Eastern Slovakia
Slovak and Carpatho-Rusyn Genealogical Research

CHRISTMAS IN EASTERN SLOVAKIA

by
Mark Jesko

The Baltimore Czech & Slovak Heritage Association

Preparations started early in Advent. Buying nuts, poppyseed, flour all necessary for the holiday baking. A few days before Christmas, the women of the household would start baking the pastries and BABALKI eaten during the SVATI VECER. One custom was to give each child a fresh baked BABALKA and sent them outside to give the BABALKA to the first person they met. This person was to be their friend during the coming year.

Christmas Eve was a day of full of activity in the Slovak home. The house was cleaned from top to bottom in the morning. The afternoon found the women preparing the SVATI VECER or Holy Supper. There was straw scattered under the table to represent the Manger were the Christ Child was born. The table was covered with a clean white cloth and the places were set. In many houses, an empty place was set; this place saved for the Holy Family who were traveling to Bethlehem. A lighted candle was placed in the window to tell the Holy Family that there were welcome in this home. Even the smallest of the children had an important job. They kept watch for the first star. This was the Christmas Star and with its appearance the Christmas Holiday could begin.

The SAVTI VECER varied from village to village even from home to home in the village. The meal was always meatless. In Roman Catholic homes, the meal started with a prayer and the breaking of the OPLATKY or Christmas wafer. Resembling the Communion host, the OPLATKA were stamped with scenes of the Nativity, the Three Kings, or Shepherds and Angels. The clinking of glasses of homemade wine and wishes of VESELE VIANOCE and NA ZADROVIA followed.

In Greek Catholic homes, there was a large loaf of bread on the table. Inserted into the bread was a candle. The bread and candle were symbols for the Christ Child who would be the light of the world and the staff of life. The head of the household would then offer a toast with a glass of homemade wine.

The table was loaded with steaming bowls of food that would be eaten during the SVATI VECER. The first course was soup made from sauerkraut; on top was placed the homemade BABALKI and crushed poppyseed. Following the soup came fish, fresh peas for a prosperous New Year, stewed prunes eaten in a pair so that everyone at the table would be there in the following year, homemade bread smeared with garlic and honey symbolizing the staff of life and all that is sweet and bitter in life, followed by fruits, nuts, candies and pastries.

In some villages, there were twelve dishes served during the SVATI VECER to symbolize the twelve apostles. Some villages also served PIROHI with their meal. Other villages served KUTAJA, a dish of boiled wheat mixed with honey and raisins and nuts.

In some Slovak villages, the head of the household would trace the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the children in honey. This was a wish for a sweet New Year as well as a sweet disposition in the New Year. In some Greek Catholic homes, a heavy chain of iron was wrapped around the table legs so that the bounty found on the table during the SVATI VECER would remain in the household during the coming year.

During the meal, no one was permitted to leave the table; during so was thought to mean some one would not be present there during the coming year.

After the meal wash completed, the dishes were clear away but the pastries, nuts, candies and fruit were left on the table for any visitors who happened by especially the visitors from the other world. It is believed by many that family and friends returned from the other world especially at this time of year to help celebrate the birth of the Christ Child.

Once everything was cleared away, the family would sit and sing tradtional KOLADY. There was even a visit from the JASLICKARI or Star Carolers. These were young men and boys of the village dressed as the Three Kings or Shepherds accompanied by an Angel carrying a large star on a pole. One member of the group would also be carrying a Creche. Going from house to house in the village, these JASLICKARI would tell the story of the birth of the Christ Child in song. It was not uncommon for a beautiful song about the Nativity to be interrupted by a request for some KOLACI or fruit or even a shot of SLIVOVITSA!

With the pealing of the church bells, each family bundled up and walked their friends and neighbors to church for midnight Mass. The village would echo with KOLADY and wishes of VESELE VIANOCE or CHRISTOS ROZDAJETSJA and the response SLAVITE JEHO!

Many of these customs are still practiced in Slovakia to this day and are still practiced in Slovak and Rusnak homes in this country also.

Comments can be sent to Mark Jesko - geograff@mail.bcpl.lib.md.us

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Photograph - Handpainted Nativity Set, Pauline Stanislaw Kopchak, 1972