Slovak Christmas Holidays and Traditions

Read Time:9 Minutes

By Kiara Bean, Editor-in-Chief

            Veselé Vianoce! Merry Christmas! It’s that time of the year again, where everything everywhere shines. Buildings are decorated with Christmas wreaths and garlands with big red bows, and lights twinkle merrily on Christmas trees. The smell of hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts fills the cold air. Everything looks festive and joyful. Just like each family has their own holiday traditions, many countries around the world have different ways of celebrating the holiday season.

            Slovakia is a small country located in Central Europe. Called “The Heart of Europe”, the country is known for its beautiful nature, scenic hiking trails, and over 7,000 natural caves of all types. It is also known for its many castles, some dating back to the 11th century, and rich history of folklore and traditions.

Today, we will explore the four main holidays that most Slovaks celebrate during this time of year: Advent, Sviatok svätého Mikuláša (the feast of St. Nicholas), Svätá Lucia (the feast of St. Lucy), and Vianoce (Christmas).

The most common Christmas decoration in all countries is a Christmas tree. In Slovakia, many centuries ago, when people were really poor, they would decorate their Christmas tree with food like nuts, apples, and gingerbread cookies. Skilled men would make little wooden decorations while the women knitted or crocheted little angels or stars for the tree. To make the tree shine, they would add tiny lanterns. Nowadays, people generally decorate their trees with Christmas ornaments, lights, and bows.

            The holiday season in Slovakia begins with Advent, which starts four weeks before Christmas. Besides decorating their homes and buying presents, a lot of people go to church and celebrate the birth of religious leader Jesus Christ. A very important part of the preparation is the advent wreath, which is made of evergreen branches. There are usually four candles on it – three purple and one pink – symbolizing the four Sundays of Advent that will pass before Christmas. Each Sunday, a candle is lit counterclockwise around the wreath. The candles represent hope, peace, friendship, and love. Some wreaths also have a fifth white candle in the middle which is lit on Christmas Eve to symbolize the birth of Jesus Christ.

Children look forward to the start of Advent because of advent calendars. These beautifully decorated calendars consist of 24 tiny boxes, each containing a little surprise, usually a piece of candy or chocolate. Every day, children open one box and get what’s inside. This is their way of counting down to Christmas.

            The next major celebration that takes place during the Christmas holidays is Sviatok svätého Mikuláša, or the feast of St. Nicholas, on December 6th. The story goes that Mikuláš was a bishop who was helping poor families by leaving them food or toys on their windowsill. Legend has it that he traveled with an angel and the Devil who helped him decide if a child had been good or bad.

Traditionally, the night before, young children would clean and polish their shoes and put them next to the door or on the windowsill. When they woke up, little gifts would be waiting for them in their shoes: various sweets, tangerines or oranges, nuts, or small playthings if they were good, or coal and rotten potatoes if they were bad.

            Svätá Lucia is celebrated on December 13th. It is the culmination of a series of “witch days” that were celebrated from November 25th – December 13th. Many people believed that on this day, you could see the witches that lived in the town. They would go from house to house dressed in white cloaks with white masks on their faces and white veils. They would knock at the door and come in uninvited, sweeping the rooms with feathers and cleaning the houses of all demons. However, this tradition was upheld many centuries ago, and people generally don’t do this anymore.

Nowadays, only the “love traditions” are still upheld on this day. Young girls who are ready to be married write down the names of 12 people who are courting them on pieces of paper; the 13th paper is left empty. Then, they fold them up and put them in a box. Each day from then till the 24th, they choose one paper and burn it or rip it into tiny pieces. On the morning of December 24th, they choose the last piece of paper to destroy. In the evening, they open the paper that stayed in the box, revealing the name of the one they will marry next year; if the empty paper stays, then they are not destined to marry the next year.

            In Slovakia, and in many other European countries, the Christmas celebration generally starts on the American Christmas Eve and continues over the next two days: December 24th (Štedrý večer – Generous Evening), December 25th (1. sviatok vianočný – First Christmas Holiday), and December 26th (2. sviatok vianočný – Second Christmas Holiday).

Traditionally, December 24th was a day of fasting until the first star came out, but nowadays, not a lot of families still follow this tradition. However, families do spend the whole day cooking the Christmas feast. Depending on the region, the meals vary slightly. The feast usually starts with bread or thin tortillas called Vianočné oblátky with honey, garlic cloves (to keep away the witches), and salt. This is followed by sauerkraut soup with sausage, mushrooms, and egg noodles. In some areas, legume (beans, lentils, peas, etc.) soups are common. According to legend, the amount of legumes that were in the pot predicted how rich the family would be next year.

            For the main meal, there is either fish or fried chicken with potato salad. This salad is very different from the salad we know here in the States. It consists of potatoes, cooked and diced carrots, pickles, red onions, peas, and a mayonnaise and milk coating. The fried chicken is also different as it has a flour, egg, and breadcrumb coating instead of the typical batter coating.

            Some families still keep the tradition of having many courses in their feast. According to the saying, if you have an abundance of food on Christmas, then you will also have plenty of food in the following year. Some other courses which they prepare are bobaľky, also called makové opekance, (baked bread pieces with poppyseed, milk, and sugar), pirohy (potato or jelly ravioli), and mushroom sauce.

After the main meal, families generally enjoy the homemade cookies they had baked during the previous days. These cookies are also different from American cookies. Slovak cookies can have jam or nut fillings, chocolate and sugar glaze, and a caramel and nut filling in between two wafers. Some families bake over twenty different types of cookies for Christmas.

After the meal, presents are opened, and the family attends the midnight Christmas mass. On the First Christmas Holiday, people generally attend church again and spend time with close family. On the Second Christmas Holiday, they visit other distant relatives and friends.

This is just a small part of the rich traditions that fill the Slovak Christmas holidays. Some families follow the traditions of their ancestors very closely, and others are choosing to modernize and adapt their traditions to the new age. No matter what traditions they uphold, the holidays are still a symbol of love, hope, abundance, health, prosperity for the new year, and a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Captions:

1. Christmas Tree; Lexikon for Horizons

2. Advent Wreath; Dnevnik for Horizons

3. Sauerkraut Soup; Albert.cz for Horizons

4. Bobaľky; Top Recepty for Horizons

5. Slovak Cookies; Facebook for Horizons

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