I am a foreigner at this table. A sojourner making my way through a labyrinth of strange foods and unfamiliar custom.
It is Christmas Eve — a traditional time for traditional foods like hot cocoa, cranberry sauce, and cookies…certainly not a “Christmas” carp. And yet, it is carp we eat, at least for now. Besides the carp we will dine on kapusta (sauerkraut or cabbage), “baby Jesus food” (oatmeal or Cream of Wheat), hay rolls, pirohy (pirogies), stuffed prunes, and bitter vegetables. While there are cookies and sweets awaiting at the end of this strange feast — flaky pockets of poppy seed and cherry Solo jam (kolacky), a spiced nut roll (orechovnik), and zazvorniky ginger cookies — they are not your typical Christmas sweet course.
Yes, there is much to come. For now, we begin humbly. At the head of the table, Paul passes the oplatky shipped in from Slovakia and imprinted with saintly images of Jesus, Mary, magi, shepherds, stables, and a single star. The light wafer touches everyone’s hands, passed around the table with respect and reverence, attended by silent smiles and centuries of meaning making. Finally, it reaches me — the newcomer, the outsider, the foreigner. Once everyone has oplatky in their hands Paul invites us to don the mass-like bread with a dollop of honey. Many of us do, to help the wafer make its way past the roof of our mouth where it strives to stick. Then, the blessing. Paul prays for family, friends, with thanksgiving, and for blessing. Amen. Veselé Vionece! Merry Christmas!
For second and third generation Slovaks and other West Slavic people (Czechs, Poles, some Russians, etc.) in the U.S., the velija — a representative meal of remembrance of the nativity narrative of Jesus of Nazareth and his parents Joseph and Mary — is a staple of Christmas festivities. Deviating from the customary “American” holiday meal, the velija is a tradition still celebrated by select Slovaks and Czechs as a connection to the “home country,” their childhood memories, and an homage to the ethnic identity forged in urban enclaves in Chicago, Cleveland, Newark, New York, and Pittsburgh in the beginning of the 20th-century.
“When I am preparing the meal, it is my connection to everyone who has gone before me,” said Treena Rowan, a Slovak connected to the Czech Center and Museum in Houston, Texas. “Everyone in the old country still makes the meal and so do I, we are connected this way,” she said.
Akin to the didactic nature of the Jewish Seder meal, the velija is a representative feast, literally a Christmas “vigil,” with each portion symbolizing a part of the Christmas narrative and the life of Jesus. While traditions in different households vary, there are a few staple selections. Before the meal begins, many families place hay on, or under, the table to remember the manger and leave an extra place at the table for a traveling stranger or deceased relative. After prayers and blessings, the eldest person in the household, or the father of the family, passes around oplatky, a communion-like wafer imprinted with images from the Nativity topped with honey. “This symbolizes the sweetness of Christ and Christmas,” said Rowan, “the pictures look like little postcards from the original Christmas.”
Following the oplatky and making the sign of the cross with honey on the forehead, the family starts in on other courses including kapusta (a sauerkraut and mushroom soup), representing the bitterness of Christ’s suffering, pirohy dumplings filled with sauerkraut, potato, cheese or lekvar (prunes) and carp. While carp is not readily available in the U.S., many families still eat fish, betraying the meal’s Catholic intonations connected to that church’s traditions of fasting during the season of Advent (the 40 days prior to Christmas, a time of reflection, anticipation, expectation, and hope). The whole meal is accompanied with wine, for luck and in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice. At the close of the meal, families enjoy kolacky, strudels filled with poppyseed, nuts or fruit filling and wrapped in such a way as to hearken back to the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. There are also nut rolls and bobalky, stuffed dough balls, to eat while children sing kolady, or Christmas carols. Zazvornikys may be served with coffee or tea as the family and friend settle in, but that is an American addition, where coffee is king.
While the traditions may vary from house-to-house, or from culture-to-culture, every family who keeps the velija shares the same sentiments. Linda Steinbart (nee Gereg), a third generation Slovak, celebrates the velija every year as she has done her entire life. She reflected, “This meal was handed down from my Grandma Cepela, to my mom, and now I carry on the traditional meal. It was and continues to be a time of bonding with family on Christmas Eve.”
It is with Linda and her family that I celebrated my first velija, but not my last. I married into this seriously Slovak family, wedding Linda’s daughter Elizabeth. Or, in Slovak transliteration, Elszebet. She hopes that, as a transplant, I not only appreciate the tradition, but carry it on in our family for years to come. So potent is their Slovak bloodline that despite my European mutt heritage (English, German, Norwegian, and Scottish) our own children would still be half-Slovak.
Steinbart intimates that it is our obligation to institute the velija in our own family. Being the only member of her family who continues to put on the velija, she believes the tradition is dying off. She said that the addition of spouses, grandchildren and relocation has all changed the meal and dampened the desire to learn about the family’s Slovak heritage or celebrate the traditional Christmas Eve meal. This has led to difficulties in finding rare items like the imprinted oplatky. “Our main source, a Catholic Church in Chicago, closed,” she said, “before computers it took hours of research and networking to locate sources for oplatky.”
Even though the meal changed and the tradition is waning, she makes the effort each year, “When mom died the tradition become less important, but I could not let go of the warm memories and to this day I bring extended family into our home to share this wonderful meal.” She prays that her children will carry on the Slovak tradition.
In Houston, a young woman by the name of Julie Marencic, a fourth generation Slovak, cooks pirohy and passes the oplatky each year in her household as well. Having since been married and moved to Houston for work and study, my wife and I celebrate the velija with Julie and her husband Andy, their children Paul and Elyse. Just as we passed the oplatky with family in Phoenix, we now share in the meaning of the meal with these friends become family because of our shared Slovak heritage. Asked whether the tradition is dying off, Marencic replied, “I am fortunate to be married to someone who has similar traditions to my family.” For Marencic and all those who maintain the velija, it is the only way they can imagine celebrating the sacred winter holidays.
“Something about going through the old ways, your body, your mind and your heart respond to it. There is something in the DNA that says, ‘this is how you celebrate Christmas,’” said Treena Rowan. For those with Slovak heritage, the velija and other Slavic Christmas traditions may be the only thing that connects them to their ancestral roots. For that reason alone, it is worth the effort to resurrect long-established recipes and to put on the meal for family and friends.
Mary-Ellen Fillo, a popular radio personality, said, “I never celebrate the Slovak side of my heritage except on Christmas Eve.” She said, “As distanced as I am from my ancestors, there is a peace to celebrating roots, even for one night. And there is comfort in having family around you and sharing in something that is personal and warm as you remember what the evening is all about.”
As some Slovaks move away from the velija and others pine for what is lost in cultural transmission, this foreigner has migrated through this meal. Rootless in heritage, without any strong Christmas traditions other than what popular culture and Coca-Cola has given me, I have moved into the Slovak world, and fellowshipping with a new family and yoking myself with new friends, through the meal.
This year, I am no longer a stranger. My wife bakes the kolackys and zazvornikys, Julie rolls the orechnovik, and Andy and I fight over the last of the lekvar — the stuffed prunes. The wrestling gets more playfully forceful as the wine continues to flow. I hide the hay for the children to discover and beam with pride over the zazvorniky stars that I myself rolled out to bake. But, significantly, I no longer sit at the right of Paul, my father-in-law, but instead I open the oplatky and pass it around. I am the one who speaks the blessing and explains the meaning of the courses. To my right is Paul, Andy's young son. As the oplatky rests in his hands he novicely looks to me with a quizzical look. I grab the honey, place some on the wafer bearing the theotokos — the image of Mary, “the mother of God” — and, as a migrant into an imagined Slovak-American community, pass on a tradition that transports those at table through time and space — to Slovakia, Chicago, and Bethlehem.