While growing up, I looked forward to Christmas Eve even more so than Christmas Day. There were two reasons for this:  Midnight mass at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic church, and gathering with my family to participate in the rituals and traditions of my Slovak/Rusyn heritage.

Christmas Eve, known [in Slovak] as “Štedrý Vecer” (shtedree vecher), is traditionally the biggest annual event in the home, where the entire family gathers for the traditional Slovak meal called the Vilija/Vilia (vee-lee-yah). The term comes from the Latin “vigilia” or “night watch.” The name implies the joyful anticipation in waiting for the arrival of the Christ child.

My Slovak grandma (Baba) worked tirelessly to carry out the traditions of her heritage. In the Slovak culture, food is richly entwined with tradition and religious teachings, especially for Christmas, when special dishes are prepared and rituals observed.

Verona Figlar making pirohy, 1970s. [Photo held for private use by Lisa Alzo]

Our family would gather each year on Christmas Eve at my Grandma Figlar’s house to celebrate the Vilia Supper.  It is a meatless meal (to honor the Christian practice of fasting). During this supper, the following foods are served:

Oplatka/Oplatky (from the word oblata, which means “offering”) – unleavened wafers imprinted with scenes of the Lord’s holy birth, served with honey.

Mushroom soup – usually made of sauerkraut brine and dried mushrooms.

Bobalky (bo-by-ke) – sweet, raised dough or a biscuit type dough sweetened with honey and sprinkled with a pleasant preparation of poppy seed, or browned butter and sauerkraut.

Pagace/Pagach – A thin raised dough baked either in a single or double layer filled with sweet cabbage or mashed potatoes. After baking, it is brushed with butter and cut in pie wedges. We called it “Slovak Pizza.”

Fish – served because Catholics in Eastern Europe observed a strict fast on the vigil of Christmas.

Pirohy – dough pockets, pastry filled with fillings of sweet cabbage, sauerkraut, lekvar, prunes, or potatoes and cheese and boiled, then served with browned butter.

Other foods eaten include dried prunes, apples, nuts, and other items as dictated by family, village or regional customs.

Slovak pastry, known as kolace or strudel-like rolls which are filled with walnuts, poppy seed, lekvar (prune butter) or cheese.

Red wine is also served.

Oplatky and honey [Photo taken by Lisa Alzo, 2005, held for private use]

The foods take a long time to prepare. My mother and grandmother would start a few days in advance to make sure everything was ready for the family on Christmas Eve. Recipes for these Christmas Eve favorites are included in my book, Baba’s Kitchen: Slovak & Rusyn Family Recipes and Traditions, Second Edition (Lulu.com)

Foods served at the Slovak Vilija. [Photo by Lisa Alzo, 1995; held for private use]

After we finished the meal and family visit, it was time to attend to midnight mass at Holy Trinity.  The church was (and to my knowledge still is) decorated so beautifully with seasonal flowers and white lights.

[Photo courtesy of Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church, West Mifflin, PA, 2004, held for Private Use by Lisa Alzo]

One of my favorite parts of the midnight mass were the carols, many of which were sung both in English and Slovak, including Silent Night (Tichá noc).  You could not leave the church without feeling the true meaning of Christmas in your heart. To hear a version of Tichá noc click here.

Time and distance, and the passing of loved ones have prevented the large family gatherings we used to have, but I still try to observe as many as the rituals and traditions as possible.  Also, since I live hundreds of miles away now, I must listen to the Slovak Christmas carols on my own.  I play an album that belonged to my mother, “Vesele Vianoce” by Saint Matthews Choir, recorded many, many years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (the church was consolidated with other South Side parishes in 1992 into Prince of Peace Parish).  But nothing will replace the special memories of those Christmas Eves at Grandma’s house, and after she passed away, my own home, with my mother at the helm, or attending mass with my parents at Holy Trinity.

I will end with the traditional Slovak Christmas greeting:

Veselé Vianoce a Šťastný Nový Rok!

(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!)