The period before Christmas in Slovakia used to be a blend of Christian customs and folk beliefs known as stridžie dni, or 'witch days', and was governed by numerous superstitions and rituals.
For example, an unmarried woman might throw slippers towards a door. If they landed with the toes pointing to the door, she would remain unmarried for another year. If they pointed back at the woman, a man would soon come into her life.
Other girls banged with wooden spoons on the village well, and according to the sound made predicted the occupation of their future husbands. If, for example, the spoon made a sound like the firing of a gun, the husband would be a game warden; a hollow wooden sound predicted a carpenter.
In one village, girls and young men left the house after Christmas Eve dinner to follow the sound of barking dogs. Blundering about in the dark, it was expected that fate would guide them into the arms of their future mates.
Other girls might prepare 13 pieces of paper, 12 bearing the names of men, and one left blank. They would fold them, put them into a pile, and burn one every day. The paper that was left on Christmas Eve bore the name of their future husband.
In western Slovakia's Trenčín region, an egg laid on the December 13 was taken and hidden by an unmarried woman. Following Christmas Eve dinner, the woman cracked the egg open, removed the yoke, poured the egg white into a cup of cold water and then left the house for midnight mass. When she got back, the occupation of her future husband could be discerned from the shape the egg had taken.
Also on that day, processions of girls dressed in white sheets visited houses in their village, putting cloves of garlic into the mouths of the tenants and sweeping the dirt out of the corners of each dwelling, shouting: Out all misery and all poverty, out, out, out...
On December 26 in western Slovakia, young men brought buckets of water with live fish to girls they fancied. The girls washed their faces with the water so that they would be as 'fresh as fish' the following year.
One custom forbade cleaning the table after Christmas dinner for three days. Not a single bread crumb - food for the souls of the dead - could be swept away.
In eastern Slovakia, dead relatives were invited to dinner, a plate was prepared for them, and a spoon put out at every meal. In some villages in Slovakia, the custom survives today.
A person who looked into a mirror every day from the 13th till Christmas would see a witch there on Christmas Eve. If a person wished to be invisible, he put the bones of a cat killed between the 13th and Christmas into his mouth.
Families made sure that the first person entering their house was a man. Every woman was considered a potential witch.
On the 21st, girls each took a bone from a slaughtered pig, laid them on the ground and called a dog. Whoever's bone the dog took would be the first girl to marry.
Compiled from interviews and library research by
Matthew J. Reynolds and Zuzana Habšudová.