Enjoy this lovely Slovak Christmas postcard I received from a colleague. Radostné Vianoce!
How did you, your family or your ancestors spend Christmas Eve?
For Slovaks, Christmas Eve is more solemn than Christmas Day. It is a time for praising God and for being together with family. Here is a blog post from in which I describe how my family celebrated Christmas. Things have changed over the years since my grandparents and parents passed away, but I try to honor the Slovak traditions in my own home to the best of my ability.
Here is a blog post from 2007 in which I describe the Christmas Eve traditions in my family.
Enjoy! Vesele Vianocé! (Merry Christmas!)
[From a previous blog post: Monday, December 24, 2007]
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.
Christmas Sweetheart Memories
Do you have a special memory of a first Christmas present from a sweetheart? How did you spend your first Christmas together? Any Christmas engagements or weddings among your ancestors?
I honestly can’t remember my first Christmas present from a sweetheart. I cherish all of the presents my husband has given me over the years–jewelry, perfume, candies, favorite CDs and DVDs and other thoughtful gifts. We have an agreement not to buy each other expensive items. Usually we get one “nice” item that is for the both of us each Christmas, and then we just exchange small gifts on Christmas Day. Just being together is the best gift of all.
Christmas and Deceased Relatives
Did your family visit the cemetery at Christmas? How did your family honor deceased family members at Christmas?
Yes, we would visit the cemetery on Christmas Day. We had to go to two different cemeteries because my mother’s parents were buried in a different cemetery than my father’s parents. We would always put a wreath on the grave of a deceased ancestor. Also, we would contribute for flowers to be put on the altar at church in memory of deceased loved ones.
What songs did your family listen to during Christmas? Did you ever go caroling? Did you have a favorite song?
My family listened to all of the traditional Christmas carols–religious and secular, as well as Slovak versions of Christmas hymns. I used to go caroling as part of school activities. I can’t carry a tune to save my life so I am not a big caroler, but I love to listen to Christmas music.
My favorite song is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which I posted as my blog carol for this year (thanks to Footnote Maven for organizing the activity). But, there are two other songs I always enjoy at Christmas that bring back special memories of my mother. Mom always liked “Feliz Navidad” by Jose Feliciano–I think because it was so happy and festive.
My mother’s favorite song, however, was “Oh, Holy Night,” as sung by the late Luciano Pavarotti–she always thought his version was simply beautiful, and I agree.
Did your family attend religious services during the Christmas season? What were the customs and traditions involved?
Going to church was always a part of our Christmas celebration. Our church, Holy Trinity Roman Catholic church, was branded the “Slovak parish” because it was established by Slovak immigrants, and usually had a pastor who was of Slovak heritage. My paternal grandfather was very active in the church.
When I was very young we would attend the early mass (4 p.m.). Occasionally, we would go to mass on Christmas Day, but most of the time we went to midnight mass. The church was always beautifully decorated with poinsettias and candles and the manger. I always enjoyed the carols and at our church the choir also sang several Christmas carols in Slovak, which was a very special tribute to the Slovak heritage.
I still prefer to attend midnight mass–although it is no longer held at midnight–usually 10 p.m. at most of the churches in our area. I still enjoy listening to carols but I really do miss the Slovak ones as in my home parish. Fortunately, I inherited an album (yes a 33 1/3 RPM for those of you old enough to remember) from my mother that has both English and Slovak versions of Christmas hymns. It was recorded at another Slovak parish in Pittsburgh. I play it every Christmas Eve. I also have converted it to digital format so I can listen to it on CD or my computer/iPod.
How did your family handle Christmas Shopping? Did anyone finish early or did anyone start on Christmas Eve?
My mother was the Christmas shopper. I remember that she would start early and go on all day shopping adventures with her sister (my aunt) Helen. When I became an adult I would occasionally join them. We’d shop for hours, have a nice lunch–good times.
I must admit that since my mother passed away many years ago, the joy of going Christmas shopping for me is gone too. I don’t like large crowds or rude and pushy people. So, if I have to go to a “brick and mortar” store to do any holiday shopping, I always start early. This year I did 95% of my shopping online, which was so nice. A few clicks of the mouse and I was done!
Did you have one? Where did you hang it? What did you get in it? Do you have any Christmas stockings used by your ancestors?
I have a fireplace in my current home and those stockings are hanging above it right now!
Christmas at School
What did you or your ancestors do to celebrate Christmas at school? Were you ever in a Christmas Pageant?
Having attended Catholic school, we always had a Christmas pageant. One of them I particularly remember was during the third grade. I played an angel. My Aunt Helen made my costume for me. I had the big gold wings, long white robe and halo.
I don’t have any musical or acting talent so these pageants were never really my thing. But we all thought it was great to miss a Math or Science class now and then to practice for the pageant.
Often times December to mid-January birthdays and anniversaries get over shadowed by the Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year holidays. So we’re going to shine a spotlight on those family members and ancestors this time around. Select one or more December to mid-January birthdays and/or anniversaries on your family tree. Write a short tribute to or memory of those birthday guys and gals and write a toast to the anniversary couples.