Christmas in Slovakia is a lot different than Christmas in the UK. Understandably, there are various traditions and customs, food, but it doesn’t just end there. We get presents earlier, and who knows, you may even find yourself swimming in a bathtub with a real fish. But before we get to that, let’s start from the beginning.
What are Slovak Christmas traditions? How exactly do Slovaks celebrate this festive season?
Typically, people start to get into the festive spirit during Advent, which begins on Sunday four weeks before Christmas. During this time, people prepare themselves for the birth of Jesus. In most Slovak households, Christmas is celebrated in a Catholic way. Christmas wreath becomes an essential part of many homes as soon as the Advent starts. It’s decorated with four candles, and each Sunday during Advent one more candle is lit.
People start to thoroughly clean their homes, buy the presents, bake traditional cakes days, even weeks before Christmas. As I said, Advent is a time of spiritual preparation for Christmas. Fasting, avoiding fun activities like a night out and big celebrations such as weddings are all part of this four week period.
There are few days before Christmas that I think are worth mentioning.
6th December is Saint Nicholas Day (Svätý Mikuláš)
All children are looking forward to this day. Why? It’s the day when Saint Nicholas visits them and leave them little treats next to their shoe, which they placed on the windowsill the night before.
Saint Nicholas is, in fact, Santa Claus who is usually accompanied by an angel and a devil. On the morning of Saint Nicholas Day, kids who behaved well all year round, wake up to find treats, such as chocolate, sweets and some fruits. Oh, the joy. I remember how excited we were the night before, full of anticipation of the little surprises we are going to find in the morning. And guess what? Even if we were a bit naughty sometimes, we still got the treats.
On this day, there are many activities for kids. Saint Nicholas visits schools, or there are gatherings in churches, theatres, cinemas and other places where kids receive even more treats from him. It’s almost like Christmas arriving early.
13th December is Saint Lucia Day
Another interesting day in preparation for Christmas is 13th December. This day had many rituals and customs in the past. From this day it’s exactly twelve days till Christmas. And people used to make a weather forecast for the following year according to these twelve days. Each day represents one month of the coming year. So the weather of each month was supposed to be exactly as the weather of the corresponding day.
This day is full of mystery and secrecy. Lucia, in contrast with Catholic tradition, was considered to be the biggest witch. The most popular custom in Slovak folklore is the gathering of Lucia’s (women disguised in white dresses or sheets). They would go from house to house and sweep the corners to get rid of all evil and anything demonic.
Christmas Eve or the Generous Day (Štedrý deň)
This is the most anticipated day of the whole Christmas. People spend the day cleaning and cooking Christmas dinner. We don’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. In fact, we don’t eat all that much during the day, saving ourselves for the feast that’s coming later.
Our Christmas dinner is at 6 pm. The traditions and even food slightly vary from one family to another, but generally, there are several courses. Before we start to eat, we say a little prayer to thank God for the food we have. It’s also a tradition to set an extra plate. In case, some unexpected guest is coming, for example, a beggar, the family will invite him to eat with them. We didn’t follow this custom, but I know many people who lay down an extra place at a table.
We start the dinner with a traditional thin Christmas wafer and honey, followed by a piece of raw garlic with some bread. Garlic is for good health, and honey should ensure that you will be as sweet as honey all year round.
After this, we have lentil soup, followed by sauerkraut soup and finally deep fried fish fillets with a homemade potato salad.
The more traditional fish is a locally sourced carp fish. But here is a little twist. We buy the carp alive few days before Christmas from street vendors who keep them in big fish tanks. We then keep it in our bathtubs till it’s time to… well, eat it. I remember we only had carp a couple of times when I was a child because it wasn’t as easy to kill and prepare for cooking as it sounds. But I also remember an incident when I accidentally fell into the little bath while the carp was swimming there. We certainly had some fun with this tradition.
Back to Christmas Eve now. Or the Generous Day, that’s more suitable. In Slovakia, the name of this day couldn’t be more accurate. It’s not only food that we indulge in during our Christmas dinner. Once the meal is over, it’s time to open our presents. Yes, that’s right. We get to open them on Christmas Eve.
Here is how it worked in our family when we were little. The kids went to the kitchen and waited while baby Jesus delivers presents under the Christmas tree. Then magically, our parents would let us come back to the living room where we found the gifts all ready to be unwrapped.
So, that’s the dinner and presents, now what? It’s time for some traditional Christmas movies we used to watch year after year, delicious homemade cakes, stuffing our faces with leftover dinner and then eventually a midnight mass.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day
We spend Christmas Day with our family. In the morning we go to church, and then it’s time for another feast, this time it’s the meat. The traditional lunch on Christmas Day is either a duck or turkey, which comes with stewed red cabbage and dumplings. This is one of my favourite Slovak dishes. I just love stewed red cabbage, so yummy.
In the afternoon we watch some more Christmas movies and just enjoy some quality time with loved ones. Some people visit their extended family, but my family always left any visits for the Boxing Day.
Boxing Day is when the fun can finally start again. After Advent period of fasting and limited fun, people look forward to going out and enjoying themselves yet again. Many people go out dancing in the evening.
So, there you have it. Slovak Christmas traditions. How do you celebrate Christmas with your family and in your home country? I’d love to know.