Christmas in Slovakia
December 21-30, 2007

Frosted fencepost in Bojnice Frosted fencepost in Bojnice

As much as we love San Francisco, Tomas and I have been missing genuine seasons. It just doesn't feel like winter when the hills are blankets of green and the snow is conspicuously absent. To get our seasonal fix, we spent Christmas in Bojnice, Slovakia with Tomas' family. Tomas was treated to all his favorite treats that he loved as a kid and I was introduced to a whole array of traditions that I had never experienced.

We arrived too late for the first of two days when gifts are traditionally exchanged. Each day of the Slovak calendar is associated with a name and children celebrate their name days like second birthdays. December 6 is the name day for Saint Nicholas. On the prior evening, kids clean their boots and leave them outside the door so that Saint Nicholas can fill them with toys.

At the start of the holiday season, winter markets spring up in the capital city of Bratislava. In colorful temporary buildings, closely packed together, vendors sell roasted chestnuts, sweets and hand-made goods.

Bojnice Castle Bojnice Castle
Cat in the village of Sklene Cat in the village of Sklene

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.

Christmas lights Christmas lights
Spiral stairway in Bratislava's old City Hall Spiral stairway in Bratislava's old City Hall
UFO Bridge in Bratislava UFO Bridge in Bratislava
The flight home The flight home

© Copyright 2007-2008 by Rob Jagnow.