A Slovak Christmas

opening gifts on Christmas

I know, I know, I’m breaking every blogging rule in the book. It’s January and I should be writing about new beginnings and positive thoughts, and here I am still on the old year. I wanted to share how a Slovak Christmas is with you though, and real life means it’s already January before I sit down to do it

A Slovak Christmas begins on štedrý Večer, literally bounteous evening, which is Christmas Eve. Christmas trees in Slovakia are traditionally put up on this day, although now some families put them up a few days before. The day is spent cleaning and cooking in most households, while burning incense (frankincense and myrrh).

Some families still take a walk to the cemetery before supper, to pray for deceased loved ones and ancestors. It’s also a chance to slip the presents under the tree. When you return, Ježiško has already brought the presents.

Gifts in Slovakia are brought by Ježiško, Baby Jesus. You can send letters to him at the post office, with the postal code 999 99, and a letter will be sent back, though we’ve never done it. St. Nicholas, Mikulaš, comes on Dec. 6 leaving goodies in boots and Santa Claus is mostly for just decorative or commercial purposes.

A Slovak Christmas

When we sit down to the evening meal, there is a whole ritual before we begin eating. Underneath each plate is a bill (or coins if that’s all we happened to have in our wallets this year), a hope that the coming year will be generous financially. The smell and smoke of  incense is thick in the air; the lights are turned down; the night is still and quiet. My husband reads the story of Christ’s birth from the Bible. We then share slices from one apple, a symbol of unity. A walnut each is opened, as an indicator of health for the next year  and each eats a clove of garlic (or piece of clove) for good health.

Then is the children’s favourite, oplatky with honey. Oplatky are thin wafers, some say symbolic of the Eucharist, or communion wafers. We drizzle them with honey and make ‘sandwiches’.

For supper, each area of Slovakia has varying traditions. We have cream of lentil soup with prunes (recipe). The prunes sound weird, but it is actually really good. Another popular soup is sauerkraut soup, sometimes creamy, with prunes and dried mushrooms (recipe for vegetarian version). My mother in law remembers having vegetarian pea soup with prunes.

Traditionally Christmas Eve was a day Catholics didn’t eat meat, so the main course consists of fish and potato salad. During Advent fishmongers sell live carp, and people used to keep the carp in the bathtub (my mother in law has a second bathtub in the basement) until it was time to kill them for dinner. This tradition is dying out, as it’s easier to buy fish for it. Neither my husband or I are big fans of carp (although I have made a great soup from it) so we have trout instead, baked whole with lots of butter.

Old style Slovak potato salad is oil and vinegar based with lots of onions, but now most Slovaks made a creamy potato salad, with mayonnaise, tartar sauce, and cream.

By the end of dinner the children are antsy to open gifts and we always prolong the anticipation by cleaning up after the meal first. Then it’s time for gifts, fresh exotic fruit, and all the sweet treats that have been prepared.

opening Christmas gifts

Classic Slovak sweet treats include medovniky, spiced honey cookies (recipe), pupaky (tiny yeast dough buns covered in ground sesame seeds, honey, and butter), linecke cookies (something like a sugar cookie made into a sandwich with jam), and these light airy vanilla cookies.

Afterwards some go to Midnight Mass, although we go in the morning with the children.

We combine Slovak customs with Canadian customs, so on Christmas day we have a big pancake breakfast with all the trimmings (including maple syrup) and open any gifts that have come from Canada.

The Christmas day meal usually consists of bone broth soup (recipe), schnitzel, breaded deep fried cutlets, and creamy potato salad. This is the usual celebratory meal for any occasion in Slovakia. My husband is an expert schnitzel maker, this year he only made 40. (Here’s a photo of it on Instagram)

My husband’s family gets together on the 26th, called Stefan’s Day here. We’ve started having turkey, as it feeds a large crowd with less work than schnitzels, and provides a little taste of home for my American sister in law and I. I make a mean rice stuffing, this year the sage was gone from the garden so I used spruce needles, and it was delicious.

Salonky tree ornaments
A classic Christmas tree decoration, bonbons. I don’t have them on my tree because they have a tendency to get eaten.

Handmade Christmas decoration
Handmade Christmas ornaments commonly seen at markets. Ribbon is folded and pinned to a styrofoam ball.

Update: Here is a playlist of Slovak Christmas carols that I put together on Youtube.

What are your Christmas traditions? Slovaks, do you do something different or have I left anything out?