You can say whatever you want about the Slovak people but one thing no one will ever be able to deny is the importance of traditions. Be it political achievements (like beating the Communists or the birth of the Slovak nation state in 1993) or Catholic feast days (like pretty much all major ones, including Three Kings, Easter, All Saints and Christmas), Slovaks love to celebrate these moments (as they should). More importantly, however, they love to celebrate these moments with each other. Because directly connected to the importance of tradition is the inherent importance of family.
Point in case is Christmas.
Christmas in Slovakia is by far the most important holiday in the year. Compared to most Western countries, however, Christmas here has absolutely nothing to do with a big fat bearded guy in a red and white robe. Instead, any gift you may find under the Christmas tree has been carefully delivered during dinner (more about that later) by none other than Jesus himself, albeit a smaller version of the man, conveniently called “Ježiško” (or, “small Jesus”). It doesn’t even matter if you believe in the man or not, you will still feel the excitement when hearing the sound of bells ringing while being half way your third plate of potato salad…because when the bell rings, it means “Ježiško” just dropped something off under your tree…ergo, GIFTS!
Ok, I may be exaggerating the “GIFTS!” part.
My understanding of the Slovak Christmas tradition is that gifts are actually only a by-product (a nice one, nonetheless) of an event that holds far deeper meanings than solely awaiting the arrival of Jesus. If anything, the Slovak Christmas tradition has everything to do with family values.
It is very important to understand that, as so many other things in Slovakia, the Christmas tradition is not celebrated as one and the same across the entire country. Every region has its own specifics and deviations on the main theme, which makes it impossible to talk about “THE” Slovak Christmas.
Looking at the food, most families will prepare “Kapustnica” (sour cabbage soup…or, put differently, the best thing mankind has ever invented!) and potato salad, but the additional ingredients may slightly differ per region – the soup may or may not contain “klobasa” (specific type of sausage) or potatoes; the salad may or may not be mixed with mayonnaise.
Just as the food, also the traditions celebrated during the Christmas feast are varying depending on where you find yourself enjoying the dinner. In our family, we eat a wafer with a drop of honey and a slice of garlic at the start of the dinner. This ensures health and beauty in the next year. This is not a tradition shared by all families, though. Some families may wrap an actual chain around the dinner table, locked with a padlock, symbolizing the chain that holds the family together. In our family, this is symbolized by the rule that, during the entire dinner, only one designated person is allowed to leave the table and serve the dishes or get a new bottle of wine from the storage, to make sure the bond between the members of the family will not be broken. Lastly, some even put money under the tablecloth, to ensure the family will have enough money for the coming year.
All these small traditional aspects to the Christmas celebration makes this event for me one of the highlights of the year. I love the meanings behind them and the deeper experience brought with it during an already stressful time of the year (oh, you thought Ježiško has time to buy all those gifts himself?). However, no matter how fragmented the Christmas tradition may be in Slovakia, you are actually able to explain Slovak Christmas in one single word, shared by every Slovak in every corner of the country (or even the world): “family”.
I know, Christmas in most families around the world is about being with your loved ones. However, my experience in Slovakia is that the value of family is not only shown in simply being with each other; it is strengthened by the many traditions surrounding this holiday that one way or the other all come back to the same point – family.
It is not the gifts that you may receive or the delicious food that you eat, it is the family you are with during Christmas that makes this for me the most meaningful event in the year. Even more, it is that chain you tie around the table, that wafer you eat; it is that Midnight Mass you join with the whole family and those traditional Christmas movies you watch together after dinner. In fact, in our family we even add one additional plate to the dinner table. Even though no one may actually eat from it, one should always be prepared for that missing family member (or any unexpected guest for that matter) that may still arrive.
To conclude: My wife and I decided that this year we spend Christmas Eve together in our own apartment in Bratislava. However, next day, we took a 5-hour train ride to a very small village east of Rimavska Sobota, to spend the other two Christmas days (Slovakia celebrates Christmas across three days, 24-26 December) with…you guessed it…family. In fact, the draft of this article is written on the same 5-hour journey back to Bratislava on 27 December. The simple fact that we are willing to travel 10 hours within a span of 3 days just to be with family during Christmas, should in itself already prove my point. Yes, we could buy a car, reducing the total travelling time, and a lot of people (like us) may not have a choice but to travel such distances, Slovakia being as wide stretched as it is…but that is not the point here. The point is that Slovaks are consciously choosing to go through (literally) great lengths to be with family.
Christmas is just an example. I see it happen everywhere, anytime, with everyone. When a national holiday falls on a Friday, Slovaks leave the big cities on Thursday evening to join their family elsewhere in the country for a long weekend together. On All Saints (1 November), they don’t only visit their ancestors, they also visit those still among them.
Family is one of the key values that keeps this society together. It is a value that is visible everywhere. A value that should never be forgotten and should always be respected.