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VOICE FROM ABROAD - CHRISTMAS FOCUS - CHRISTMAS TIME & HOLIDAY SHOPPING

'Twas the night before Christmas

WHEN one thinks of Christmas Eve in the UK, an image of a portly Santa squeezing down the chimney to deliver presents to all the good little boys and girls springs to mind. Or, for those of us without young families, it is a good excuse to gather with friends at the local pub to consume large quantities of alcohol. You see, it is quite simply the night before the morning after, the last throes of the lengthy build-up to the main event.

WHEN one thinks of Christmas Eve in the UK, an image of a portly Santa squeezing down the chimney to deliver presents to all the good little boys and girls springs to mind. Or, for those of us without young families, it is a good excuse to gather with friends at the local pub to consume large quantities of alcohol. You see, it is quite simply the night before the morning after, the last throes of the lengthy build-up to the main event.

However, Štedrý večer or 'bountiful evening', as it is known here, is the highlight of the Slovak festive season, and aside from its religious overtones, centres around the main meal of the day.

Traditionally, preparing the Christmas table in Slovakia held almost as much significance as the actual food eaten. Considered to be a sacred place, it was believed that everything on or near it would gain positive magical properties, for example tools would be placed underneath to ensure favourable work results for the coming year.

The celebratory supper itself would begin with an hors d'oeuvre of wafers, the hallowed bread of the Church, served with honey and garlic. The honey was meant to represent a sweet life in the future, and each member of the family would cross their foreheads with the garlic, well known as a deterrent to evil spirits, before eating it.

The first course would have fish as its main feature, traditionally carp. Originally, this time of year marked the pagan festival of the Winter Solstice, when it was thought that the sun was reborn, and was celebrated with raucous parties and great feasts of meat.

Eager to stifle these heathen practices, the Catholic Church declared it a period of symbolic fasting during which the eating of all animal flesh was forbidden, fish being the only exception. As fish scales were believed to represent wealth, some would be placed either under the plates or the tablecloth to secure a good financial future.

Of course, no Slovak meal would be complete without the dietary staple of potatoes, and they were normally served in salad form to accompany the carp.

Kapustnica, a soup consisting mainly of sour cabbage and mushrooms, would comprise the main course, occasionally including prunes for extra flavour. For those not bound by the doctrines of Catholicism, like the Evangelists and the Calvinists to name but two of the other significant faiths in Slovakia, sausage or ham might also be added to the dish.

As with any good meal, cakes or sweet pastries followed the main dish, most commonly in the form of opekance.

These were made from long, thin strips of dough that were baked, cut into smaller pieces, and covered in honey. In farming communities, poppy seeds would be sprinkled over the top to secure a plentiful harvest the following year.

Another ritual still observed in some regions involves the halving of an apple, or the breaking open of a walnut to reveal its four sections. It was believed that by studying these, one could predict what the next twelve months would have in store. In basic terms, if most of the segments were healthy then the "predictee" would also benefit from good health; worm-eaten or shrivelled parts were seen as more ominous signs.

Although many of these traditions would vary from region to region, and the superstitions may have died out altogether in the cities, there are still elements of them observed in today's Slovakia.

Now, a typical English Christmas, which takes place the following day, also has its time-honoured traditions such as the unwrapping of gifts that would no doubt include some socks and a sweater, the Sound of Music on the television, and the gentle snoring of the eldest of your clan as they toast gently by the fire in a contented slumber. For me, however, the true magic of the season is to be found in the traditional turkey dinner, served with roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables, and all the trimmings.

Thinking about it, I reckon that my idea of heaven would be to practise the festive customs of both countries. In fact, it might not even be too late for a thirty-year-old Englishman to be adopted by a Slovak family.

Now, there's a thought.

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