When we were first married, my husband and I lived and worked in London for a bit. I taught English at a local college, and had the pleasure of becoming friends with many of my wonderful students. One lovely woman, Janka, and I have been able to keep in touch through facebook. I am so excited to have her share with us the traditions around Christmas in Slovakia, plus her extra-special recipe for the most delicious, spiced honey cookies you’ll ever try! D’akujem vám- thank you!!
I will talk mainly about the differences between Slovakia and Western Europe, and possibly to the USA.
So the first difference is that our Christmas (Vianoce) is very much driven by Christian and mainly by Catholic tradition. For us the first Christmas holiday day is Christmas Eve – in Slovakia it is called Generous Day. This has a reason, we get the presents already on this day )
Usually on this day you would put up the tree (unlike in USA, where you have a tree already for weeks I guess). This comes from the times when your tree would be a simple spruce brought from the forest – then you want that as fresh and green as possible for Christmas days, so you cannot put it up very early. So you decorate the tree, and prepare meals.
Catholics are supposed to be fasting all day, or at the very least, not to eat meat. Actually the story is that if you fast all day then you will see the golden piglet in the evening ). This works on children that would be eating everything directly from under your hands and then would not be able to eat a festive dinner ). Catholics need to be fasting till midnight, Evangelists till dark.
According to this you have a small meal during the day. It depends very much on the region, but usually it is soup: it can be sour cabbage soup with dried mushrooms and prunes, it can be lentil soup, it can be sour white soup from dried mushrooms….this you would have during the daytime.
But the main meal is a dinner. Bear in mind that Slovakia until the 20th century was quite a poor country, so the meals are very much influenced by this. Fish that everybody can catch his own, mushrooms, that you can pick up and dry for yourself, vegetables and potatoes, apples, nuts… those are the main ingredients…only in the south and bigger towns do they have also smoked ham or mayonnaise.
For dinner the whole family should get together, no one is supposed to be on his own. It is traditional to lay down one more place at the table, so if a beggar would come you can host him.
The father of the family cut an apple crosswise, if you get a star, the next year will be happy, it you get a cross someone will die (this is actually a very stupid and scary tradition). A happier tradition is this: everybody gets a wafer – very thin, like holy wafer, but as big as a dessert plate. You put on some honey, slices of garlic and bits of walnuts, and stick on another wafer. Then everybody on the table should bite into each others’ wafers – this will ensure that they will love each other for the next year. Also you eat the apple with that. The meanings are: garlic for health, honey that you will be sweet and lovable, nuts for beauty. Christmas in Slovakia has a mystery and magic and certain secret to it… it never was that flashy…but even here the times are changing.
But back to our dinner.
The next course is soup – again it can be soured cabbage soup like for the lunch, but more rich – if you are Evangelist you can already have in there some sausages (the red ones, like chorizo) or sour cream, smoked ham…In the northern regions they have lentil soup. We eat bread with soup. Bread is important an part because it symbolizes plenitude for next year.
Then the main course is fish. It is a fresh water local carp fish. It is sold a week before Christmas in Slovakia in the streets from big tanks and pools alive…and many people keep it alive at home in the bath till Christmas Eve to have it really fresh and to get rid of the possible muddy taste….to great discomfort of adults and great enjoyment of children. We also used to have a carp (or two) in our bath at least for two days. We would spend hours in that bathroom with my brother! ) We would name the fish and talk to it, and give it toys into the water. ) My mum would need to change our clothes regularly as we would have wet sleeves all the time! ) But it has also an educational moment – as then the moment comes that the head of the family takes the meat stick and kills the fish … and children from a small age are exposed to this process…how you get your food on the plate….I personally think that particularly in the towns this is one of the rare moments where you actually are present in the process of getting food from an animal. Anyway, so you kill the fish, clean it, and cut it into horse-shoe shapes for good luck (everything has a mystery in Slovakia) ). We coat it in flour, egg, and breadcrumbs and fry it. You also save a few scales and put them into your wallet so you would have loads of money next year (they look like small silver monies, so that is where this mystery comes from).
With the fish we eat potato salad – in towns it is mayonnaise salad with carrots, peas, gherkins, and more, but to the pure north they have just a simple vinegar potato salad with onions.
If all this happens after midnight or you are Evangelist you can have also smoked ham or pork escalopes…actually, our family was never so fussy. ) We would have dinner nice and early, as that was the main meal of the day, so we usually started about 5 pm, so it would allow enough time for presents before children must go to sleep.
Yes! We get presents right after dinner ). The present are from “Jezisko” which translates as “Little Jesus” … as a child I never analysed how it was that this little baby would bring so many presents…it looked perfectly natural to me. )
Also – part of the Christmas tradition are fairy tales on TV. We watch them year after year, some of them are like 50 years old and we love them and without certain ones it would not be Christmas. You should really check out this one:
I was not able to find it in English, but maybe it exist. It is called “Tri orisky pro Popelku,” and it means “Three nuts for Cinderella.” Apparently the English title could be also “Three gifts for Cinderella.” It is a Czech movie, winter-bound story of Cinderella, full of nice atmosphere, love towards animals, light jokes, and happy endings. ) I can´t recommend it highly enough!
During Christmas Eve, mainly in the evening there are carol singers going door to door and you are supposed to offer them some cakes. Oh, the Christmas cakes! That is a whole separate story- let’s just say that it is quite normal to bake for weeks before and make dozens of small tea cookies of different shapes and fillings and decors, and then some big cakes or even tarts, and also some traditional from yeast dough with poppy seeds or nut fillings…. a good housewife has kitchen cabinets full of boxes of cookies and cakes! To the enjoyment of kids of course, )) you’re never able to hide them.
For Christmas in Slovakia, we then we go for midnight mass to church…this is so typical that also atheists go and it was tolerated even during communist times. Children are happy to be out so late and with eyes wide open to watch the festive atmosphere and teenagers are happy to leak from there and hang out around the church usually in some square with their mates or their first loves. )
On the Christmas day everybody sleeps in… tired of the previous day and all of the cooking, fuss, food, children running around with new toys, church….
Usually as kids, we used to get up first and go to the kitchen and put some of the potato salad and cold fish or ham on a plate, and take it to the TV to watch some more fairy tales still in our pajamas. Oh I loved this! One of the few days in the year when this was allowed.
Then – if we didn’t already spend Christmas Eve with our grandparents – we would go for a big festive lunch to our grandparents’ house. The usual meal would be roasted duck. Or those who didn’t have that for dinner on the day before could also have pork escalopes …pork means abundance and luck.
The next day we call “The Second Christmas day” (like they do in Christmas in Germany), and it is also the day of St Stefan (Stephen). It is traditional to organize a balls or other dancing events…if the previous two days were the days of mystery and a bit of contemplation, praying for some people, being with family etc, the Second Christmas day is the day for pure fun and entertainment.
Listen to Slovak Christmas Songs