Slovak-American Christmas Memories
- I wrote this for my family and some of my friends (the ones that
didn't understand the whole "Slovak thing")last year and thought it
would be nice to post it on this group, to share my memories of our
family's Slovak Christmas. Enjoy!
Longing For Christmas Past
by William M. Kinnik II
I remember when I was ten years old, Christmas seemed so much more
intimate, so steeped in tradition and family. I remember going to
church during the four weeks of advent, going to see Santa at the
local volunteer fire hall in Wilpen, PA and all the other events
leading up to the big two day Christmas holiday itself. I say two
day holiday because my family is Slovak and Christmas Eve was as
much a holiday as Christmas Day. Christmas Eve began early for me
back in those days, and when I say early, I mean really EARLY!
Dad would wake me up before dawn, dress me up warm and push me out
the front door of the house so that I could start the day off by
fulfilling an old Slovak Christmas Eve tradition. Let me explain the
mythos behind the tradition here so that you can gain a better
understanding about why anyone would wake a small child up, throw
some clothes on him and toss him out of the house into the pre-dawn
cold of a Christmas Eve morning in westen Pennsylvania.
Slovak tradition, or at least the tradition that my family and most
of my neighborhood prescribed to dictated that Christmas Eve was a
day of fasting and preparation for Christmas. It is also an old
Slovak tradition to invite travelers into one's house on Christmas
Eve and offer them food, drink and comfort. The travelers, in turn,
are to bless the house and the people within with a simple blessing
that will bring luck and happiness in the coming year. Now, be it
through some odd Americanization of the original tradition or just
the lunacy of my grandmother and the old Slovak women in my
neighborhood, the concept of the original tradition got changed
The "new and improved" tradition stood thus, "Young Slovak
males are to be awoken in the wee hours of Christmas Eve morning,
dressed and tossed outside into the cold where they are expected to
take on the role of the "traveler" traversing the neighborhood
knocking on the doors of their Slovak neighbors (read as the
aforementioned looney old Slovak ladies) and wishing them a "Merry
Christmas and a Happy New Year!"
And if you think the tradition couldn't get any more odd, please
note the "Slovak males" part of the above sentence, it's there for a
reason, believe me.
It's considered bad luck... REALLY bad luck according to this
tradition, for a woman to be the first person that comes to your
house on Christmas Eve. (I mean it's REALLY REALLY bad luck!) Sound
sexist? It is sexist, but hey, it's tradition! My grandmother is
famed to have screamed at my mother through her kitchen window that
she wouldn't let her in until a man came to do the Christmas Eve
Now, it's not as if there's no benefit in this for the young Slovak
males. The old ladies took this blessing stuff seriously, and so
they were more than happy to make with the cash handouts after it
was done. A speedy route of a neighborhood like mine could net about
$20 or $30, which, back in those days, to a ten year old, was a
pretty good haul.
The day went on fairly uneventfully after that and my family would
continue our fasting and preparing for the Christmas Eve supper that
was held at my Grandma's house. Around about 4 or 5 PM, we'd all
gather at her house and start getting ready for the "meatless
dinner" that was traditional for a Slovak family Christmas Eve. The
meal would consist of fish, usually highly breaded baked crispy fish
sticks that bore absolutely no resemblance to fish since getting
young kids to eat fish is only slightly easier than teaching
elephants ballet. Also on the menu was pierogies, peas, stewed
prunes, mashed potatoes and a yummy brown gravy made with browned
flour, milk and sauerkraut. There would also be kolacky, a Slovak
pastry roll that could have different fillings such as ground
walnuts, apricot, poppyseed, prune butter or pineapple.
At the start of the meal, each family member would be given a piece
of Oplatki. Oplatki is a thin rectangle of unleavened bread that can
come in various pastel colors. It usually is pressed into a mold on
one side so that the side is embossed with a intricate Christmas
scene. The Oplatki is served (with honey) at the beginning of the
meal along with a blessing. My grandmother would always do the
blessing and I think this, above all, was the main reason that she
was much beloved by all the dogs that we had owned. She would take
some of the food, usually a spoonful of peas and throw them over her
shoulder as the blessing or offering for "the birds and the animals
of the forest." Apparently, our two dogs, Porky and Ebony qualified
as "animals of the forest" as they usually waited behind her like
black and tan shadows, sucking up the fallen food like little 4-
legged vacuum cleaners.
After dinner, we would go into Grandma's living room and open
presents. Now, there are Christmas purists that say you should
wait 'til Christmas Day to open presents, but our family usually
got "church clothes" for Christmas and opening them early on
Christmas Eve ensured that we'd be wearing them later on for
Midnight mass. After presents were opened at Grandma's house, we'd
head back to our house (we lived next door to Grandma in those
days.) and take naps so that we would be awake and alert at midnight
Around about 10 o'clock that night, Dad would go off and start
getting ready for mass. Mom would hustle us into our bedrooms and
get my sisters and I started on getting into our clothes for church.
About 11 o'clock, Dad would tell me to go and get my Grandma and I
would go and walk her down to our house. We lived in Western PA and
it was usually either icy or snowy or both at Christmastime so I
escorted her down the walk between our two houses under the pretense
that her holding on to me would stop her from falling. (But let's
face facts, I was ten and, had she fallen, that old woman would
certainly have dragged me down with her.) Dad would go out and heat
up the car and we'd be heading off to St. Anne's Church in Wilpen,
PA, about a mile or so from our house in no time.
Now, a side note about St. Anne's Church. St. Anne's is a beautiful
little country Catholic church built at the base of a very VERY
steep hill. (I never realized how steep it was until I was
pallbearer at my Grandma's funeral just a few years ago. I thought I
might be joining her in the grave after nearly having a heart attack
getting her casket to the top of the hill where the church cemetery
and her gravesite lay.)
There's a nice sidewalk next to the church with two small flights of
steps that runs from the gravel parking lot to the back of the
church where the doors to enter are located. During the winter,
especially on Christmas Eve, when we arrived thirty minutes before
mass, before anyone could come and salt this sidewalk down, this
trek was particuarly treacherous. I can remember many times that we
wound up on our butts after falling on this slick stretch of
concrete. We would have to arrive at 11:30 PM, a half hour early, so
that grandma could say her rosary. If ever you wanted Grandma really
good and angry at you, try getting her to church without her
allotted 30 minute rosary and prayer time. She was definitely a
woman who took her prayer seriously.
The church was set up with long rows of pews with a wide aisle in
the middle. Women and young children sat on the left, and men on the
right. I dunno if this was tradition, or just Grandpa's clever way
of getting away from Grandma for an hour or so. Since nearly all the
old men and women sat separately, I always just assumed it was yet
another weird Slovak tradition. I remember sitting next to my
Grandma and listening to her and Mary Miney, one of her many bingo
buddies who also attended our church, say the rosary. Those two old
women were power prayers, they could zoom through a rosary so fast
that all you'd hear were hisses from rapidly whispered S's of Hail
Marys and Our Fathers.
One Christmas Eve mass that I remember well, my mother, who was
Methodist and didn't usually come to our church, was in attendance.
The service started out with the usual stuff. The priest came in
swinging the frankincense burner with such vigor that he often times
came close to causing injury to the people sitting near the aisle.
The mass was going fairly well until communion when someone in the
choir loft decided it'd be a good time to have a violin and voice
rendition of Ave Maria. Apparently no one had thought to tune the
violin beforehand so it was off pitch... and when I say off, it was
WAY off pitch. In addition to this, the violinist was apparently a
novice or out of practice, squeaking the bow every few notes or so.
As the squeaky off-key intro to the song played, I began to giggle
uncontrollably. Usually, a swift elbow to the side from Grandma
would have stopped my giggling. However, that night I was sitting
next to Mom and she was also trying hard not to giggle over the
squeaky, off-key playing. The choir leader began to sing, also off-
key so that she would be in tune with the squeaky off-key violin,
and my mother my three sisters and I dissolved into semi-silent
laughter, hissing and shaking with barely controlled mirth. My
Grandmother was livid, glaring over at us from the other side of the
pew like she was hoping God himself would come down and smite us.
Mass ended and we all got a nice long lecture from Grandma on the
ride back to the house about not being "simple" in the house of God.
Apparently, I was always really good at being simple. I'm sure that,
unless my younger cousin Matthew beat me out when she went and
stayed with my uncle's family after I graduated from college, my
Grandma probably told me I was simple more often than anyone else in
my entire family.
After mass, we'd go home and head off to bed. Christmas Day would
see us getting up and having the big Christmas dinner around two in
the afternoon. After dinner, we'd all laze around and watch
television, nap or play with our Christmas presents.
As I write this account and think back on those happy memories, I
find myself feeling somewhat sadly nostalgic for those long ago
days. I can't help but mourn the loss of the long-held traditions
and routines my family had back then and feel sad for the next
generation of the family who will never experience that facet of
their heritage because of my generation's loss of knowledge about or
downright indifference towards the old Slovak traditions we
celebrated when we were growing up.
As odd as it may seem, I know that if today I were offered a million
dollars cash or the chance to go back in time, to be a ten year old
kid again and re-live that one Christmas, I would choose the latter
without a second's hesitation. To once more experience Christmas
with my family, to once more be awakened at the ass crack of dawn on
Christmas Eve and tossed out into the cold, to once more sit at
Grandma's table at Christmas Eve dinner and watch her throw peas
over her shoulder, or to once more take that hazardous trek to
Midnight Mass at St. Anne's and listen as those old women sped
through their rosaries and laugh with my mom and siblings at the
awful squeaky violin and off-key singing.
Yeah, that'd be worth a million bucks... hell, I think it would be
worth that and a whole lot more!
Merry Christmas & A Happy New Years Everyone!
-William M. Kinnik II
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
> they should associate it with an apple other than it's aThat happened a lot that people likened a new thing to the closest
> fruit and it's red.
thing they knew. _Corn_ used to describe grains, which are rather
unlike corn/maze (once it was cultivated), but when the Anglos began
to grow it on a large scale in America, they actually made the word
_corn_ mean "maze." You mostly have to say grains, cereals today to
make it clear that you don't mean corn/maze.
The word _mel-_ that gave today's "melon" in English used to describe
a variety of round fruits including, e.g., oranges, which still shows
in the word _marmalade_.
> Now I don't know if the forbidden fruit was anHa, ha, RU, it has to be the pomo d'oro down there in El Dorado.
> apple or a tomato.
votruba "at" pitt "dot" edu