My Modern Day Vilia/Vilija
For Slovaks and Carpatho-Rusyns Christmas Eve is a solemn day – a time to gather with family and share in beautiful traditions and special foods in a Christmas Eve Supper. Some of my fondest memories are entwined in the Slovak and Rusyn customs that my family celebrated on Christmas Eve. My mother and grandmother would spend several days preparing for this feast (see below).
As much as I love the traditions of my heritage, my “modern day” lifestyle does not afford me the luxury of being able to spend days in the kitchen. Also, not only do many of these dishes take hours to prepare, but the recipes are usually for large amounts and not easily decreased for smaller servings (it takes a lot of practice to get the proportions of ingredients just right so as not to alter how the foods look and taste).
So, this year, I had a dilemna. I wanted to partake in the traditional Christmas Eve Supper, but I would only be cooking for my husband and me so this was going to be a challenge. Well, with some creative thinking and the help of modern technology (the Internet) I was able to pull together a “modern day vilija” without a whole lot of effort or time in the kitchen. I used a combination of some homemade dishes and pre-prepared foods. I started by making homemade mushroom soup – it’s pretty easy to do. The recipe is included in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes & Traditions.
But for the bobalky, I cheated just a little bit. My secret? Rhodes “Dakota Hearth Recipe” white frozen roll dough. It comes in a package of 12 pre-formed small balls of dough for rolls and I discovered it in the frozen food section of my local grocery store. You let it thaw and rise. I followed the directions on the package and once the dough had risen I was able to roll it into a long tube and then slice it down for the size of the bobalky (into little balls). I baked the bobalky as I would if I had used dough made from scratch. They turned out perfectly! I was then able to combine them with butter and sauerkraut for my husband to enjoy (for me, just butter because I don’t eat sauerkraut). And with the leftover dough, I was able to even make a nut roll (using my grandmother’s recipe for the filling).
The pirohi I bought from Zum Zum Foods (see my posting from several weeks back about their delicious pierogies!). The only dish I did not prepare this year was pagach (maybe next year).
I know it isn’t exactly the way my mother or grandmother would have prepared the supper, but it worked for me and everything tasted great! I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter how you get there, but that making the effort to keep the traditions alive that really counts!
For those of you who may be interested, below is a description of the traditional Slovak Vilija!
Traditional Slovak Christmas Eve Supper Menu
Mushroom Soup Pagach
Beans Peas Sauerkraut
Mixed Dried Fruits or Stewed Prunes
Assorted Fresh Fruits Mixed Nuts
Nut and Poppyseed Rolls Rozky (cookies such as Cold Dough)
The “Slovak” Supper
The Vilia/Vilija or traditional Christmas Eve Supper was typically prepared with home-grown crops. The menu varies in different parts of Slovakia. The type of soup served may not be the same in one region as another. For example, some Slovaks serve mushroom soup, while others serve sauerkraut soup with mushrooms poured over mashed potatoes and browned onions, or lima bean and prune soup.
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 has its own culinary specialties.
In some localities, it is the custom to set the tablecloth over clean straw. In other places, 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, carrying a lighted candle (the symbol of Christ, the light of the world), holy water, and honey. Once at their places, they extend good wishes and greetings as a type of festive toast.
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), or unleavened wafers imprinted with scenes of the holy birth, 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 returns the gesture to her husband. The father then takes a little honey and makes a small sign of the cross on the foreheads of all present as a reminder to keep Christ in our thoughts and to live and work so that harmony and pleasant fellowship might sweeten our lives.
The word oblatky comes from the Latin word oblata, which means “offering.” These wafers are common to Slavs living in the Tatra Mountains. Because of the often snowbound conditions of the region, which may have prevented the villagers from traveling to church for the Midnight liturgy, the wafers were usually blessed by the village priest after baking and given to the faithful by the so that this symbol of Christ and the Eucharist might serve as their Christmas Eve spiritual nourishment. The oplatky are eaten with honey and remind the family of the unleavened bread of the Passover supper of the Israelites. Today, many Slovak churches will sell packages of oplatky wafers to the congregation in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
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.
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. Some areas serve bobalky with browned butter and sauerkraut. My grandmother Figlar followed this recipe.
Pagace or pagach is the next course. 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.
Fish is generally used, as Catholics in Eastern Europe observed a strict fast on the vigil of Christmas.
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.
Other foods eaten include dried prunes, apples, nuts, and other items as dictated by family, village or regional customs. 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 is served with the meal.
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 went 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.”