Slovaks and Christmas Traditions

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.

Ondro Mihál

The accompanying photographs are from the town of Telgart in Central Slovakia.


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Last update on December 16, 1997.