Christmas in Slovakia
This article was originally written for Helene Cincebeaux’s Slovakia Magazine. It’s scheduled to appear in the Winter 2010 issue.
Christmas in Slovakia is the most magical of times. The streets are quiet except for the sound of snow crunching underfoot. The frost paints elaborate crystal flowers on the foggy window panes, while inside, a family sits down at the dinner table in a room filled with the delicious smell of freshly baked cookies.
Not long ago, the first sign of winter signaled that long and cold dark nights were ahead. Howling winds would cover tracks in the snow. The cold air would squeeze its way through the crevices in the wooden walls. Food would be scarce, and spring far away. The sun slowly faded, losing its life-giving strength. The darkness brought out the witches from their hiding. This was their time to play.
November 25th, the day of St. Katherine, was the first of many so called stridžie dni, witching days. No one was safe. The witches loved to sneak into barns and steal milk or lead horses away. A witch could easily take the likeness of another. To be visited by a strange woman on one of these days was a bad omen indeed. Such a visitor could easily find herself being chased away from the house with a broom or having hot coals thrown at her. It was best for the family to be extra vigilant.
But Katherine slowly rolled over to Barbora, Mikuláš (St. Nicholas), Lucia, and before one knew it, Christmas was knocking on the doors. Christmas, arriving soon after the shortest day of the year, brought the good news that the worst was over. The days would soon start getting longer, and the sun, rejuvenated, would bring about a new year.
Throughout the Middle Ages, New Years was celebrated on December 25th, and belief of “first-day magic” was widespread. As one did on New Years, so was one bound to do for the rest of the year. This is why Christmas (Vianoce) is associated with abundance. Even the Slovak name for Christmas Eve, štedrý večer – meaning “generous evening” – tells this story. Having many dishes on the table assured abundance in the coming year.
While in the U.S. Christmas is celebrated mainly on December 25th, in Slovakia Christmas Eve Day, December 24th, is the most special. The day starts shortly after midnight. The lady of the house begins kneading dough for the many kinds of baked goodies she will prepare. Baking had to be finished before the sunrise and the quality of the desserts was a matter of prestige. Hurrying was never good. The dough had to rise and the crust remain intact, otherwise, bad luck would surely fall upon the household.
Carolers, young lads bringing good wishes, came with the rising sun, and were rewarded with koláče (home baked cookies) or a shot of homemade slivovica (plum brandy), if they were of age. But eating during the day was strictly prohibited. A fast was held and girls who made it to dinner without eating could expect to find husband sooner.
Of course, life is different in modern Slovakia. Many traditions are slowly disappearing, but what remains to this day are the rituals associated with the Christmas dinner. Many cookies still dot the dinner table, even if the dough comes from the supermarket freezer.
In the cities, opening of Christmas markets signals the arrival of Christmas. In the booths you will find food specialties such as lokše, flat potato-dough pancakes filled with sauerkraut, goose liver, or jam, and also varené víno, mulled wine. But it’s not the food or the Christmas trees that people come looking for. They come to buy a live carp. The fish is kept alive (usually in the bathtub to the delight of any kids in the family) until Christmas Eve. The scales are removed and the fish is prepared for dinner. According to Catholic traditions, meat could not be consumed until after midnight mass. The fast did not apply to fish and fried breaded carp became the traditional main course on this holiday. The fish scales represent coins; whoever keeps one in his or her wallet can be assured of wealth.
It’s not just fish that holds a mythical meaning. Every Christmas table contains a jar of honey and a few cloves of garlic, foods symbolizing health. Poppy seeds and peas are often found; both represent money. To have peňazí ako maku, as much money as poppy seeds, would be nice indeed!
The evening begins with the arrival of the first star in the night sky. The lady of the house lights the candles. Prayers are said and everybody takes a shot; it is called radostník (a merry-maker). An apple is sliced down the middle – unbroken star indicates good luck. Next come oblátky, Christmas wafers traditionally prepared by the school teacher or priest of the village, but of course, nowadays baked commercially. They are eaten with honey and garlic. In many families, oblátky are followed by bobalky, pieces of dough soaked in milk and honey and topped with poppy seeds. Bobalky are some of the most ancient of all foods in Slovak cuisine. Their history dates back to the days when only unleavened breads were baked, which had to be softened in milk unless eaten fresh out of the oven.
The dinner continues with soup. Soup is an important part of any Slovak meal, and Christmas is no different. The type varies from region to region, but most often, sauerkraut soup, kapustnica, is served. This delicious soup is made by cooking sauerkraut and mushrooms with garlic, caraway, paprika, nutmeg and onions. Apples or plums add a slight sweetness to the hearty soup. But the recipe, and even the name, varies.
In the east, it is called jucha, and is made only from sauerkraut juice mixed with dried peas, plums and even sausage. Another version is called mačanka, and includes mushrooms, garlic, and onion. This version is thickened with sour cream or flour, and is eaten by dipping pieces of bread into the sauce.
Sometimes during dinner, mom or dad would secretly sneak out to place presents under the tree. After the main course of fried fish and potato salad, it was time to see what Dedo Mráz, Grandpa Frost, brought you. The family moved to the living room and one by one, opened presents. This was also the time to visit close friends and wish them Merry Christmas (štastné vianoce). Then the family put on their heavy coats and set off on a walk to church for Midnight Mass. Witnessing a procession of villagers, with snow crunching under their feet, their lanterns swaying under the starry skies, is truly a magical sight.
You too can experience Slovak Christmas by preparing these wonderful treats for your family. You will find illustrated, step-by-step recipes for many holiday treats on slovakcooking.com. The 18-months old site now features over 80 illustrated step-by-step recipes using ingredients easily found in your local grocery store. Give it a try. Dobrú chuť a štastné vianoce! (Bon Appétit and Merry Christmas)
You will also find out more about Slovak Christmas traditions in the 2011 followup, Merry Christmas.Tweet