Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Totally belated post about Slovak Christmas traditions

So, I had every intention of doing a post about Slovak Christmas traditions in time for Christmas, but wound up being too busy with the pre-Xmas trip to Krakow, then the move, and the back-and-forth between Bratislava and Podrečany over the holidays, to get around to it. However, rather than wait another year, I thought I'd just post it now and get it over with, even though it's a month late and no one gives a shit about Christmas anymore.

Slovakia's Christmas traditions are worthy of a write-up largely because they are pathologically detailed and specific. T
he Slovak Christmas meal has a very solemn and ritualistic aspect to it, which people adhere to fairly strictly.

What's interesting about Slovak Christmas dishes is their totally non-decadent, bare-bones simplicity, which feeds into the solemnity of the occasion. Every part of the meal has some kind of religious meaning or symbolism, which goes a long way toward explaining why they eat what they eat. Basically, rather than being about preparing some decadent and flavorful gourmet feast, it's more about obsessively following very specific traditions. No one I spoke to could really explain too deeply the origins or historical significance behind these traditions; I get the sense that they derive comfort out of the whole thing since that's what they've been doing all their lives, and that's enough for them. Ultimately, it's just what they do and there's never much thought of questioning it or deviating from it. 

Before I go on, I should point out that Slovaks are pretty hardcore Roman Catholics. Something like 70% of Slovaks claim to be catholic, making them almost as serious about it as the Polish. (Though just how devoutly Catholic they are on a day-to-day basis is very much up for debate). This means that just about everything they do at Christmas (especially the food) is dictated by catholic traditions, which are totally alien to me since I am staunchly non-religious (and in my younger, pre-adolescent years was exposed to more of a protestant-leaning environment, if anything).

First of all, Slovaks celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. I haven't really worked out why, but I can't help but wonder if perhaps the whole country grew so impatient that they couldn't bear to wait another day. So, the big meal and the gift-giving all occurs on Christmas Eve, while no one does squat on the actual day of Christmas.

A crucial aspect about Slovak Christmas (Eve) is that, in line with catholic tradition, you're supposed to fast the entire day until the big meal at dinner. Of course, not everyone adheres strictly to this, and at Terezia's parents' house they let us eat breakfast, so we're really only missing lunch. But people tend to sneak into the pantry periodically throughout the day to nibble on what typically is a vast array of Christmas cookies and anything else that might be sitting around in there. 

You're also not supposed to eat meat, again, as dictated by catholic tradition, so it's typical for the main dish to consist of fish, and given that we're in the land of fried food, the fish is often fried. But before I get into that, let me lay out the entire traditional Christmas dinner meal. This is something that, according to those I have spoken to, most Slovak families adhere to, give or take a few variations here and there.

The meal is started with a prayer. Not the brief, personalized, off-the-cuff sort of grace that I remember my protestant father giving when I was a kid, but an agonizingly long prayer of Melville-esque proportions delivered from memory in a robotic monotone. This epic prayer seriously feels as if it goes on and on and on. And on and on. Of course, being devastatingly famished after not having had a proper meal since breakfast, sitting through the entire prayer becomes a painful test of endurance, especially when you think they're done reciting it, but realize they've only paused for a second to catch their breaths and there's still more to go. 

When the dreaded prayer is finally over, you collapse into your seat and the eating begins.

First, after a round of shots and a "na zdravie", someone, typically the father, slices an apple in half from side to side. If this is done in such a way that the seeds remain in place and undisturbed, that ensures that the family will enjoy good health in the upcoming new year. If the seeds have shifted, you'd better go see your doctor. The apple is then sliced into little pieces, which are passed around and eaten by the family. This part of the ritual is done with immense anticipation.

Here's the Christmas table prior to eating. Notice the fruit in the center, which will be ritualistically sliced and distributed.

Next, an orange is peeled and sliced, and similarly passed around the table and consumed. After that, it's a banana. (This may be specific only to Terezia's family, but I've noticed that they peel bananas the wrong way. Instead of starting with the stem at the top and peeling downwards, they dig their fingers into the bottom non-stem end and peel it upside down. When I politely point out how bizarre and non-intuitive this seems, they ask me how I peel bananas and then laugh and tell me I'm doing it wrong. Pffft, whatever...). Sometimes a few walnuts are shelled and pieces of those are passed around as well.

My favorite part of the ritual comes next. They bring out a plate stacked with oblatky, which are these flat, disk-shaped wafers, usually about 7" in diameter, often with something Christmas-y, like a nativity scene, stamped onto them. Terezia's mom takes the oblatky and spoons honey on them and then places onto each one a raw clove of garlic. You take the wafer and break it in half, folding it over so that it's kind of like a honey and garlic sandwich, and then eat it. It sounds weird, but the combination of wafer, honey, and garlic is actually kind of fun. The wafer is supposed to somehow symbolize the body of Christ (such a morbid religion - hey, let's eat the body of Christ!), while the honey and garlic, once again, are meant to ensure good health.

When I asked about the origins of the Christmas oblatky custom, no one could really explain it to me, so I had to google it and found some info here. It is believed that oblatky were communion wafers which were cranked out weeks before the holiday and then blessed by the local priest for people in remote, snowbound villages who couldn't make it to church for the midnight mass.

Serving up oblatky with honey and garlic.

At this point you'll notice how everything seems to be focused around ensuring good health. You might think that if health were really such a concern, this would be a good time to consider easing up on the homemade slivovice and sausage, but that suggestion is not likely to go over well. 

Next comes the obligatory soup. Slovaks are obsessed with starting every meal with soup, so the fact that it factors into the Christmas ritual is no surprise. But what's interesting about the Christmas soup is that each region has its own special variety. In the region where Terezia's parents live, they traditionally prepare a mushroom soup. But because it makes Terezia's father happy, they prepare the soup from the region where he is from instead (Partizánske, in Nitra Region) - a split-pea soup with bits of halušky, which are like little, misshapen pieces of gnocchi. It's simple and straight-forward, but pretty tasty and comforting on a cold winter's day.

Split-pea soup with little potato dumplings.

Next comes the main course, which if you're a hardcore catholic, involves mainly fish, because for some reason Catholics don't eat meat on Christmas Eve. As I mentioned earlier, the fish is often fried. However, it's not uncommon for there to be some pork schnitzel as well, and there's always a pile of it at Terezia's parents. But if Terezia's mom is feeling a bit more Catholic than usual, she won't eat any pork schnitzel until after midnight. 

Now, here's where it gets kind of weird. Firstly, I'm not a fan of fried fish and I feel it's only something that people do to fish that's reaching its sell-by date in a vain attempt to mask the funky, fishy flavor. Call me a food snob, but I think it's just an iffy way to prepare fish. Only the Japanese, with their tempura technique, fry fish in a way that makes me want to eat it. 

What's even stranger is the kind of fish that many Slovaks fry up for this occasion: carp. No, that is not a type-o. Slovaks love to eat carp, and around Christmas time grocery stores have these plastic tubs packed with live carp swimming around in slightly scuzzy water. 

I don't know if people in other countries eat carp, but in California carp is something you throw back in the river because you're trying to catch salmon or trout. Carp is kind of a gross, muddy-tasting bottom-feeder, and whenever I've had it, that's exactly what it tasted like. And frying it doesn't help. Even baking it with herbs and a good, simple marinade doesn't really make it any more appealing. It's no coincidence that carp is an anagram of crap.

But not everyone here eats carp, and not everyone fries whatever fish they do eat. When Terezia was growing up, her family couldn't afford carp (that's right, they couldn't afford carp - it's amazing how this country has elevated the bottom feeder), so they'd fry up some cod instead. But these days, at Terezia's insistence, they buy fresh salmon and bake it using one of Terezia's tasty recipes. A few other families I've spoken to bake salmon as well. But this does break with tradition, and I'm not sure how common it is.

I'm not a big fan of pork schnitzel either. I can appreciate it when it's well prepared (i.e. tender, not like eating a shoe, not greasy), but ultimately, I think it's a fairly unexciting dish. But people in Slovakia seem to go nuts for it.

Potato salad and pork schnitzel.

The fish and/or pork schnitzel is accompanied by a heaping pile of potato salad. Again, I don't mind potato salad, but to an American, it's a bizarre thing to eat on Christmas, because for most people in the US, it's something you'd eat at a 4th of July picnic on a hot summer's day. But I suppose it fits into the kind of solemn, no-fuss, non-decadent Slovak Christmas meal because of its relative blandness and simplicity. Call me crazy, but I've never had a potato salad that blew me away. To me it's just bland, mushy picnic food. But, Slovaks go ape-shit over it, and they really get into comparing and contrasting the nuances of different potato salads. Everyone will tell you that his or her mom makes the best potato salad.

At any rate, after all this, it's time to bring out the kola
če, or cookies. While some of the cookies that Slovaks bake are what people in the US would recognize as cookies, they also bake these sort of cake-like things, then cut those up into little brownie-like squares and call those kolače as well. The kolače that Terezia's mom makes are generally quite good, especially one in particular that involves walnuts. Some Slovaks like to outdo themselves each year with the kolače, and they will brag to each other about how many different types their family made.

A plate of Terezia's mother's tasty kolace.

Then it's time to open gifts. A funny thing about this - children's Christmas gifts in Slovakia don't come from Santa Claus. In fact, Santa has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas in roman catholic culture. Rather, Santa (Saint Mikuláš in Slovakia) comes on December 6 to put small gifts (usually candy) in children's shoes, which they leave on the window sill the night before. Children who behave like shit heads get a wooden spoon. But on Christmas, the gifts are delivered by an infant Jesus, called baby Ježíško, who somehow flies around leaving presents under everyone's Christmas tree. The details given to children about how he manages to do this require an even greater suspension of disbelief than the the explanation given for Santa Claus, but who cares - to kids, a gift's a gift. 

You'll find that a lot of these traditions are shared by other central and eastern European countries as well, particularly the Czech Republic (obviously) and Poland, so I don't know how many of these customs are Slovak-specific. 

But it's interesting to me because in the US, while there are certain dishes that are considered traditional, people generally prepare all kinds of different things, and there is more emphasis put on cooking really flavorful and special dishes (that or just plain old gluttony). Also, no two families really cook the same thing. I know one family whose father would prepare this totally amazing spicy shrimp dish, while my mom has been known to prepare a rib roast, and other families tend to do kind of a Thanksgiving redux. So, for someone who is accustomed to the anything goes nature of Christmas feasts in the US, these Slovak traditions are quite a novel change. 


  1. Your report on the Christmas meal and traditions was fascinating. Carp? Gross! The cutting of the apple is interesting. Christmas in Slovakia sounds pretty meaningful and fun.

    1. Yeah, carp is quite popular in Slovakia. If you check out the fish counters at the grocery stores, you'll notice that as much as a quarter of their (already quite limited) stock usually consists of carp. Very strange.

      So many of Slovak table rituals have to do with a desire for good health. Even the thing you say when you toast drinks - na zravie - means, "for health".