Christmas is celebrated throughout the world by different peoples in a slightly different way. Slovaks around the world celebrate Christmas in their own special way, the difference only varying by religion, region or country. With over 1/3 of all Slovaks living outside of Slovak Republic, some of the traditions have taken on the face of their adopted country but they all still share in the common bond of their ancestors living in what today is called Slovakia.
The Christian celebration of Christmas is linked with the pagan feast of the winter solstice. Ancient Slovak forefathers ascribed magic powers to this special time of the year. They believed that the rites would serve to protect the crops and cattle from harmful demons, to ensure a good harvest, to bring happiness in love and in family life in the year to come. The rise of Christianity in Europe subordinated this feast to the church calendar of Christ being born on December 25, but some of the other Christmas customs were nevertheless taken over from pagan traditions and myths, and even determine the course and character of these celebrations of the eternal victory of life over death to this very day.
Some of the more famous pagan myths that today have a Christian twist are:
11th November, St.Martin's day, was the beginning of the winter solstice;
25th November St. Katherine's day, there followed a winter period of quiet and fasting. It was a time for love magic with all kinds of spells and magic;
30th November, St. Andrew's day, "halushky" (a national pasta dish) were cooked, into which unmarried girls put slips of paper of the names of young men;
6th December, St. Nicholas day, the traditional day for Slovaks for exchanging gifts;
13th December, St. Lucia's day, when the powers of darkness were said to do more harm than usual to people's health and property. In the evening women dressed up in fancy dress and ritually chased the evil spirits out of their houses;
24th December (Christmas Eve). The Slovak words for Christmas Eve are literally "bountiful eve" and the bounty of this sacred evening lies in the wide range of festive dishes, of which there had to be twelve different kinds. Even today many Slovak families must have on the Christmas table garlic (to ward off demons), honey, wafers, nuts, cooked peas or French beans, dried fruit, and the main dish, cabbage soup with mushrooms and "opekance" - small pieces of dough - with poppy seed and honey. At the beginning of this century, fish has become the traditional meat served during Christmas Eve (their scales are said to bring wealth into the house) in the Catholic portion of the population while the Lutherans would add smoked meats and sausage to their cabbage soup. Christmas holidays are also very rich in Slovak pastries and baked goods that are prepared over many evenings during the month of December.
Christmas Eve (24th December) was the turning point between the declining and increasing light of the sun. This feast is even now linked in the minds of Slovak people with a large number of traditions. For example, whatever one did on that day, one would do all year round. Nothing could be lent, because all the family's property would then be "lent out".
The ritual lighting of the fire used to be a widespread practice observed by all Europeans. The Christmas fire was considered sacred and later it was replaced by burning of candles as a memory of near ones no longer with us. These candles were eventually incorporated into the richly decorated Christmas trees, which arrived in Slovakia from Germany and Austria in the latter half of 18th century, but did not expand to all of Slovakia until the first quarter of this century. The trees are traditionally decorated (in addition to the candles) with fruits (apples), home made Christmas decorations (wood or carvings), baked goods made with honey in the form of Angels and other religious symbols and candies. The Christmas tree was kept until 6th of January (feast of the Three Kings) at which time the kids were allowed to finally have the candies and other sweets from the tree.
The harmony of the evening feast and festivities was completed by folk nativity scenes with figures made of carved wood and paper or water-colour paintings on paper. The oldest are from the second half of the 18th century. The best-known and artistically the most remarkable are from the surrounding region of Banska Stiavnice and from the Orava region.
At Christmas time, carol singers carried these nativity scenes from cottage to cottage, while other larger ones were part of the festive decoration of the homes.
As is the custom among other nations, Slovaks celebrate Christmas with music and singing. Carols are sung in the family circle, which come from the tradition of carol singing from door to door, which was popular in the towns and villages of days past. Carols were originally a musical wish for health, happiness and blessings of the occupants of the dwellings. In this way, many folk carols came to be part of the religious festival today associated with Christmas.
We know today that the secret of Christmas is really the mystery and miracle of birth of Jesus Christ and the celebration of new life. Slovak ancestors expressed the ideas of care for the newly-born child and for his future in beautiful pastorale (a musical composition in a soft, rural style), based for the most part on nativity plays. What is symbolized in classical mythology by the Fates, in the Bible by the Three Kings or Magi from the east, is symbolized in the pastorales by the shepherds bringing gifts of nature to the manger, indicating the life that awaited the newly-born child. Pastorales accompanied by the organ or made into more elaborate works were performed and sung by the church choir over the Christmas period from Christmas Eve (the midnight mass) to the feast of the Three Kings.
The pastorales are performed during Advent season and today are on the programmes of Christmas concerts throughout Slovakia. Christmas time to Slovak people is indeed a very special time of the year, a time when they experience something soothing and beneficial, something that releases them from the grip of everyday life. When the Christmas tree is lit, some of the almost forgotten customs and rites of their ancestors come to life once more, their thoughts return to their family friends and to love.
All contents to this article © 1997, Ondro Mihal.
All comments should be forwarded to Ondro Mihal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last update on December 16, 1997.
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