Eastern Slovakia
Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn Genealogical Research

Slovak Christmas Eve
By Father George M. Franko
Holy Name Church, Youngstown, Ohio

While most Catholics consider the Christmas feast the singular most enriching event in the Church year, for Catholics of Slovak ancestry, Christmas centers around the celebration of "Stedry Vecer" (Vilija), the Bountiful Christmas Eve supper.

Many of the Slovak Christmas traditions brought to America by the immigrants from Slovakia, are perpetuated from generation to generation in the Slovak American home.

The Christmas Eve supper, which begins with the appearance of the first star, is filled with benevolence and mystery. With roots in the Passover supper of the Old Testament, the meal is filled with ritual and meaning. Each of the various regions of Slovakia have particular culinary specialties.

In some localities, it is the custom to set the tablecloth over clean straw, in others straw is laid upon the floor. This reminds the family that the Christ child was bedded upon straw in the manger.

The father and mother come to the table with a lighted candle carrying holy water and honey. Reaching their places, good wishes and greetings are extended, offering a kind of festive toast. The candle which gives light and warmth is the symbol of Christ, the light of the world.

Maternal Blessing

Before serving the meal, the mother sprinkles holy water on the table and the rest of the house that the blessing of God might rest on them. The father serves an oplatka (wafer) to each family member starting with his wife. He asks her forgiveness for any hurt he may have caused and invites reconciliation with an embrace and a kiss. The mother does likewise to her husband. The father then takes a little honey and makes a small sign of the cross on the foreheads of all present. It reminds all to keep Christ in our thoughts and to live and work so that harmony and pleasant fellowship might sweeten our lives.

The meal begins with the "oplatky" or unleavened wafers imprinted with scenes of the holy birth. Coming from the Latin, "oblata" (offering), these wafers are common to Slavs living in the Tatra Mountains. Both Poles and Slovaks, who live on either side of Europe's second highest mountain range, forming the natural boundry between Slovakia and Poland, use these wafers at the Christmas Eve supper. Because of the snowbound conditions of the region, these blessed wafers were given to the faithful by the village priest so that this symbol of Christ and the Eucharist might serve as their Christmas Eve spiritual nourishment.

It is customary for each family in the village to contribute a measure of flour for the baking of the "oplatky" done for the entire village on December 13, the day after the Feast of St. Lucy. If there was a common mill in the village, the miller saw to it that flour from the storehouse was provided. After baking, the "oplatky" were blessed by the village priest and distributed to each family by children who were sent by the priest. The children presented each family with the "oplatky" together with a memorized Christmas greeting "Vina." Because of the often snowbound conditions in these villages, which prevented the villagers from traveling to church for the Midnight liturgy, these blessed wafers were enjoyed as a reminder of the Eucharist. The "oplatky" are eaten with honey and reminded the family of the unleavened bread of the Passover supper of the Israelites.

Prefiguring the Eucharist

The passage of the exodus story is recalled: Exodus 16:8.9 "On that day tell your son, I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt. This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that the law of the Lord is to be on your lips. For the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand." And from Exodus 16:31.32 "The people of Israel called the bread Manna." It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey. And Moses said, "This is what the Lord has commanded: Take an omer of Manna and keep it for the generations to come, so they can see the bread I gave you to eat in the desert when I brought you out of Egypt." And finally, from St, John's Gospel 6:47-51 "I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the Manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world."

Culinary Delights

Following the "oplatky", a soup of tart quality, usually made of sauerkraut brine and dried mushrooms, continues the exodus theme of recalling the bitterness of slavery-life without Christ.

Fish is generally used, as Catholics in Eastern Europe observed a strict fast on the vigil of Christmas. Next come "opekance-pupacky-bobalky" which generally are sweet, raised dough or may be a biscuit type dough sweetened with honey and sprinkled with a pleasant preparation of poppy seed. The use of poppy seed recalls a pagan tradition in which poppy seed was strewn at the portal in order that the evil spirits might be occupied with picking up each morsel and thus would not enter the house.

"Pirohy" are generally enjoyed at the Christmas Eve supper. They are dough pockets, pastry filled with fillings of sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, lekvar, prunes, or potatoes and cheese and boiled.

"Pagace" is also enjoyed at the dinner, also called "Slovak Pizza." It is thin raised dough baked either in a single or double layer filled with sweet cabbage or mashed potatoes. After baking, it is brushed with butter and cut in pie wedges. In addition, "lokse" a potato pancake type of specialty is also enjoyed.

Other foods eaten include dried prunes, apples, nuts, and St. John's bread known as "Carob." The meal concludes with the traditional Slovak pastry, known as "Kolace" or strudel-like rolls which are filled with walnuts, poppy seed, lekvar (prune butter) or cheese. Red wine completes the evening's feasting.

Traditional "Vins"

In addition to a place for every member of the family at the table, a place is left vacant for the welcome traveler. In rural villages of Slovakia, a shepherd would call from house-to-house making his Christmas wish or "vins" to all in the household:

"On this glorious feast of the birthday
of Christ our Lord,
I wish you from God,
good health, happiness
and abundant blessings.

May it be yours to enjoy comfort
from your children,
salvation for your soul.
The kingdom of heaven after death,
and for the family's welfare, may you have
whatever you ask of God."

Vesele Vianoce a Stastlivy Novy Rok -- Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

It's All Relative is now accepting Oplatki Orders for Christmas 2012.

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Midi Arr. of Nebo i Zeml'a Copyright 1996, Randall Kopchak