Most of the festivities happen on December 24. Not surprisingly, many of the traditions revolve around food. Cookies and candies are everywhere. Young children are told that if they can go until Christmas dinner without having a single nibble of food all day, they'll be treated to a glimpse of the golden piglet. Of course, the temptation of treats is too much for even the most disciplined children.
Carp is the traditional dish served at Christmas Eve dinner. At the end of the table, an extra place setting is prepared to remember those who have passed away. In Tomas' family, dinner starts with a thin wafer with fresh garlic and honey. There's no intention for it to be tasty -- it's supposed to bring luck over the coming year. In other traditions to boost good fortune, some families toss walnuts into the corners of the room or slip the dried carp scales from dinner into their wallets to spur financial success.
At the end of dinner, someone rings a bell in another room to signal that the gifts have arrived. During Communism, when secular themes were preferred, Father Frost rang the bell. Today, it's the busy baby Jesus who usually delivers the gifts to the children of Slovakia.
With most of the festivities concluding on December 24, Tomas and I were left with time on Christmas morning to enjoy the winter that we've missed in California. At sunrise, we jogged up into the neighboring mountains, past Bojnice castle and the thermal springs. There wasn't much snow on the ground, but the still, overcast weather had laid down a thick layer frost on everything, turning the entire world into shades of white. As we ran through the forest, the coarse carpet of frozen leaves crackled beneath our feet. Around us, ice encased the smooth grey tree trunks -- the frost growing thicker as the branches reached toward the clouds, eventually pinching off at the highest ends of the slender twigs, making it appear as if the ghostly trees grew right into the pale sky.
Though many of the Slovak traditions were new to me, the most basic holiday pastime was very familiar -- quality time spent with family and friends.