Slovakia's mostly pagan Christmas traditions


Christmas in Central Europe, like in many parts of the world, is a time for family. What better way to bring relatives together than by calling them to the dining room table? As much of the world tucks into turkey, goose, or ham, the Central Europeans also tuck into mouth watering delicacies, but you do find some variations on the turkey theme. In Slovakia, for example, on Christmas Eve, they enjoy cabbage soup, mushroom sauce and fried carp.

Christmas feasts have their origin in much older Pagan traditions. Celebrations of the winter soltice consisted of heavy drinking and eating, especially of meat. It was later that the Christian Church set the date of Christ's birth to coincide with this time, in order to repress the Pagan solstice feasts and celebrations. The Catholic Church is very strong in this country and many of the customs and rituals have a strong base in this tradition. Ethnologist Mrs. Dillnbergerova helps us to find out more about what Slovaks ate on Christmas Eve around the country. First something more about the rituals of the way the Christmas table was presented:

"Various evidence from the 19th century shows that the holiday table was considered a holy place. Everything on it or around it was of ritualistic and magical significance. Iron tools under the table secured good results of farmers and craftsmen, as well as the good health of those seated around the table. Grain, poppy seed and pulses were scattered around the table and money under the tablecloth. An iron chain laid around the table displayed the family's solidarity, as did the habit of eating from one bowl."

There was also fruit on the table, as well as bread or cake, which until this day is often left untouched until the 3 Kings on the 6th January. In the past this cake was richer, baked with honey, corn or garlic, and symbolised the following year's harvest. One custom, which has been maintained to this day, is the invitation of a deceased relative to the table. There is always a place set for this person and a spoonful of each course is set aside fro him. In the past the food was served in a ritualistic manner, and always by the head of the family.

"The Christmas holiday started when the first star was spotted in the night sky. The Christmas Eve supper opened with lighting candles and a joint prayer. This is still true today. Then there is a toast. In South Slovakia they drink wine, in the mountain areas home made spirits and in the central regions hot spirits known as "hriato". Then the head of the family dips his finger in honey and makes the sign of the cross of everyone's forehead to guard against all evil. Then Slovak wafers are eaten, which are symbolically linked with the Church."

In keeping with Church rules, these wafers are made from unleven bread, so they are closer to the Host of Communion. In the past decade, however, Greek Catholics and Calvinists have adopted this tradition of eating wafers on Christmas Eve. These days the wafers have often lost their religious meaning and are viewed merely as the opening course of the Christmas Eve supper. Mrs. Dillenbergerova explains the background behind the choice of food on the table.

"Optimally, all the types of crop, which the family has grown over the year, were present in the menu. The fact they appeared on the table has a ritualistic bearing on their next harvest. As well as baked and cooked pasta, sauces were made from peas, beans, lentils, and beet, also because people believed in the property of the vegetative strength of nature. Poppy seed noodles were very typical, and pirohy, or a kind of ravioli encasing soft cheese, are still eaten on this day in East Slovakia."

One tradition, which has been upheld throughout the country, is eating opekance on Christmas Eve. These are baked slices of dough, cooked in milk or water and served with crushed poppy seed, nuts, soft cheese or bryndza, according to the particular tradition of the particular family. Slovaks are not only Catholics, but also Evangelists, among other religions. What variations in the food served on this day are caused by differences in religion?

In Catholic and Orthodox families, they fast on Christmas Eve, so they only eat vegetarian and non-fried food. Meat, in the form of sausage or brawn, was eaten only after midnight. In Evangelic families there is cabbage soup with sausage as well as pork. Nobody ever eats poultry on this day, as it draws luck from the house whereas pork supposedly brings affluence. Under the influence of the Church, Catholic and Orthodox families eat fish. Fish scales were a symbol of wealth.

These days, fish, usually carp or other fresh water fish, are usually eaten fried. This is accompanied in most parts of the country by potato salad. This course is the most popular and characteristic of Christmas Eve all over the country. Traditionally the men prepare fish soup with the meal. Apart from fish, cabbage soup is commonly a favourite specialty.

"This is prepared from sour kraut. There are many regional and local variants. For example, in Kysuce, in the north, the soup is made from the liquid in which the cabbage is fermented, and in Liptov, also in the north, beetroot is added when the cabbage is being prepared, given it a characteristic flavour as well as colour. In another northern region, Orava, hard boiled egg is sliced and added. All over Slovakia dried mushrooms are a very popular ingredient, and some people add dried plums. The tastiest variant, however, is when smoked pork or sausage is added, or both."

Mushroom sauce is very popular today in East Slovakia, which is prepared from the liquid produced from fermenting cabbage. The number of dishes is also surrounded in tradition. In the East the number is limited to 7, 9 or 12, and in the north the number should be even. Despite the fact many of the oldest customs have been lost, many are carried on enthusiastically to this very day. Although all of this can be used as a guideline, if you ever find yourself in Slovakia on Christmas Eve, to what you can expect to be served, it cannot be followed as rigid guidelines. Each region, village or even family has its own very special and traditional Christmas Eve customs and food.