Slovakia's Christmas traditions delight the senses

When it comes to spending the holiday season abroad, many foreigners are excited to participate in the customs of their host country. This is especially the case in Slovakia, where special food, music festivals and handicrafts with a Christmas theme reign supreme.
The Slovak Spectator asked various representatives of foreign countries and international organizations how they are spending the two biggest holidays in winter this year: Christmas and New Year's Eve.

AMBASSADOR Stokvis is dreaming of a white Christmas.
photo: Anton Frič

When it comes to spending the holiday season abroad, many foreigners are excited to participate in the customs of their host country. This is especially the case in Slovakia, where special food, music festivals and handicrafts with a Christmas theme reign supreme.

The Slovak Spectator asked various representatives of foreign countries and international organizations how they are spending the two biggest holidays in winter this year: Christmas and New Year's Eve.

Thanks to Eileen Weiser, the wife of US ambassador Ronald Weiser; Ben Slay, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and his wife, Linda Slay; Miguel Alonso Berrio, the deputy head of the Mission at the Spanish Embassy; Laurent L Stokvis, the Dutch ambassador; M K Lokesh, the Indian ambassador; and Toyojiro Soejima, the Japanese ambassador; for their comments.

The holiday season in Slovakia

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): What impressed you about previous Christmases in Slovakia? Certain events? Food?

Eileen Weiser (USA): The Slovak focus on family is wonderful to see, and we personally have always loved the Christmas market (our fourth one this year).

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP):One of our favourite Slovak dishes is the vianočná kapustnica (Christmas sauerkraut soup). The ingredients include several different kinds of klobása (sausage) and dried mushrooms that give it marvellous flavour. Every friend has a special family recipe for it, and it is particularly savoury when it has a week for the flavours to blend.

We look forward to the Vianočné trhy (Christmas market) on Hlavné námestie. The Bratislava market is special because it is full of uniquely Slovak handmade arts and crafts. We love to pass through the market on a cold, snowy day for a warm cup of varené vino (mulled wine) or medovina (heated honey mead).

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain):What impressed me the most is the lively Christmas atmosphere in Bratislava. The centre changes and it attracts masses of people defying the cold weather. Christmas food and traditions are different from what we know in Spain. Candles, fireworks and Christmas trees are traditions entering Spain but still not as common as in Slovakia.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): The special warm and friendly atmosphere we found at the Christmas market in Hlavné námestie. I also distinctly remember a beautiful mass at the Franciscan church (in Bratislava) on Christmas Day.

Ambassador Lokesh (India): This is my first Christmas in Slovakia. But I am already impressed by the Christmas spirit and wide array of food available, including the potato pancake and halušky (potato dumplings with cheese).

Ambassador Soejima (Japan): Neither my wife nor I are Christian. Therefore, we do not have particular Christmas celebrations as many Slovaks do. But we enjoy simply observing how Slovak people enjoy their traditions - the Christmas market, for example, in Hlavné námestie, where our Embassy is located. I tried a cup of red mulled wine, which I liked very much.

TSS: Have you tried carp?

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): Yes, many times. It is too bony for our taste, but it has a fond place in our hearts, because we have heard many funny stories about this fish. One Christmas, a friend cut up the carp, stacked the pieces on a table and left the room. When he returned later, the carp was no longer on the table. The nerves in the dead fish had continued to twitch and the pieces flopped off the table, onto the floor, and scattered around the room.

Another funny story comes from Utz, a charming story about Prague written by Bruce Chatwin. He describes entering a restaurant in the 1970s, which had a multilingual menu in Czech, German, Russian, French and English. "But whoever compiled the English page had mistaken the word 'carp' for 'crap'. Under the heading "Crap dishes", the list contained 'Crap soup with paprika', 'Stuffed crap', Crap cooked in beer', 'Fried crap', 'Crap balls', 'Crap a la juive...'"

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): Not yet. On Christmas Eve we mix Spanish and Balkan cooking, since my wife is Bulgarian.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): My family and I love having carp. In Poland where we were previously posted, we discovered the Christmas tradition of having carp prepared in as many ways as possible.

Ambassador Lokesh (India): Yes, I have tried all the fish available here, since I like fish. I like carp, too, but it has too many bones.

TSS: Do you remember a particularly special gift you received here? Or one you bought here to take friends or family at home?

Eileen Weiser (USA):We have given so many hand-embroidered vests I've lost count - to friends, family and special visitors who have helped Slovakia in some way. We have also given many pieces of majolica pottery and traditional crystal gifts. My personal favourite crystal piece is a small triangular low bowl. I love having it and giving it.

GOOSE liver lokša (salty pancake) is a Christmas market staple.
photo: Eric Smilie

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): We treasure the graphics and satirical drawings by Dušan Polakovič, Peter Kľúčik, and Miroslav Cipár that were given to us by friends. They have been framed and hang on our living room walls where they will always bring smiles to our faces as we remember how much we loved living in Bratislava. Another wonderful gift was a perfect bottle of Matyšák Cabernet Sauvignon 2000.

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): I always bring home Slovak crystal as it always produces delight. I am happy to receive crystal as well.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): A particularly special gift was a bottle of 6-tub (puttony) Tokay wine. That is truly ambrosia and something special to take home to friends and family.

Ambassador Lokesh (India):I received a replica of an old key to the city by a city mayor in central Slovakia. It is very fascinating as it reveals the glorious history of the city.

TSS: Where do you go shopping for Christmas gifts here?

Eileen Weiser (USA): Úľuv Folk Art (traditional Slovak art and crafts shop) and Dráčik (toy shop) for our son.

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): The Christmas market, the folk art stores, galleries and print shops, Trunk vinotéka (wine shop) and Eurobooks.

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): In the Advent (Christmas) market in Bratislava's city centre, of course. One may always find interesting things there.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): My wife usually does the Christmas shopping, but I know she has found some wonderful things in the old town.

Ambassador Lokesh (India):The small shops in the city centre have very fascinating articles for gifts as well as for my own possession.

TSS: Have you spent Silvester (New Year's Eve) in Slovakia? How did you celebrate it?

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): Our first year in Bratislava, our family watched the fireworks from Koliba (hill in Bratislava), from where we had a panoramic view of the city. When midnight arrived, it looked and sounded as if every person in the city was setting off fireworks. The sky was full of light and colour for over an hour.

Our second year, we had a different, but wonderful view of the festivities from the balcony of the Carlton Hotel (in Bratislava). We shared Hubert (Slovak sparkling wine) with friends as we watched the fireworks over St. Martin's Cathedral, while people danced on Hviezdoslavovo námestie (square in Bratislava city centre).

Last year we bought tickets to the party at Tempus Fugit restaurant on Sedlárska street in Bratislava. Owners Charles and Maria Sebesta surprised and pampered their guests with one scrumptious course after another, served every half hour. The location was ideal: you could step out of the restaurant and into the old town with the crowds in the streets, and then step back into Tempus Fugit in time for the next course of the dinner. The fine food, delectable drinks, and gracious hosts make Tempus Fugit the most elegant and sumptuous New Year's party in town.

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): Yes, the last two years. I spent them with my wife and daughters, and on both occasions in the company of friends from Spain.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): Last year we spent a very memorable Silvester in the company of friends and family here in Bratislava. I remember watching the fireworks from the top of one of Bratislava's many hills, and lighting them too!

Ambassador Lokesh (India): This will be my first Silvester in Bratislava. I am looking forward to celebrating with friends right here in town. I plan to celebrate with good food, drinks and much merry making.

The holiday season back home

TSS: Is there a particular Christmas tradition in your country or even in your family that you could describe?

Eileen Weiser (USA): About 10 to 14 days before Christmas, we go out to the country to choose and cut down a tree. After an overnight thaw and soaking in water in the garage, we bring it in to decorate it - either on the weekend or over several evenings with family and friends. We serve mulled wine, hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, tell stories and talk about the memories brought back by the ornaments. (We have always given each family member an ornament each Christmas. When our older children started their families, they each took all the ornaments they had received from us over the years to start their collections and traditions.)

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): For many American children, there is a magical aspect of Christmas connected to the poem The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Each child hangs a stocking near the chimney on Christmas Eve, with hope that Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) will leave a present in it. Boys and girls try to stay up late enough to see Santa fly through the sky on a magic sled that is pulled by flying reindeer. But Santa only comes when you are asleep.

For our family, the Christmas tree is very special and we put it up in the middle of the December. We don't wait until the 24th because we love to fill the home with the smell of evergreen. Once the tree has been decorated, each member of the family chooses one ornament from its branches. We have ornaments from the seven different countries we've lived in, our daughter made many of them by hand, friends give them as gifts... so each ornament holds special memories of past Christmases that we like to sit together and share. We also have a small box in which we keep a pinch of the needles from every Christmas tree we've had in our home.

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): Instead of Christmas trees we put nativity scenes (belenes) in every home, some of them are elaborate pieces of art.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): In The Netherlands, it happens to be much more usual to celebrate the eve of St Nicholas rather than celebrating Christmas Day. For children, it's a very exciting evening. The elderly bishop from Spain will have arrived in The Netherlands a few weeks earlier, aboard a steamship crammed with presents. On December 5, he visits all the children who have been good in the past year to give them presents. Most of the parcels come with a small poem.

At Christmas, many people will decorate a tree and light candles. Traditionally it is not the time for giving gifts, though in the last few years' Christmas shopping is rivalling the St Nicholas buying spree. Many of the Dutch think of Christmas as a religious holiday, a moment for getting together with family and friends and for having an extra festive meal. In my family, if we are at home, we will light up the tree for the first time on Christmas Eve, listen to music, read from the Bible and present each other some small gift from under the tree.

Ambassador Lokesh (India): Christmas is a universal festival in India. People of all religions take part in the festive spirit. We all exchange Christmas greetings cards and wish our Christian friends well and join them in the festivities. India has a very old Christian tradition. Saint Thomas visited India. We have about 80 million Christians in India. India is a tolerant country and respects all religions.

TSS: Was there a memorable Christmas from your childhood?

Eileen Weiser (USA): We used to eat Christmas Eve dinner at my grandmother's house - my father always joined a bit late because he was putting the Christmas presents out under our tree at home. When we returned home after dinner, my father always found some excuse to rush to the back porch, where he would jingle sleigh bells that he had hidden away. When we ran to join him, he would be pointing up to the sky, saying "Do you see him? Santa? You just missed him!"

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP):This is from our daughter's childhood: Christmas in Munich, Germany, when she was two years old. We gave her the stocking with a present from Santa on Christmas morning. She was delighted and ran to her room to play with it. After an hour, we wanted her to return to the tree for another gift, but when we tried to take the stocking away from her, she cried. She wasn't interested in anything else. So, for the next twelve days, she would open one present every morning and play with it the rest of the day. This gave the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas a whole new meaning for us! By the time she was eight years old, we had the gift-giving ritual down from twelve days to three. Now that she's a teenager, it usually takes us twelve hours!

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): When you get as old as I am, you tend to merge your recollections. I used to spend Christmas in the Pyrenees with my rather large family.

Ambassador Lokesh (India): All Christmas seasons are memorable. Most of India's educated class is educated in Christian-run institutions. So all of us are aware of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Bible.

TSS: When does your family open presents? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?

Eileen Weiser (USA): Christmas Eve. As we became older, we would go to Midnight Mass after.

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): We eat our Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve, but open our presents on Christmas Day.

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): Neither on Christmas Eve nor on Christmas Day. In Spain, Santa leaves the job of delivering presents to the Three Wise Kings. Pure division of labour. Spanish children wait until the morning of January 6 to open presents left the previous night on their shoes.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): As I said, presents - certainly for children - are more connected to St Nicholas, but we will have some small gifts on Christmas Eve.

Ambassador Lokesh (India): We open presents right after the gifts are received!

TSS: Do you have special foods you look forward to?

Eileen Weiser (USA): Christmas Eve dinner, which is a combination of our family heritage foods: Jewish chopped liver, oysters, Irish potatoes, German backwurst, American baked beans - a bit of everything!

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): Linda's mother made a richly loaded bombe using three different kinds of chocolate. Ben's father made one with white chocolate and raspberries. We make sun bread, in honour of the Winter Solstice. We roll out a rich egg and milk yeast dough, cover it with herbs and garlic, and roll it into a sun shape. Dinner guests tear off what they want of the finished, baked, fragrant, lumpy loaf - there are never any leftovers!

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): Turrón, a special nougat offered at Christmas.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): My wife has a delicious recipe for stuffed turkey with cranberries, which she often makes on Christmas Day. This is also the time of the year when we have mulled wine, which makes the house smell wonderfully of cinnamon, ginger and other spices.

Ambassador Lokesh (India): Chicken stuffed placky (pancakes).

TSS: If you do not celebrate Christmas, can you describe the holiday you do observe?

Ambassador Soejima (Japan): Japan is not a Christian country, therefore there is no Christmas tradition in the country. Still, you can see many Christmas decorations, Christmas gifts, and Christmas cakes in department stores and shops in Tokyo and many other cities. This means that some people simply enjoy this Christmas season as a time for shopping and enjoyment, without being religious or visiting church services.

TSS: What is the weather typically like in December at home?

Eileen Weiser (USA): Usually, there's at least a little snow. As Santa leaves glitter around the fireplace when he visits, we don't have to rely on the reindeer to leave their footprints outside in case it's cold but without snow!

Ben and Linda Slay (UNDP): We are both native Californians, so we remember sunny Christmas days with temperatures around 15 degrees Celsius! After living in places like Maine, Vermont, Russia, and Poland, however, we have become very fond of a White Christmas.

Miguel Alonso Berrio (Spain): In the Pyrenees, I remember Christmas surrounded by snow and ice. Not so typically Spanish.

Ambassador Stokvis (The Netherlands): We always hope for a white Christmas!

Ambassador Lokesh (India): Very pleasant. Neither cold nor warm.

Ambassador Soejima (Japan): For us, the end of December and the start of January is the time for traditional celebrations. The weather at this time is, of course, winter and cold. There is a lot of snowfall in the northern part of Japan, but on the chain of southern islands you can enjoy comfortable temperatures, like in Hawaii or Florida in the USA.

Marta Ďurianová contributed to the report

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