A Slovak 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.
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.
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.
A classic Christmas tree decoration, bonbons. I don’t have them on my tree because they have a tendency to get eaten.
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?
Jan 03, 2015 @ 15:22:44
Thank you so much for sharing these Christmas traditions with us!
Oh my, Naomi, I just looked at your profile and see we’ve lots in common. I was in the states for 6 yrs (TN) with hubby and 4 children (twins among them too!) and have returned to Canada now (Ontario). My heritage is a British one (born in Belfast, N. Ireland and came to Canada at 3yrs old) so most of our Christmas traditions adopt the British theme though I’ve come to use some of my German and Dutch friends’ Christmas traditions along the way too.
And your fermenting things left, right, and centre on the counter top sounds oh so familiar to my TN days making Kombucha and the likes of kefir and such things like that. My dehydrator was my best friend at the time. We’d a Weston Price addict of a friend there.
I am looking forward to browsing through your blog and recipes. Love the title of the blog!
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:34:50
Thanks for writing, Barbara! We do have a lot in common! With twins and four kids, you’ll appreciate the title of the blog 🙂 I realized I only wrote about our Slovak customs, we’ve kept some Canadian/British ones too, like Christmas fruitcake.
Dec 25, 2016 @ 05:23:35
You are blessedly bodacious, Naomi! It’s marvelous to see the customs and traditions I grew up with written about with such charm and respect!
Naomi, have you ever had bobalki? For us, Christmas without bobalki was unthinkable. Bobalki begin with homemade bread dough, which you roll into small balls. Next, place the bobalki onto greased baking sheets and bake them until they’re golden brown. Then, soften them by soaking the balls in water for a minute or so, then squeezing them out. Serve your bobalki covered with sauerkraut and browned onions.
Dec 28, 2016 @ 13:29:15
Thank so much Molly, I’m glad you enjoyed it!
I haven’t had that kind of bobalki, no. Is the sauerkraut raw or cooked first (I’m very interested in sauerkraut recipes)? I’ll have to try it!
Jul 01, 2017 @ 08:49:51
Molly: My mother (& her parents) came to America from Slovakia when she was 3 yrs. old. Mother made a dish that she called bobale (sp?) made from semi-sweet baked buns and hung few days in cheesecloth to get hardened. Christmas Eve, she put them in boiling water, took out and covered with butter and added a topping of poppyseed mixture (as best I can remember). I was just a little kid. I have not come across it since. How I wish I could visit Slovakia.
Jul 01, 2017 @ 14:28:21
Helene’s tours would be an excellent way to visit Slovakia – she has traveled here extensively and it would take out the stress of organizing and figuring out where to go.
I know exactly what bobule are! My mother in law makes them every Christmas too. I will get a recipe up this year, closer to Christmas.
Jul 11, 2017 @ 09:47:14
How would I get in touch with Helene’s tours? If I should be so lucky to visit Slovakia? Also, what did your mother-in-law put on top of the bobule? I want to be sure I get the recipe closer to Christmas time. I enjoyed all your photos and write-ups. Thank you so much.
Jul 11, 2017 @ 19:02:31
I guess the easiest way to get in touch with Helene’s tours is to contact one of the people on this page: http://www.our-slovakia.com/our-slovakia.html
My mother-in-law puts butter, honey, and ground poppy seeds on the bobule. I think she brushes them with water first too. I’ll get a more precise recipe up in the fall!
Jan 06, 2018 @ 01:17:23
My mother’s bobalki was served with warm milk, sugar and poppy seed. My kids and the the in-laws hated it, me and my five siblings loved it. My mother also served a mushroom soup made with sauerkraut juice and sour cream. It is awesome, so I make it often.
Jan 08, 2018 @ 11:56:40
I just heard this year about a mushroom soup with sour cream for Christmas. I’ll have to get someone to make it for me by next Christmas! They didn’t mention the sauerkraut juice though – did she just add a bit at the end of cooking or add it before? I’ve seen people add vinegar to the end of creamy soups and have wondered if sauerkraut juice wasn’t used in the past.
Jan 04, 2015 @ 04:12:54
I find it so Wonderful to see other traditions experienced through your eyes Naomi! Photos are great as well! xx
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:35:31
Glad you enjoyed, thank you!
adrienne @ whole new mom
Jan 04, 2015 @ 04:49:15
I love the ornaments. What a beautiful post! I would love the rice stuffing recipe tho I might need to use cauliflower depending on our diet at the time. The spruce needles idea is wonderful as well.
Blessings to you and yours!
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:37:17
Thank you! I was going to try and get the rice stuffing up before Thanksgiving, but it didn’t work out. Gluten has been an issue in my extended family since I was a little kid, so it’s what I grew up with. My mom used to make it with wild rice mixed in, but I couldn’t find any here.
Jan 04, 2015 @ 10:31:24
Very interesting traditions. I knew about the oplatky, because my grandmother always had some at Christmas. I always wondered how she managed to get some, but with so many Slavic immigrants in Michigan, they had their connections. That lentil soup with prunes sounds delicious. I had that vegetarian sauerkraut prune soup (and, of course, the carp) when I spent Christmas up at my cousin’s in the Orawa region of Poland a few years ago. Wishing you a healthy and happy 2015, Naomi!
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:38:28
I did have oplatky once in Ontario, with people who had Polish connections. The lentil soup will be up soon! A wonderful joyful healthy 2015 to you too!
Jan 04, 2015 @ 16:21:18
My fathers family came from Prague. We had fish and lentils every Christmas Eve. We were told the more lentils we would eat the more profitable the new year.
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:39:04
Ha! It was probably told to kids to get them to eat the lentils before all the Christmas goodies 🙂
Jan 04, 2015 @ 16:43:47
What love traditions you have in Slovakia, especially the one about Baby Jesus bringing the gifts. Zambian traditions involve going for evening service on Christmas eve and having chicken and rice for Christmas lunch. We eat rice and chicken year round, but it just tastes different on Christmas day. Presents are also exchanged if the family can afford or wants to. My tradition as an adult, was for me or my domestic helper to prepare the meal at my home and drop it very early on Christmas at my parents’ home. We would have breakfast with them and then return home.
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:40:02
How nice! Even ordinary foods taste different on Christmas. Thanks for sharing.
Jan 04, 2015 @ 23:17:06
This was very interesting to read. These are such beautiful traditions. I’m a little envious. But really living in our multicultural society we could borrow from anyone and it would be all right.
Jan 05, 2015 @ 11:43:09
I only wrote about the Slovak traditions, I guess I should have included the Canadian traditions we’ve kept, like pancake breakfast (with lots of whipped cream and maple syrup!) and opening any Canadian gifts we have in the morning. You can adopt some Slovak traditions 🙂 One thing I miss is going out into the forest to find a tree. The forests were I live are mostly deciduous (and all protected anyway).
Jan 06, 2015 @ 04:47:01
I loved reading this so much! Thank you for sharing it. 🙂
Jan 06, 2015 @ 14:31:39
Jan 07, 2015 @ 22:07:59
Thanks so much for this post. Our family is from southeast region of Poland. Many of the traditions are americanized now – I am second generation. We continue to do a fish dish and Oplatky comes every year from our Polish family. We stand in a circle and the oldest family member (its now my grandma who is 94). Each person breaks off a piece and she speaks a blessing over each of us for the coming year.
Loved the post ESPECIALLY the fact you posted in January. Lovely pictures.
Jan 08, 2015 @ 01:07:15
Thanks for sharing your family’s tradition. How special to receive a blessing from your grandmother at such an age and how great that you’ve kept it up. Glad you appreciated my taking advantage that Christmas is 12 days long 😉
Nov 24, 2015 @ 05:40:19
We are Slovak/Bohemian mix and there are two lovely pastries we have every year: kolache, and nut rolls. My sister and I are the only ones who have bothered to learn how to make these, but I’m teaching my kids our (Americanized) version of kolache. I have a neighbor from Czech Rep. and hope to learn the old world style soon. 🙂
Nov 27, 2015 @ 11:22:29
The nut rolls are delicious. I’m hoping to get some more recipes up for Christmas in the next month.
Dec 14, 2015 @ 22:12:18
I bet people greet you like this in Slovakia. I was born and lived in Slovakia till 1999, then I moved to Wisconsin – to live with my American husband. I’m always impressed to find people who are not native yet like Slovaks and their culture like it was theirs.
As for Christmas customs – I’d add that my family tried to fast whole day on Dec 24 to have a great appetite and a room in stomach for all the goodies. We started to eat our dinner after the first star was seen on the nigh sky. Village people who have livestock would eat only after their animals were fed. Their lives and well being depend on them. Some families put straw under the table – to remember that Jesus was born in stable, some put chain around the table legs to symbolize the unity and their wishes to stay together. Christmas Day is the holiest in my family. My mother never cooked on that day – we ate leftovers. Besides Church mass we didn’t go anywhere, we had no guest and we enjoyed each other company – watching TV, listening to music, reading books, etc. I’m blessed that my husband likes Slovak food and does not mind my traditions even though it’s harder to keep them in this ‘commercialized’ country. (One thing I had to give up was gift opening in the evening and moving it to the morning.) I believe that one day my kids same like yours will appreciate it. Keep writing and spread news about Slovak traditions!
Dec 15, 2015 @ 14:38:19
Thanks for sharing your traditions. Interesting that your mother never cooked for Christmas Day. Sounds like such a peaceful Christmas, as opposed to all the commercialization. And yes, I don’t think kids appreciate traditions all the much until they are older, so keep at it!
Dec 15, 2015 @ 13:36:11
Visiting your blog is visiting my memory of childhood.
My parents are from Czechoslovakia. Dad was from Kosice’.
Mom came from a village near the High Tetra Mountains.
They met here in the States. Youngstown, Ohio had an amusement park…Idora Park, that held a weekly polka dance on Saturday evenings. That is where they met.
Mom made the traditional Kolache and many of the traditional foods for Christmas Eve. We, too, did not eat meat on Christmas Eve. Dad’s homemade keilbasi was s very tempting! ✨
I made Kolache just yesterday to send to my sister in Denver, Colorado and for our daughters.
More to be made this week!
Merry Christmas to you and your family♥️🌲💚
Dec 15, 2015 @ 14:53:40
I’m glad to bring you memories 🙂 Kolache are so delicious as well! So many recipes to share on the blog, not enough time.
Homemade klobasa is amaaazing. I can imagine that smoky smell. Very tempting!
Merry Christmas to you and your family as well!
Dec 25, 2016 @ 21:45:44
Thank you for this. My Slovak mother has been gone four years and I didn’t get the chance to ask her about some of her traditions. She told us that growing up, her family of 11 in Pennsylvania would put hay under the table and a chain on which they all had to lay their feet. Growing up in California, we didn’t do the hay and chain, but we did eat mushroom soup, fish, and potatoes and go to Mass on Christmas Eve. And we always had oplatky sent to us by her sister. Christmas Eve was always the biggest celebration in our house and we opened presents then–my non-Slovak friends always thought we were so strange for not opening gifts on Christmas morning! So thank you for helping me understand what has gotten lost over the years…and make me cry in a good way.
Dec 28, 2016 @ 13:34:43
Aw, Patricia, thank you so much. I’m honoured that my little post has so much meaning for you. Perhaps you can bring back some of the traditions.
Jan 12, 2017 @ 15:59:27
The 12 days of Christmas can last longer!
Those traditions always keep us connected to our extended families, far and close.
Having cut our tree with the kids on December 22 at St. Paul’s Abbey Tree Farm it’s still standing here proud and tall, without shedding a needle this year! Must be a balsam fir. …. Our kids love the fun of choosing their tree in the woods; I never did as a child, there were no tree farms. Maybe some Slovak enterpreuners will think of starting them soon. We have about 15 tree farms within a short drive in our county in New Jersey .
Jan 12, 2017 @ 18:53:52
Yes, it would be lovely to go together to a tree farm to cut down a tree with the kids!
Dec 24, 2017 @ 03:30:31
Our family came from the Martin area and were Evangelicals, so their customs were a bit different from the Catholics in that we did not eat Carp or any fish during the Christmas holidays. Instead, we enjoyed a Kapustnica as the main course on Christmas Eve followed by what we called Lokse for dessert. The Kapustnica was a sauerkraut stew consisting of Klobasa, wild mushrooms, sauerkraut, a couple of country ribs, an apple, an onion or two, a few pepper corns, a dash of salt and some sugar to sweeten the pot a bit. This was cooked for a couple of hours, the ribs were deboned, then chilled overnight to separate the excess fat from the broth, then ladled off. The Lokse was a diced bread with a gravy of honey, butter, and ground poppy seed poured over it. An alternative gravy consisted of crushed cookie crumbs and butter. Either way, delish! The Lokse were shared with the animals in the barn on Christmas Eve to thank them for their contributions to the family’s welfare.
Dec 24, 2017 @ 09:51:49
Thanks for sharing! I should talk to my Protestant friends to find out more of their traditions. Yes, some people have a meat filled kapustnica, although I haven’t heard of adding an apple before. The lokse sounds similar to the mini buns my mother in law makes, filled with plum butter and covered in the same poppy seed mixture. A lovely tradition, sharing with the animals in the barn.
Oct 28, 2018 @ 11:24:55
by chance, I have come over this discussion when making a break in my translation work. Some explanatory information to the culinary discussion:
Kapustnica (cabbage soup) filled usually also with smoked meat and sausage and eaten on Christmas Eve by Protestants is nicknamed “Lutheran” as they do not observe fasts.
Lokše (plural of lokša) are pancakes, made of potato pastry, baked dry. Eaten with either with sweet filling, or as side dish to e.g. roasted goose.
On the contrary, palacinky (similar to waffels, plural of palacinka) are pancakes made of sweetened, yeast dough and baked/fried on little oil or fat. Filled usually with marmalade or sugar and rolled in.
Bubalky, bobále, púpalky (I do not know the right expressions in individual dialects, for me they are called bobále)- principally the same dish; little pieces of dough pastry, baked and eaten sprayed by/poured on with warm milk and ground poppy seeds – used to be a typical Christmas Eve dish.
Koláče (plural of koláč, origin from kolo=wheel as they used to be round shaped) – simply said cakes, sweet dough pastry, baked and topped with poppy, fruit marmalade, walnuts, sweet cabbage or tvaroh (quark). Similar is posúch, baked, made of bread pastry and thus not sweetened. Langoš is similar to posúch, but fried on oil or fat. The latter two are also very good, mainly with mashed garlic and I greatly recommend them.
Buchty – in fact cakes, but filled inside with marmalade or quark, etc. and baked.
Linecké cesto (pastry)- means pastry in Linz style (Austrian town) – maybe or may not be originating from that region.
klobása – sausage, mostly smoked and thinner than saláma (salami)
tlačenka – headcheese
At last –
“The lokse sounds similar to the mini buns my mother in law makes, filled with plum butter and covered in the same poppy seed mixture.”
You must mean “parené buchty” – made of sigh pastry, boiled in steam and eaten as you mention.
Sorry for bothering you.
Nov 05, 2018 @ 17:44:23
Thank you for all the information, Jan! I didn’t know that the name kolac came from kolo because they were round like a wheel.
Nov 27, 2018 @ 02:15:58
I enjoyed reading all the posts about Christmas traditions and food! Very interesting. I came to this web site this evening, hoping to find the prayer in Slovak said when the the head of the household signs a cross (with honey) on the foreheads of everyone at the table of štedrý Večer (which we called vilija). Does anyone know such a prayer? I’m also interested in what Slovaks consider koláče. Slovak emigrants brought this term/word (koláče, koláčky) to America over 100 years ago, and I believe it was used primarily to describe a certain type of Slovak cookie (small cold dough cookies filled with apricot or nuts — or perhaps larger nut or poppy seed rolls?) Modern-day Slovaks tell me that Koláče basically means any dessert type of thing that’s “baked.” For example, this would include cakes, even though the specific word for cake is “torta.” Thoughts about any of this? And don’t forget the that prayer I need! Dennis
Dec 03, 2018 @ 15:20:12
Kolac does generally refer to sweet baked goods, although I would say that torta stays torta. I think, perhaps, that the Slovak immigrants of yesteryear would have had far fewer sweet goods, as sugar was rare/expensive and honey precious. The term just got broadened as the sweets category also broadened.
I will ask about the prayer!