THE PERIOD around the winter solstice has long been an occasion for celebration in Slovakia. Even in pre-Christian times, events and feasts were held to mark the end of each year. There were several reasons for these: winter was an ideal time to make merry, as there were few tasks to complete in the fields, and the days are shorter and nights longer. Often, the main date for celebrations was the winter solstice.
Old Slavic communities celebrated these days as symbolic of new life, as nature prepared for the re-birth of spring. This is why in many traditional Christmas wishes in Slovakia the harvest, full barns and tables are featured. From the 4th century, the Christian religion gradually transformed the originally pagan feast into a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. The Christmas tree decorated with fruits and sweets had two functions: it commemorated a rich harvest and nature generally; and it also symbolised the tree of Eden which led to the fall of Adam and Eve, and to God later sending his son to redeem humankind.
Fried fish with potato salad, a dish now commonly eaten in Slovakia at Christmas, was not always the traditional meal. Slovaks still fast during Christmas Eve, and the first meal of the day has been the festive dinner. Dishes varied from region to region, but thin wafers with honey and in some places garlic (to ward off evil spirits) were common. In many parts of Slovakia, sauerkraut soup was the first course, or some other kind of soup made from lentils, beef stock, or fish.
The meals which followed differed greatly but did not usually contain much meat, except perhaps for roast cutlets or smoked pork, and were eaten with boiled barley; they often included tiny dumplings of leavened pastry baked on the cooking range, with sweet milk and poppy-seed. To follow, there came poppy-seed, walnut, or jam-filled or apple-filled cakes and strudels. Roma families typically cooked a pig’s head which they got from rich farmers, and a Christmas cake, which was often prepared by several families together.
In several far-flung villages, mostly Goral ones – i.e. in the mountainous regions, where the Polish influence is strong – some old rituals have been preserved. These include enacting the events in Bethlehem and the coming of the Three Kings, taking an imitation goat’s head from house to house to wish neighbours good luck for the New Year, and puppet theatre.
Generally, the tradition of young people visiting every house in the village and singing Christmas carols (koledy) and wishing people well continues in many small towns and villages, but has largely vanished in bigger cities.
Christmas Eve was also the day of the Christmas Midnight Mass. On Christmas Day, people usually stayed at home and did not even visit family or friends. No household chores were allowed, including cooking. The second day of Christmas was seen as a day for family and friends to visit each other. Because December 26 is the day of the patron saint of Hungary, there were famous St. Stephen’s Day balls and folk dances.
11. Jan 2010 at 0:00 | Compiled by Zuzana Vilikovská