Christmas is approaching fast! In a few days time, the world will gorge themselves on delicious food, loads of gifts and buckets full of happiness. We did our Christmas dinner shopping yesterday, so we are all prepared for the big evening. Creating the shopping list, it brought me back to my first Slovak Christmas dinner, 8 years ago by now. How did that look like, you ask? Let me give you a glimpse into Christmas at my Slovak in-laws.
Christmas in Slovakia is a family event in the truest sense - the whole family participates. In our case, while my wife was doing all the preparations in the kitchen for the traditional Christmas meal (see below), the rest of the family and I were put in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. In the Netherlands, most people put up the tree already weeks before Christmas. In our Slovak family, the tree goes up on the day of Christmas Eve, 24 December, and not a day earlier or later.
What I was most surprised about is the enormous amount of chocolate that goes into the tree. I mean, we may put some chocolate balls in Dutch Christmas trees, but that is nothing compared to the sugar-overload that is called a Christmas tree at my in-laws! Obviously, half of the chocolate is already gone before it even reaches the tree-branches, but still!
With the tree standing, decorated and heavy with chocolate, we slowly got ready for the Christmas dinner. My wife had been slaving away in the kitchen for hours, so she would go for a quick shower, to get rid of the smell of sour cabbage and sausage, while the rest of us dressed up in nice clothes. There is no room for sweatpants and baggy sweaters at a Slovak Christmas table!
All dressed up, cleaned up and smelling fresh, the time had come to eat!
The Slovak Christmas dinner:
The Slovak Christmas dinner menu is a tradition in itself - it never changes. Although every region in Slovakia has its own local specialties (many of which are historically given), the menu traditionally exists of a version of the following elements:
Starter - Sour cabbage soup (“kapustnica”), although some regions prepare lentil or fish soup instead
Main dish - Sweet-water fish (most common would be carp, that “delicious” fish which eats mud)
Side dish - Potato salad
Dessert - “opekance” / “bobáĺky” (sort of sweet dough, filled with poppy seeds or nuts) or “zavin” (basically sweet strudel but with yeast dough)
Regionally, the sour cabbage soup may include either potatoes, smoked sausage, plums, mushrooms, or a combination of these, while some prepare the potato salad with mayonnaise or with vinegar. The carp as main dish is however the most baffling element of a Slovak Christmas menu. I still can not wrap my head around the choice of eating such a tasteless piece of fish as carp but well, there you have it. The weirdest fact of all, however, is that the fish is bought alive and well days before Christmas and is kept alive in the bathtub until its final breathing moments. I still thank the gods that my wife is not big on fish and we eat a juicy bird for Christmas.
The food itself is not the only traditional thing on the dinner. Again, every region has its own local habits and believes. However, traditions they are nonetheless. In our family, a Slovak Christmas dinner will look like this.
Only one designated person can get up from the dinner table to serve the rest of the family - practically, this means the rest of the family needs to stay seated at all times. That also means you’d better have gone to the toilet before dinner.
Before the start of dinner, my wife’s family being Catholic, a prayer is said for the health and prosperity of the family in the new year. This is followed by eating a wafer (“oplatka”) with a piece of garlic and a drop of honey on top. The garlic represents health, while honey represents beauty. Not the nicest thing to chew on but the tradition is worth it.
The table is set with one extra plate. This represents the family members who are not able to join us at the Christmas dinner table - this includes those living too far away to be able to be with us as well as those who sadly passed away.
Families across the country will have similar or completely different traditions. Some put money under the dinner plates to represent wealth in the coming year. Others divide an apple and share it among the family members to show that all pieces come from one whole. The most meaningful tradition of all, in my eyes, must be those families literally tying a chain around the dinner table to symbolically bind the family together. In the past, people would avoid sweeping the house during Christmas so as not to sweep away the souls of the dead from the house, or avoid hanging up laundry to dry because the one to whom the clothes belonged would otherwise come to an early end. Such traditions are no longer practiced but it goes to show how strong Christmas is connected with (non-Christian) believes.
As with Christmas celebrations across the globe, a Christmas dinner is not complete without gifts. There is however an important difference in gift-giving between Western and Slavic countries - as in Czech Republic and Poland, in Slovakia the gifts are generally brought by Baby Jesus (“Ježíško”)! In our family, some time between the main dish and the dessert, the designated person who was allowed to get up from the table walked to the living room and rang a bell. This is the sign Baby Jesus has visited your house and gifts are waiting under the Christmas tree!
With the gifts unwrapped, the sweets eaten, the wine drunk, and still munching away on the potato salad leftovers, we then sat down with the whole family to watch classical Czechoslovak Christmas movies like S tebou mě baví svět, Pelíšky or, my wife´s favourite, Tři oříšky pro Popelku, until we finally dosed off into the night, satisfied.
The days after…
Christmas in Slovakia takes three days, from 24 December till 26 December. So, after an evening of literally stuffing yourself to the brim with potato salad, sweets and other goodies, the 25th and 26th of December are much-needed rest-days. In our family (and many families with us) the 25th was a day of doing absolutely nothing, lay on the couch, watch Home Alone, eat more potato salad and empty the tree of more chocolate. On the third day of Christmas, we went out to visit family. Visiting family during Christmas is usually paired with more eating and more drinking (say hello to the home made spirits!), so I would recommend not to make any Christmas resolutions that involve loosing weight or go abstinent!
Christmas is my favourite holiday in the year, especially because of the presence of so many traditions and believes. It gives this holiday much more meaning and makes for a true celebration. It is not just about the food and the company. It is also about celebrating family, both living and deceased, and about health, luck and prosperity.
I hope everyone of you will have an amazing holiday!