Slovak Christmas Eve

While growing up, I looked forward to Christmas Eve even more so than Christmas Day. Sure, on Christmas, Santa arrived with all the gifts, but it was the day before Christmas that was filled with family celebration, ritual and tradition. For Slovaks, Christmas Eve, known as “Štedrý Vecer” (shtedree vecher), is traditionally is the biggest annual event in the home, where the entire family gathers for the traditional Slovak meal called the Vilija/Vilia (vee-lee-yah). The term comes from the Latin “vigilia” or “night watch.” The name implies the joyful anticipation in waiting for the arrival of the Christ child.

My Slovak grandma (Baba) worked tirelessly to carry out the traditions of her heritage. In the Slovak culture, food is richly entwined with tradition and religious teachings, especially for Christmas, when special dishes are prepared and rituals observed.

Our family would gather each year on Christmas Eve at my Grandma Figlar’s house to celebrate the Vilia Supper. It was a meatless meal (to honor the Christian practice of fasting). During this supper, we ate foods like mushroom soup, oplatky (Christmas wafers) with honey, bobalky, perfectly baked little balls of dough browned in butter and mixed with sauerkraut, and pirohi, ravioli-like pillows of dough filled with cabbage, cottage cheese, potato, or prunes. All of these recipes are included in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions (Gateway Press, $11.95).

Carrying on the tradition, today I celebrated the Vilia. I used a few modern shortcuts–ordering the pirohi online from Polish Pierogie, and using frozen white bread dough to make bobalky instead of my grandmother’s recipe. But did make homemade mushroom soup. So, I still managed to have most of the traditional foods, which I shared with my husband (who is Irish and not Slovak but enjoys the foods anyway). I hope that my grandmother and mother are not too disappointed that I did not make everything from scratch, but my over-committed schedule just did not leave me any time to cook this year.

Time and distance, and the passing of loved ones have prevented the large family gatherings of we used to have, but nothing will replace the special memories of those Christmas Eves at Grandma’s house, and in later years, my own home, with my mother at the helm.

This is my last posting for 2007. I plan to take a break from blogging to enjoy some time off. My best to everyone for a healthy and happy New Year. See you in 2008!