Christmas Traditions in Slovakia

I love traditions. I think they’re lots of fun, and they bring order and excitement to a year that might otherwise be uniform and dull. I just like being able to look forward to something–how Christmas gives even people who don’t like winter a reason to be excited. (Or, if you hate Christmas, a reason to be happy once it’s over. But what’s up with the Christmas hate, people? Your five year old self thinks you’re a total loser, just so you know. Do you really want your five year old self having that low of an opinion of you? There are entire movies devoted to how you need to make sure your five year old self (or younger self, at any rate) still thinks you’re pretty cool. If you need help with this, just remember one word, my friends: underoos.)

Anyway.

Traditions aren’t just fun. They’re fascinating, especially when you can get outside them and look at them as an outsider. This is really difficult to do with traditions you grew up with. It’s really easy to do with traditions you never encountered until you were grown. Thus, I have a hard time getting my mind around the whole Santa Claus mythos–why we believe what we believe about him. The reindeer, the chimneys, the stockings, the trees. Separating myself from all of that enough to approach it from a fresh perspective would be really difficult.

Slovak traditions, on the other hand . . . those I’m not quite as entrenched in. This morning Mikulas came, delivering peanuts, oranges, candy, and small presents for my kids. They had to get their boots and shoes all nice and clean and shiny last night, because as we all know, Mikulas doesn’t give you anything if you leave dirty shoes out for him. If they had been misbehaving, they would have gotten potatoes or onions. Why potatoes or onions?

Why does Santa bring coal to kids who are bad?

If you’re part of the tradition from childhood on, questions like that don’t need an answer. They just make sense. If you’re outside of the tradition, then that same taken-for-granted obviousness loses all weight. In Slovakia, Baby Jesus delivers the presents on Christmas–which is celebrated the evening of the 24th. The 25th is not really special at all, other than a day to sit around and eat a lot of cookies and relax. Even during Communism, it was always the Baby Jesus who brought the presents.

Why is Baby Jesus doing this? And does Jesus turn from Adult Jesus into Baby Jesus for one evening a year? Where does he get the presents? Who knows–he certainly doesn’t have any elf helpers. Of course, one thing Slovaks don’t have to worry about is getting their kids too focused on Santa Claus. They can all be excited about Baby Jesus, and leave out the Big Man in Red altogether.

At the same time, traditions are great for showing differences between cultures. Part of me thinks it would just be a blast to write a Christmas follow up to Vodnik, where Tomas (the main character) has to interact with the Slovak Christmas traditions and defeat some evil bad creature. (Not Baby Jesus.) Then again, who knows if I could support an entire book-length production on the topic. But it would be fun to try. :-)

The trick, of course, is to do it in a respectful manner that doesn’t insult the original tradition, but still can highlight how foreign it is. Just like I wouldn’t appreciate a book that basically said, “Santa Claus is a big fat stupid tradition, and you have to be a bumpkin idiot to have ever believed something like that,” Slovaks wouldn’t appreciate a book that assaults their traditions. Not sure how I would handle that, but again–it would be fun to try.

In one way or another, I definitely see some traditions coming in the future of the Vodnikverse. I didn’t delve into them hardly at all in the first novel, but Christmas is coming.

Any traditions you’ve heard of that you just find bizarre or fascinating? Share!

3 Comments

  • By Kjerste, December 6, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

    Random thoughts:

    1. My mom always got out all of her Santa Claus / St. Nicholas decorations (mostly statues) on December 6th, so it was a day I was aware of, growing up, even though we didn’t get presents on that day.

    2. I recently heard (although now I can’t remember where, so take this with a grain of salt) that the tradition of coal in your stocking was never supposed to be a punishment. The tradition (or folktale) came about in a place and at a time when winters could be harsh and coal was expensive, so it was more like saying “Better luck next year (and here’s some coal so you actually survive to next year).”

  • By Bryce Moore, December 6, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

    Interesting about the coal bit–I should take some time and nose around some to see what comes up. I did a bit right now, and came up with too many differing opinions, and no real easy to identify creditable source. Maybe when I have more time . . . :-)

  • By Dad, December 6, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

    Our family doesn’t have any traditions. We just do the same thing every year.

    ;>)

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