Vianoce, as Christmas is called in Slovak, is far and away the biggest holiday of the year here and in most European countries. Christmas markets crop up everywhere and glittering lights decorate town squares. In contrast to the US, where our Christmas traditions are a mosaic of various European and global traditions (in addition to not a few commercial creations), a Slovak Christmas is steeped in the direct, rich history of the region and practices of their ancestors.
First, some Slovak holiday terms:
- The phrase “Veselé Vianoce” will wish someone Merry Christmas!
- Christmas Eve is “Štedrý deň” or “Generous Day” in English.
- Santa Clause (Saint Nicholas) is “Svätý Mikuláš”.
- Baby Jesus is “Ježiško” (In Slovak tradition the young Christ does more than sit in his manger. More on that later, though.)
- Christmas tree is “Vianočný Stromček”
The Christmas season in Slovakia begins on December 5th, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day. Children enthusiastically clean their shoes and place them by the front door. The generous Saint passes by and fills them with treats and gifts. Usually chocolate, fruit, peanuts, and small toys. This particular tradition originated from the acts of Saint Nicholas during his time as a bishop.
Nicholas became aware of a poor family in which a single father tried to care for his three growing daughters, but was unable to muster enough money to pay for even one of their dowries. This problem that grew more dire as they approached a wed-able age. If they had no dowries they could not hope to find a husband and without the support of a spouse they may have had to resort to prostitution. Even if they didn’t, most of society at the time would assume an unmarried woman to partake in such work.
Nicholas took pity on them and came to their cottage one night and anonymously gifted them pouches of gold. Accounts differ on how exactly he performed this charity. Some say he placed them in the girl’s boots which dried by the open window, others that he climbed atop the roof and dropped them down the chimney, each bag falling perfectly into the stockings which hung over the fire to dry.
It is customary in Slovakia to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve with your family. However, the influence of American holiday fervor seems to have pushed this back at least a week or two nowadays. Just like the US, the evergreen is adorned with ornaments and family memorabilia, but Slovaks also hang candy and chocolate from the boughs.
Another old Slovak tradition which has changed with time involves live carp. The fish is placed in the bathtub where it is kept for the children to play with until Christmas Eve morning, when it is baked and served with the rest of the feast.
Additionally, this feast includes ham, goose, sauerkraut, potato salad dumplings, and much more including Kapustnica, a rich cabbage and sausage soup that can warm you like nothing else. Legend says that if you manage to fast throughout the entire delectable day of feasting of Christmas day, you will see a golden pig.
The most anticipated moment of the year for children occurs after the feast on Christmas Eve. Instead of the big gift reveal being on Christmas morning as it is in the US, it is the evening before. Furthermore, it isn’t Santa who brings those gifts, but Ježiško (Baby Jesus)! Children leave their living rooms and wait and listen. Ježiško rings the doorbell after his work is done and the children run into the tree to find all the gifts laid about.
The Christmas tree and decorations will remain up until the 6th of January which marks the Feast of Three Kings, also called Epiphany. A tradition unto itself that marks the end of the Christmas season. So with that…