I have spent two Christmases in Slovakia and have thoroughly enjoyed the palpable sense of intimacy and tradition felt here during the holidays. True, I am used to bigger presents under bigger trees, but predictability goes a long way in making the holidays merry. American homes at Christmas time are a mishmash of customs - my family happens to eat baked ham washed down with rum and coke - I don't know any other family that does this. In Slovakia, you can count on carp (kapor) and cabbage soup (kapustnica) no matter who takes you in.
When my first family took me in in 1999, all I could say in Slovak was dobre (good) and prosím si (I would like) and ďakujem (thank you), without the rolled Rs and soft Ds. With the help of a bilingual daughter and everyone's patience, I got the drift of what was happening. But if this is your first Slovak Christmas, you might want to learn a little of the holiday lingo.
For complete beginners the word Vianoce, which takes a plural verb, is a stumbling block. Strange as it sounds, Vianoce sú - literally Christmas are. You may have noticed the same thing about Slovakia's second-largest city, Košice, also plural.
When exactly Vianoce su is an oddly persistent point of confusion. Gifts (darčeky) are opened on the 24th following a gut-popping meal. But most churchgoers attend midnight mass (polnočná omša) that evening, which is technically the 25th. Later that day, relatives visit each other's homes as TV networks run Christmas fairy tales (rozprávky) practically non-stop.
Slovaks here in the office are unable to agree on which day Vianoce are. The majority consider them the 24th, also known as štedrý večer (the generous evening). According to this camp, and strange as it sounds, the 25th and 26th are not actually Vianoce, but the first and second days of Christmas (prvé a druhé Vianočné dni).
Štedrý večer is organised around a meal of kapustnica or lentil soup (šošovicová polievka), potato salad (zemiakový šalát) and bathtub carp (kapor). Ask a Slovak or see last week's Foreign Affairs column for an explanation of bathtub carp.
Round wafers called oblátky are generally passed around the table before dinner. Many families pour honey (med) over the oblátky and scrape them with garlic cloves (cesnak), which improves their flavour. And some catholic families cross everyone's forehead with honey at the start of the great feast.
Santa Claus doesn't come to Slovakia on the night of the 24th. In fact, he skips the country entirely. The job of giving gifts to all the good little girls and boys falls on the shoulders of Jesus himself, and not just any Jesus. Ježiško - little Jesus, or baby Jesus - places presents below the tree (stromček) during the meal on Štedrý večer.
Nor does Ježiško enjoy the monopoly Santa Claus has elsewhere. Ježiško's competitor is Dedo Mráz (Father Christmas, lit. Father Frost), a Santa-Claus-looking figure imported from Russia during communism, when Christianity, i.e. Ježiško, wasn't kosher. As I write this, my neighbour at work is proclaiming someone a communist because that person still gets gifts from Dedo Mráz.
It occurs to me now - having written everything I could think of for this column and being 200 words short - that much of the charm of Slovak Christmas lies in its simplicity. My mother bakes more kinds of cookies on Christmas than I can name, from peanut butter balls to almond candy cane cookies and many, many more. For most Slovaks, one confection suffices, a flat gingerbread number known as medovníky or perníky.
Nor do average Slovaks need tinsel, blinking lights and stringed popcorn on their stromčeky - except maybe President Schuster. For them, vianočné gule (ornamental Christmas-tree balls) do just fine. Nativity scenes (betlehemy) they do have, but I have never seen mistletoe. Christmas is so out of hand in my home that we have regular mistletoe and the puny 'missile toad', a toy stuffed-toad vaguely shaped like a missile.
Veselé Vianoce (Merry Christmas) is the standard seasonal salutation. If you're not going to see a friend until after New Year's Eve, add šťastný nový rok (Happy New Year). New Year's Eve is commonly known as Sylvester because that is the name that falls on December 31 on the name-day calendar.
If you make to the polnočná omša, try singing along to this Slovak Christmas carol. Melody same as Silent Night.
Tichá noc (Silent night)
Tichá noc, svätá noc, (silent night, holy night)
všetko spí, všetko sní, (everything is sleeping, everything is dreaming)
sám len svätý bdie dôverný pán, (only the saintly, trustful man is awake and alert)
stráži dieťatko nebeský dar, (guarding the child, the heavenly gift)
sladký Ježisko, spí, sní, (sweet Jesus is sleeping and dreaming)
nebeský tíško spí sní (the blessed quietly sleeps and dreams)
Slovak Matters is a bi-weekly column devoted to helping expats and foreigners understand the beautiful but difficult Slovak language.
The next Slovak Matters will appear on stands January 21, Vol. 8, No. 2.
22. Dec 2001 at 0:00 | Matthew J. Reynolds