by se ti to splnit“. -NNI

„Dávej pozor na to, co si přeješ, mohlo by se ti to splnit“. -NNI

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