The right present for the right person at the right time

WITH the tang of kapustnica still fresh on our tongues from Christmas, many Slovaks and English-speaking expats are already looking forward to Valentine's Day (February 14), another holiday that involves giving presents.

What colour flower you give someone here doesn't matter much, but numbers do.
photo: TASR

WITH the tang of kapustnica still fresh on our tongues from Christmas, many Slovaks and English-speaking expats are already looking forward to Valentine's Day (February 14), another holiday that involves giving presents.

But gift giving can be a delicate matter, especially when crossing cultures. Is it appropriate to offer a bottle of wine to your Slovak mother-in-law? Is it a faux pas not to? And what kind of gift for your colleague's name day is a nice gesture that doesn't imply too much?

The good news is, there's always flowers, which remain one of the safest and most common gifts in Slovakia. Any woman celebrating her birthday, name day, or graduation expects to get them from family and friends. And men are happy to receive either alcohol or a box of chocolates.

Be a little careful when selecting the flowers, though. Which colours you choose for your bouquet doesn't seem to carry much significance here, but the number does. Giving just one flower means Ľúbim ťa (I love you) and even numbers express mourning. So you can imagine the surprise when my Slovaks friends heard I gave my mother two white roses on her birthday.

Flowers are also the expected gift when visiting someone's home. A bouquet with too many flowers to count goes to the woman of the household and a bottle of good quality alcohol, e.g. cognac, goes to the man. A box of chocolates is a common side gift, and is always appreciated.

Birthdays have their own set of traditions. On your birthday, beware of invitations to go out to a pub, because you'll be expected to pay the tab. If you're invited to a party for someone who considers you more of an acquaintance, bring a card with flowers or chocolate. If you're close friends, give a thoughtful gift, like a book with a personal inscription or a CD you know they've wanted.

But keep in mind that being invited at all is significant. Birthday parties in Slovakia are typically quite small, private affairs limited to immediate family and close friends, with the only exception being when someone turns an age that ends in 5 or 0, so don't forget to express your gratitude to the host.

Perhaps the most important tradition of a birthday party is the birthday handshake. Here's how it works: Both the birthday boy/girl and the guest presenting a gift stand and face each other. In your left hand you hold the present and with your right you shake the birthday boy/girl's hand while you smile, look directly into their eyes, and say: všetko najlepšie k narodeninám. Prajem Vám/ti veľa zdravia, štastia a spokojnosti (Happy birthday. I wish you a lot of health, happiness, and peace). You then hand over the present, and can hug them or kiss them on each cheek.

Of course, you can always elaborate on the wishes for health, happiness, etc. Some families have even developed a game of trying to outdo each other with the funniest wish.

The birthday handshake is so important that at larger birthday parties the guests actually line up to present the gifts, and the the birthday boy/girl is left struggling to hold a growing mountain of presents in one arm as they simultaneously shake hands, accept the good wishes, smile, hug and kiss.

If you know a little Slovak, you might be surprised to hear family members say Mám ťa rád to each other at the party. Don't worry. Though this grammatical construction is usually used to say you like or enjoy something, it is the only expression suitable for expressing non-romantic love. Only partners use Milujem ťa or Ľúbim ťa.

Another very important day for Slovaks is their name day. What name falls on which day can be found in calendars, newspapers, on websites, or by listening to the radio. It is often one of the hardest traditions for even the most well-intentioned expat to become accustomed to because there's simply nothing comparable in their country.

Name days are said to have the most significance at work and school, where people often don't know each other well enough to know each others' birthdays. Like a birthday, it's common to go out for a drink on someone's name day, but this time, they won't have to pay.

Usual name day gifts include a text message, phone call, or e-mail wishing the person všetko najlepšie k meninám (Happy Name Day) and flowers or chocolate.

To order flowers or other Valentine's Day gifts, contact Curel in Bratislava at 02/4820-5151, in Košice at 055/632-5633, or Also, has a whole section dedicated to Valentine's Day.

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