Slovakia is a country of fascinating traditions. It’s surprising how many variations you can find within such a small country. I would say our habits don’t vary based only on the regions, but every family has its special way of celebrating the Christmas. What’s common for all the people is that the whole family meets behind one table and enjoy this special day together.
You would say that Christmas starts on 24/25 Dec. But that’s not entirely true for Slovakia. Because most of the Slovaks are Christians, our Christmas starts 4 weeks ago, to be more exact 4 Sundays before the actual Christmas eve. This period is called Advent. Advent is a season observed in many Western Christian churches as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus at Christmas. The term is a version of the Latin word meaning “coming”.
During this period we prepare various Christmas decorations we will use later, bake gingerbread and other types of pastry, deep-clean houses (traditional period of cleaning windows and curtains :p ) and if you are a true Christian believer you also go to church to get confession, so you can welcome baby Jesus with a clean soul. All the parties, weddings, big celebrations are postponed during this expectation period. There are of course some exceptions to this rule. Very typical for this period is so-called Advent calendar or Advent wreath. Most of the time it is a wreath decorated with 4 candles. Every Sunday prior to the Xmas Eve, for the period of the 4 following Sundays, one candle is burned.
It’s also the time when cities and towns start to prepare for Christmas. They put on decoration, Christmas lighting and organize Christmas markets. December is a very cold month and you need some mulled wine and warm punch to keep yourself fit. It also gets dark pretty early, so nice afternoon walk through the Christmas market with all those lights and some nice booze will set you into the mood for some Xmas shopping.
Slovak Christmas lasts three days. We celebrate from 24th until 26th . We also receive our presents at 24th, on the Christmas Eve after the dinner. Tradition is that we build up our Christmas tree on 23th Dec, but these days everybody is busy and people build up the tree usually the weekend before Christmas Eve. Some families with small kids build up their trees on the night from 23rd to 24th. So when the children wake up in the morning they have a special surprise from Baby Jesus. And yeah, our gifts get delivered by the baby Jesus, not by the Santa Claus ? And yes, none of the kids ever questioned the fact how can a baby deliver the presents. It’s all just part of the Christmas magic.
There is one more thing you can’t forget before the Christmas Eve. Buy a carp. Carp is a traditional fish we eat on Christmas. But it’s a tradition, not an obligation. A lot of people end up eating a different kind of fish. Before Christmas, you can buy live carp in a lot of supermarkets and on open door markets. You bring this poor thing home and keep it in your bath until the dinner time. Your kids get excited from new fish and they name little “Nemo”. They take baths together, feed it until one day little Nemo gets cooked and served ?
24th December – Christmas Eve: It’s my most favorite day of the whole year. Since morning mums are busy in the kitchen cooking Christmas soup – kapustnica and making the mayonnaise potato salad. There are many variations to the soup. Some people make mushroom soup other make sour lentil soup. Rest of the family either help or just fool around and try to find something yummy to eat. You are not supposed to eat the whole day, so you can enjoy the Christmas dinner (See the golden pig). But with all that cooking you usually grab little something to eat anyway. TV is full of Christmas movies and radio plays Christmas songs all day long. Christmas Eve is celebrated together with the family. Parents, grandparents, kids, uncles, cousins will sit behind one table and enjoy this special feast.
Generally, our Christmas dinner consists of some starter, soup made of cabbage and mushroom and fish with a mayonnaise potato salad. It’s food that gets cooked only once a year and everyone looks forward to it. These dinners and recipes have many variations, depends on the region and family traditions.
Some of the families set one extra plate on the table for all the loved who are not among us anymore. Some put coins under the plates on the table, to have prosperous next year. Other families cut and share an apple, so they can meet in like this again. Some families pray, some don’t.
Back in the days, people were more superstitious and followed more traditions. On Christmas night, you could predict who will die or if someone in the family gets married. Also, the dinner looked differently. In the poorer regions, it consisted of the simple soup, richer people also got fish on their tables. Only the kids in the richest families received gifts.
After the dinner head of the family (usually the father/grandfather) goes to the living room where it’s the Christmas tree. Everyone else waits until the head of the family puts the gifts under the tree. Then he rings the bell and the rest of the family is allowed to enter the room as well. Then we open our presents. People with older kids who grew up from the baby Jesus phenomena arrange the gifts under the tree before the dinner, so they have less work later.
Rest of the evening we spend talking, having deserts, watching TV and just enjoying each other company. Kids spend their evening playing with new toys. Some people go to the church at midnight so they can sing together beautiful Christmas songs.
25th December – Christmas Day: Everybody gets up late after the night full of digesting that yummy food from last night dinner. Nobody hurries up. Today it’s the day you visit your families and friends, come together an wish each other Merry Christmas.
In villages, groups of youngsters get together, dress up in folk costumes and walk around the village and sing Christmas songs and wishes. They stop in every village house where they get treated with pastry, lot of food and tapas and of course alcohol. Many people also go to church again. They pray together and celebrate that Baby Jesus got born.
26th December – Second Christmas Day: The second Christmas Day is very familiar to the first one. We mostly spend it with families and friends, finishing all the food from the Christmas Eve. The biggest difference is, that the ban of the parties is lifted. In many cities and villages, St. Stephan parties are organized.
Personal experience: Since I live abroad, I don’t get to see my family that often as I would like to. That’s why are these traditions and moments with loved ones so precious to me. On 24th Dec my parents cook together the Christmas dinner. We have cabbage soup with forest mushroom and pork sausage. We don’t eat carp, rather have fillets. It’s my job to prepare the Christmas table, we always use special dishes, napkins, etc. I hide coins under each plate to make sure we all be rich next year (never works, but it’s a cute tradition). Dinner starts with a prayer, after which we all eat a piece of garlic that is supposed to keep us a healthy whole year. After that, we have special round wafers with honey. That one is followed by the soup and then fish with the salad.
After the dinner, my dad goes to the living room to open the window for the baby Jesus and once the baby leaves we can come in and open the presents. Following days, we spend visiting families and friends and celebrating together. I always get like 5 extra kg from all the “super healthy” food, but I would never change a thing!
Merry Christmas everybody!