CHRISTMAS CUSTOMS IN SLOVAKIA
By Father Andrew V. Pier, O.S.B., M.A.
Unlike the excitement that is generated in affluent countries of the western world to touch off shopping-sprees in preraration for Christmas each year, the weeks before the great event in Slovakia are filled with an interesting series of activities during the season of Advent. For one thing, each morning in a Slovak village, people both young and old, walked to the village church to participate in the ‘Roráty’ singing of hymns during the holy Mass at dawn.
St. Andrew’s feastday on November 30 generally touched off the pre-Christmas season with the unique custom of pouring hot lead into water. After cooling off, the various shapes formed by the pieces of lead became subjects for predicting the future.
Everywhere the eve of St. Nicholas Day (December 5) was awaited with mixed emotions of joy and trepidation by the youngsters because the good saint arrived with a bag of candy, toys and fruit and he was not only accompanied by an angel but also by a ‘devil’ who rattled his chains in the background . . . this was the signal for the children to fall to their knees and say their prayers. The good children were rewarded and praised for their virtue, but the bad ones were given a stern warning that unless they amended their evil ways they would be carried away by the devil in the big empty sack he always carried with him.
In most households, too, St. Nicholas (our Santa Claus) came in the dead of night when the children were fast asleep. When they awoke, the good ones found their neatly-polished shoes filled with an assortment of candies, toys, books, etc. But alas, the naughty children only found potato and onion peelings, straw and coal in their shoes! It was a cruel lesson that was not easily forgotten.
Winter evenings in the Slovak village had a charm all their own. Neighbors gathered in various households and spent their time spinning flax, weaving, or stripping feathers. The monotony was broken by story-telling by masters of the art and by group singing.
The feastdays of St. Barbara (December 4) and St. Lucy (December 12) were anticipated on the eve of these days by groups of girls, clad in white and with faces covered with white chalk, who went from door to door for a visit . . . strangely enough on what turned out to be an inspection tour to see if the homes were kept clean. Housewives prepared for these seasonal calls by getting their homes spick and span . . . after all, they did not want the village gossips to have ‘an unkempt house’ to talk about. The callers announced their coming by ringing a bell . . . again we find children getting into the act but on the negative side. One of the callers carried a large bag . . . you guessed it . . . for bad children! But no child, no matter how bad, was ever carried away. This part, too, was merely a warning, a remainder for disobedient children to mend their ways.
Young ladies of marriageable age had their own custom to intrigue them on St. Lucy’s day. Each maiden wrote a dozen names of prospective suitors on separate slips of paper. She burned one of the papers each day until Christmas . . . the one remaining had the name of her husband-to-be . . . supposedly.
Another quaint custom involving the selection of a husband was determined on Christmas Eve. A girl wrote out as many names as she wished, then inserted each slip of paper into a bit of dough. She dropped the entire collection into a pot of boiling water. The one coming to the top first was ostcnsibly the name of the one to be her future husband.
Among young men in the mountainous regions of Slovakia a very strange custom involved the making of a hassock-style stool hewn by each young man from wood. The operation had to begin on St. Lucy’s feastday (December 12) and completed by Christmas Eve. Then at midnight the youth took his ‘shamlik’ (perhaps derived from the ancient word ‘shaman’ — magician or conjurer) and went to the nearest forked road in the hills. There he encircled his wooden hassock with a blessed chalk and sat down to await the appearance of ghosts, goblins and witches. Since he sat in the sacred, enchanted circle he could not be harmed . . . and when he got ready to leave he simply reached into his pockets for a few handfuls of poppy-seed to throw outside the circle to distract the ‘spirits.’ While they were collecting the seed, he made his departure . . . hastily, it is presumed. This weird custom had nothing to do with the blessed yuletide season . . . it must have roots in pagan antiquity.
“Betlehemci” (the boys from Bethlehem) frequently began making their rounds a week before Christmas. The boys sang carols, recited poetry, read excerpts from the Bible, narrated ballads set to music and extended greetings of the holy season. Their performance required a good memory, a good voice and, of course, confidence in their ability to communicate their message properly. Accordingly, they were rewarded by each household by baked goods, fruits, candy, etc. When they returned for an encore on Christmas Eve to sing carols their reward was monetary . . . a coin or two . . . prescribed by custom . . . which was a must . . . otherwise, misfortune would befell the miserly householder and his family!
Christmas Eve was an all day affair that was marked by hustle and bustle . . . and a fast from morning to night. Children were beguiled to abstain from food by the promise of beholding an angel or a special star at dusk . . . many, no doubt, saw both by nighttime as the result of the pangs of hunger. Finally, the Christmas Eve supper was on the table. But the father had to say the special prayer and grace, then followed the exchange of altar-bread dipped in honey and mutual greetings before all sat down to a dinner fit for a king. There was the “kapustnica” (sauerkraut soup with mushrooms and prunes), baked fish, poppy-seed puffs, a variety of vegetables, fresh and canned fruits, nut-rolls, figs, candies . . . and both “slivovica” and wine. Sometimes an intermission was called and the family sang a hymn or two. After the meal all gathered around the Christmas tree to sing a few more carols. The master of the house did not forget the animals on this holy night . . . he took a particle of each food on the table and fed it to dog, the cat and to the various animals in the barn so that they, too, would be partakers of the joyous season of the Nativity.
Around the city of Trnava there was an ancient custom of cracking four nuts . . . one for each season to determine what kind of year was in store for the family or district. A hollow or worm-eaten nut obviously was a bad omen for the future.
In the Topoľčany district the mother went out with a dish of altar-bread and a glass of honey. She knocked on the door of her home and called out “Open the door.” This she repeated three times and in reply to the question from within, “What are you bringing us?” she answered: “Health and God’s blessing.” Only then was the door opened and the mother entered, extended greetings of the Christmas season and distributed the altar-bread dipped in honey.
Holy water, too, played a part in the ceremonies of Christmas Eve. The master of the household went about sprinkling not only the inhabitants of the home but the animals, for they, too, were represented at the birth of the Lord in the stable in Bethlehem and hence they, too, were to share in the blessings of Christmastide.
What may actually be a remnant of an old pagan rite is the householder’s custom in some quarters to throw a nut into each corner of the living room with an exhortation for health and happiness . . . a brief prayer for God’s blessing was added, apparently after the Slovaks became christianized.
It is interesting to note that there was no emphasis placed on the exchange of gifts, as we do here. Gifts were incidental . . . these were ‘discovered’ under the Christmas tree next morning. Christmas Eve was devoted to the traditional practices enjoyed for generations before getting ready for the midnight Mass that was, for centuries (and continues to be despite communist pressures), the culmination of the holy season of Advent that covers several weeks in preparing the proper atmosphere for the coming of the Saviour who is welcomed with hearts full of gratitude and joy on Christmas Day.
Although after Christmas the series of visits of relatives and friends were somewhat of an anti-climax to the holy day itself, they were enjoyable occasions still glowing under the magical spell of the Nativity scene with its manger, the Divine Child, the Blessed Mother, St. Joseph, the animals, the shepherds, the Three Kings, the camels . . . and the atmosphere faded slowly . . . it was still there on St. Sylvester’s Day (New Year’s Eve) as villagers gathered in their church to hear an assessment of their joys and sorrows, successes and failures, hopes and disappointments enumerated by their pastor. The somber note disappeared as friends gathered together again to great the New Year.
As the New Year dawned there was a revival of the Christmas spirit, for another great event was in the offing, namely, the Feast of Epiphany, on January 6. The happy interlude was amply celebrated by the visit of the Three Kings from the Orient as they went from home to home each evening. Their coming was a spiritual renewal and reminder of the blessings of the Revelation of the Gentiles that a Saviour war born. Epiphany was celebrated with due solemnity because it marked the revelation of the Gospel of Christ to the pagan nations.
The procession of the Three Kings and their entourage, bedecked in all the colors of the rainbow, was a sight to behold as the holiday group trudged through the snow from one home to the other, and in the dim light of the interior of each humble abode one could feel the presence of Him whom the visitors from afar had come to adore long ago in the Stable of Bethlehem.
Now at last, as the Epiphany season waned, the incomparable and all pervading spirit of Christmas vanished in a golden glow for another year.
Reprint from the Jednota Annual FURDEK 1974: Prepared and Edited by Joseph C. Krajsa, Editor of JEDNOTA: Published by the First Catholic Slovak Union, 3289 East 55th Street, Cleveland, Ohio 44127
Printed by JEDNOTA PRINTERY, Middletown, Pa. U.S.A.