Easter’s Big Production

I have gotten to the point in my life that I am no longer able to find any station on local radio that satisfies my musical preferences. I now defer and have become addicted to NPR (National Public Radio.) Today, I listened to a discription of the guest speaker’s trip to Germany and that he attended the 2010 performance of The Passion Play in Oberammergau,  Germany.

According to Wikipedia: The Oberammergau Passion Play was first performed in 1634 and is the result of a vow made by the inhabitants of the village that if God spared them from the effects of the bubonic plague then sweeping the region they would perform a passion play every ten years. A man travelling back to the town for Christmas had accidentally brought the plague with him. The man died from the plague and it began spreading throughout Oberammergau. After the vow was made, not another inhabitant of the town died from the bubonic plague and all of the town members that were still suffering from the plague recovered. The play is now performed in years ending with a zero, as well as in 1934 which was the 300th anniversary and 1984 which was the 350th anniversary (though the 1940 performance was cancelled because of the intervention of the Second World War). It involves over 2000 actors, singers, instrumentalists and technicians, all residents of the village.

Angela Gheorghiu sings to the pictures of John L. Stoddard’s trip to Oberammergan to see the Passion Play in the year of 1890. All photos copyright by John L. Stoddard 1898, All music credit to Angela Gheorghiu, song is: Sacred Romanian Orthodox Church Song.

As many of you know, an annual production of a play, similar to the Passion Play, was offer in Duquesne at one time. The play, called Calvery, was written in the early 19th Century by an Augustinian priest. A member of the Duquesne-West Mifflin chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which is putting on the play, had read it as a youth and saw his chance of producing when he became a chapter official. As situations changed in Duquesne over the years, the annual event ceased. Eventually, the demolition of our beloved Carneige Library on 2nd street and the fact that so many steelworkers left the area with the demise of the steel industry.

About three years ago, I published a post that was not only about Duquesne’s production of Calvery, but also featured the article published in LIFE magazine in 1960 about the uniquiness of Duquesne’s production. As we all think about the upcoming celebration of Easter, let’s also reflect on those who made our Easter season so special while growing up in Duquesne.

PUBLISHED IN MARCH, 2014….

Last week, many of us made our annual midweek trip to Church to obtain the mark of our humanity and mortality. Ash Wednesday, as a child of Holy Name Grade School, was an ashevent that unlike five of the seven sacraments, was not age restricted. Wee ones were able to approach the altar side-by-side with parents and siblings, older kids, teens and adults alike. 

The good sisters at Holy Name did an outstanding job of helping every child understand the solemnity and significance of the Ash Wednesday. I can still hear Sister Martin DePorres telling us the reason behind the ashes as we sat in her 2nd grade classroom. At that age, ANYTHING that a nun would tell us was gospel in our minds. So with awe and wonderment we would proudly wear our ashes throughout the day and spontaneously begin all of our Lenten rituals and responsibilities. 

As a child, I remember the big decision I had to make at the start of each Lenten season. What was I going to give up for Lent? Of course my first inclination was to give up things like spinach or brussel sprouts, but those were never given the thumbs-up from Mom or the nuns since I would NEVER, EVER, consider eating them in the first place. My final choice was usually a STRONLY suggested one from Mom. Candy, cookies, donuts or cake were usually her “go-to” items. The 40 days of Lent were the longest I could ever imagine as a child. 

Here’s a bit of trivia about the 40 days of Lent that unfortunately, I learned too late in life. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: 

Question: Lent, the period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter, is 40 days long, but there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, and Easter. So how are the 40 days of Lent calculated? 

Answer: The answer takes us back to the earliest days of the Church. Christ’s original disciples, who were Jewish, grew up with the idea that the Sabbath—the day of worship and of rest—was Saturday, the seventh day of the week, since the account of creation in Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day. 

Christ rose from the dead, however, on Sunday, the first day of the week, and the early Christians, starting with the apostles (those original disciples), saw Christ’s Resurrection as a new creation, and so they transferred the day of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday. 

Since all Sundays—and not simply Easter Sunday—were days to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, Christians were forbidden to fast and do other forms of penance on those days. Therefore, when the Church expanded the period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter from a few days to 40 days (to mirror Christ’s fasting in the desert, before He began His public ministry), Sundays could not be included in the count. 

Thus, in order for Lent to include 40 days on which fasting could occur, it had to be expanded to six full weeks (with six days of fasting in each week) plus four extra days—Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday that follow it. Six times six is thirty-six, plus four equals forty. And that’s how we arrive at the 40 days of Lent! 

Had I known this as a child, I would have definitely used this tidbit as a way to eat sweets on Sundays. DARN!!!! 

I have to toss out a big “thank you” to Mike Ferchak for the comment he made earlier this 4-18-60week. He reminded me of a Duquesne institution of sorts, and one that was featured in LIFE Magazine in April of 1960. Aside from the rudimentary aspects of the Lenten Season that I remember, I also recall attending one of the performances of the Passion Play at Duquesne Library with my parents. I was able to unearth the article from the April 18, 1960 issue of LIFE and wanted to share it with you.

Just in case your eyesight is as dicey as mine, I’ve transcribed the text from the article so that you can read it more easily.

STEELWORKERS’ PASSION PLAY

For centuries, the story of Christ’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion has been retold during Lent in passion plays acted by laymen. This year an unusual troupe in Pittsburgh has given the play a special kind of homely realism. The actors are mostly steelworkers whose rugged bearing gives them a look that the apostles – who were workingmen – and Roman soldiers might have had. And their involvement in the roles gives their portrayals a sincerity that more than makes up for their lack of polish.

The play, called Calvery, was written in the early 19th Century by an Augustinian priest. A member of the Duquesne-West Mifflin chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which is putting on the play, had read it as a youth and saw his chance of producing when he became a chapter official. It took a great deal of coaxing to get the steelworkers to join the cast, but once they agreed, they worked hard. Preformed seven times during Lent, the play was gripped audiences – and also the actors. Long after the curtain has dropped, they find themselves still caught up in the play and their parts, as they explained in the captions with their pictures.

Passion Play 1

JOHN PONIST

Foreman – Judas

The role of the traitorous apostle, above, counting his 30 pieces of silver, is played by John Ponist, a 47-year-old foreman at U.S.Steel’s Hempstead plant. He finds his role runs him “emotionally dry. . . . . . It takes something out of you to play the part of a man who committed the greatest injustice in history. You can’t help but feel the torture that was racking Judas’ soul.”

JOSEPH PONIST

Guard – Christ

The 44-year-old policeman at U.S.Steel’s Duquesne Works and brother of the man who plays Judas. Joseph Ponist took the part of Christ only because he “figured somebody had to do it.” Now he finds that it “seems to have made me better. Every once in a while a guy cusses but now I watch myself on that. When you play that role you can’t help but act up to it.”

 Passion Play 2

LAWRENCE TRAINOR

Foreman – Abiron the Leper

Trainor, 36, a foreman at U.S.Steel’s Irvin Works, plays the part of a leper stoned by the Pharisees because he has overheard their plot. His part was originally a small one but it was made bigger as the rehearsals went on. The play made him “stop and think. . . . Now we know what Calvary is all about. It’s made better Christians of all of us.”

 

CLEM MATTA

Draftsman – a Chief Priest

The Pharisee leader shown below stoning Abiron the Leper is played by a 31-year-old draftsman at the Ceco Steel Products Corp. in Pittsburgh. A friend persuaded him to try for the part. The play, he says, “really moves you . . . brings you a spiritual lift.” It has given him a sense of history that he did not have, “a feeling for what Calvary was.”

Passion Play 3

MEMBERS OF THE CAST assemble in the final scene (above) and on a Pittsburgh street after work (below).In the foreground of the stage is John Matico, the director of the play, who also plays a high priest. The Christ on the cross (Joe Ponist) stands on the far left in the picture below. The thief on the cross at right (Peter Kanski) stands next to him in the street. Next are Joe Timko (Saint Peter) and Larry Trainor (leper). The others had small parts.

Thank you again Mike for reminding me to remember! I can’t help but wonder if the “Pittsburgh Street” identified in the last picture was actually taken in Duquesne. Any thoughts?

 

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Slovak Easter Cheese

Spring has officially arrived and I have given myself a kick in the rear end and decided to revitalize my committment to my blog, The Duquesne Hunky. There is so much to catch up on and as begin to collect my thoughts and begin to write, I thought I needed to address a request for a favorite Easter subject. With less than two weeks before Easter, there’s still time to gather your ingredients and recreate an Easter treat that our mothers and grandmothers may have made……..

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN 2012:

Richard Terek added a comment yesterday, March 20, 2012, in response to my posting about the wonderful treats our mothers and grandmothers used to make at Eastertime. Specifically, he mentioned the hot cross buns and the puska. Richard then added:

” I remember my grandmother making Sirecz (Egg Cheese) for Easter too!”

In honor of your grandmother and all of our “Bubbas” and mothers who cooked from their hearts, I found a recipe that duplicates the Easter Egg Cheese of our youths.

 

Called cirek, sirets, sirok, sirecz, Hrudka or just Easter egg cheese since it traditionally served on Paska (Easter Bread) A traditional Slovak Easter Cheese served with the Easter meal. This is served sliced and cold. It tastes like a sweet custard.”

 Ingredients

12 eggs

1 quart milk

1 cup white sugar

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 pinch ground nutmeg

Directions

1. In an electric mixer, beat the eggs until mixed well.

2. Transfer the eggs to a double boiler and stir in milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Cook over a medium heat for 30 minutes. Use a metal slotted spoon and constantly stir the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching.

3. When the mixture looks just like cooked scrambled eggs, pour it carefully into a cheesecloth-lined colander. Carefully gather the ends of the cheesecloth in your hands and pull them together until the cheese forms into a ball. Tie the cheesecloth tightly at the top of the ball. Tie the cheesecloth ends over a faucet or to the handle of a kitchen cabinet (place a bowl under to catch the whey dripping down) and let hang for about 3 hours.

4. Untie the cheesecloth and wrap the cheesecloth ball in plastic wrap before refrigerating. The cheese will keep for about a week. Slice and serve.

 

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Be Sure To Tune In

Hello friends! Long time no see, or should I say long time, no hear from me. More on that later, I promise a new post very soon.

I received an email from Dennis Ragan and Jim Ragan informing me that there is going to be a special broadcast of  Jim Ragan’s documentary,“Flowers and Roots, Ambassador of the Arts,” on Sat. Nov 5 at 9 pm on “Filmmakers Corner.” Arina Films had chosen to document his life in the arts, including the influence his Duquesne upbringing and ethnic roots have had on his poetry, drama, and films, as well as his role on the international stage.

BE SURE TO TUNE INTO WQED ON SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 5th AT 9 PM.

james-ragan

Dennis, Jim’s nephew has also sent me some valuable Hunky information as we roll into the beginning of the holiday season! Learn how to make a REAL iconic Hunky dish…

“Real Potato” Halusky Class

For anyone interested in learning how to make “real” halusky like Baba (grandma) made it, I’ll be doing a cooking class at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood (on the Duquesne side of Greensburg).  This is the real stuff made with potatoes and flour (not noodles), a real Slovak dish brought to this country by our grandparents and great-grandparents.  The class is this Tuesday, Nov. 1, from 6 pm to 9 pm.  I do a brief talk about halusky, then we proceed to the WCCC culinary kitchen to make it.  Then we have a halusky meal afterward. I’m from Duquesne of course and have been teaching this course for about seven years.  WCCC charges a tuition fee of $22 plus $5 material fee. To register, contact Sylvia Detar, director of Continuing Education, at WCCC.  800-262-2103 x 4190 or email her at detars@wccc.edu

Posted in Duquesne History, Duquesne's Special Citizens | 4 Comments

In Memorium – Tim Chonko

 

I received the following from Tammy Chonko on April 5th:

From Tammy Chonko:

This Easter, well March 10th, my husband for 39 years and high school sweetheart from DHS class of ’76 passed away suddenly from an aneurysm. Our time on earth is precious. Live every moment as though it is your last. He was in the hospital talking with me one moment, called out my name, and slumped into the chair with his last breath.
He and I lived in Duquesne all but for 3 years while he was in the Army. I will never forget him saying as we rode through the streets recently, “Tam, I love this town. I just love it.”
There IS something about Duquesne that sticks in your heart. Tim knew someone everywhere we went, mainly because he grew up in the Burns Heights projects. He shared many fond memories of that time. Funny, but he even knew someone who was buried about ten stones down from him in the crypt at Cemetery of the Alleghenies. forgive me if I get this wrong, but I think it was his baseball coach, Mr. Ted Barker.
I write to say Tim’s good-bye to all he knew. He loved everyone and treated all is if he knew them forever. His Chonko laugh and sweet blue-eyed infectious smiling face will be missed in this world.
Hope lives in the resurrection of Our Lord that we will meet again.
Tammy Chonko

 

Tammy,

Thank you for your beautiful heartfelt tribute to Tim. I am sure that he is smiling down on you, proud of your incredible strength of character to remember him to the people and city that he loved. As remarkable a husband that he must have been, you too are an incredible wife. Thank you for your thoughts and conveying his love for Duquesne. God bless you and your family on behalf of all of those who shared Tim’s love for the place he called home.

Jim Volk – The Duquesne Hunky

 

Tim ChonkoTimothy M. “Tim” Chonko, 57, of Duquesne, died Thursday, March 10, 2016, at UPMC Shadyside. He was born Aug. 22, 1958, in McKeesport, to the late Joseph and Marian (Koontz) Chonko. He worked for Field Environmental Instrument as an electrical technician. He formerly worked at Pittsburgh Brewing Co. as an electrical foreman. He proudly served his country in the Army. He was the husband of 39 years to Tammy Chonko; father of Jeffrey (Erin) Chonko, Julia Chonko and Kara (Ryan) Sharp Dixon; grandfather of R.J. Dixon; brother of Esther (late Joseph “Bud”) Kratzenberg, Patricia (late Carl) Bucy, Ruth (George) Pisko, Virginia “Ginny” (Ralph) Lemak, Ona (Mark) Horgas, James “Jimbo” (Marie) Chonko, late JoEllyn “Jody” (late Calvin) Wigton; also nieces and nephews.

Jesus-Christ-Welcomes-Us-To-Heaven-Picture

 

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Easter Repost

With just one day remaining before we celebrate Easter Sunday, I decided to post a previous article that I wrote a couple of years ago. My, how things have changed.

Last week, many of us made our annual midweek trip to Church to obtain the mark of our humanity and mortality. Ash Wednesday, as a child of Holy Name Grade School, was an ashevent that unlike five of the seven sacraments, was not age restricted. Wee ones were able to approach the altar side-by-side with parents and siblings, older kids, teens and adults alike. 

The good sisters at Holy Name did an outstanding job of helping every child understand the solemnity and significance of the Ash Wednesday. I can still hear Sister Martin DePorres telling us the reason behind the ashes as we sat in her 2nd grade classroom. At that age, ANYTHING that a nun would tell us was gospel in our minds. So with awe and wonderment we would proudly wear our ashes throughout the day and spontaneously begin all of our Lenten rituals and responsibilities. 

As a child, I remember the big decision I had to make at the start of each Lenten season. What was I going to give up for Lent? Of course my first inclination was to give up things like spinach or brussel sprouts, but those were never given the thumbs-up from Mom or the nuns since I would NEVER, EVER, consider eating them in the first place. My final choice was usually a STRONLY suggested one from Mom. Candy, cookies, donuts or cake were usually her “go-to” items. The 40 days of Lent were the longest I could ever imagine as a child. 

Here’s a bit of trivia about the 40 days of Lent that unfortunately, I learned too late in life. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: 

Question: Lent, the period of prayer and fasting in preparation for Easter, is 40 days long, but there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, and Easter. So how are the 40 days of Lent calculated? 

Answer: The answer takes us back to the earliest days of the Church. Christ’s original disciples, who were Jewish, grew up with the idea that the Sabbath—the day of worship and of rest—was Saturday, the seventh day of the week, since the account of creation in Genesis says that God rested on the seventh day. 

Christ rose from the dead, however, on Sunday, the first day of the week, and the early Christians, starting with the apostles (those original disciples), saw Christ’s Resurrection as a new creation, and so they transferred the day of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday. 

Since all Sundays—and not simply Easter Sunday—were days to celebrate Christ’s Resurrection, Christians were forbidden to fast and do other forms of penance on those days. Therefore, when the Church expanded the period of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter from a few days to 40 days (to mirror Christ’s fasting in the desert, before He began His public ministry), Sundays could not be included in the count. 

Thus, in order for Lent to include 40 days on which fasting could occur, it had to be expanded to six full weeks (with six days of fasting in each week) plus four extra days—Ash Wednesday and the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday that follow it. Six times six is thirty-six, plus four equals forty. And that’s how we arrive at the 40 days of Lent! 

Had I known this as a child, I would have definitely used this tidbit as a way to eat sweets on Sundays. DARN!!!! 

I have to toss out a big “thank you” to Mike Ferchak for the comment he made earlier this 4-18-60week. He reminded me of a Duquesne institution of sorts, and one that was featured in LIFE Magazine in April of 1960. Aside from the rudimentary aspects of the Lenten Season that I remember, I also recall attending one of the performances of the Passion Play at Duquesne Library with my parents. I was able to unearth the article from the April 18, 1960 issue of LIFE and wanted to share it with you.

Just in case your eyesight is as dicey as mine, I’ve transcribed the text from the article so that you can read it more easily.

STEELWORKERS’ PASSION PLAY

For centuries, the story of Christ’s betrayal, trial and crucifixion has been retold during Lent in passion plays acted by laymen. This year an unusual troupe in Pittsburgh has given the play a special kind of homely realism. The actors are mostly steelworkers whose rugged bearing gives them a look that the apostles – who were workingmen – and Roman soldiers might have had. And their involvement in the roles gives their portrayals a sincerity that more than makes up for their lack of polish.

The play, called Calvery, was written in the early 19th Century by an Augustinian priest. A member of the Duquesne-West Mifflin chapter of the Knights of Columbus, which is putting on the play, had read it as a youth and saw his chance of producing when he became a chapter official. It took a great deal of coaxing to get the steelworkers to join the cast, but once they agreed, they worked hard. Preformed seven times during Lent, the play was gripped audiences – and also the actors. Long after the curtain has dropped, they find themselves still caught up in the play and their parts, as they explained in the captions with their pictures.

Passion Play 1

JOHN PONIST

Foreman – Judas

The role of the traitorous apostle, above, counting his 30 pieces of silver, is played by John Ponist, a 47-year-old foreman at U.S.Steel’s Hempstead plant. He finds his role runs him “emotionally dry. . . . . . It takes something out of you to play the part of a man who committed the greatest injustice in history. You can’t help but feel the torture that was racking Judas’ soul.”

JOSEPH PONIST

Guard – Christ

The 44-year-old policeman at U.S.Steel’s Duquesne Works and brother of the man who plays Judas. Joseph Ponist took the part of Christ only because he “figured somebody had to do it.” Now he finds that it “seems to have made me better. Every once in a while a guy cusses but now I watch myself on that. When you play that role you can’t help but act up to it.”

 Passion Play 2

LAWRENCE TRAINOR

Foreman – Abiron the Leper

Trainor, 36, a foreman at U.S.Steel’s Irvin Works, plays the part of a leper stoned by the Pharisees because he has overheard their plot. His part was originally a small one but it was made bigger as the rehearsals went on. The play made him “stop and think. . . . Now we know what Calvary is all about. It’s made better Christians of all of us.”

 

CLEM MATTA

Draftsman – a Chief Priest

The Pharisee leader shown below stoning Abiron the Leper is played by a 31-year-old draftsman at the Ceco Steel Products Corp. in Pittsburgh. A friend persuaded him to try for the part. The play, he says, “really moves you . . . brings you a spiritual lift.” It has given him a sense of history that he did not have, “a feeling for what Calvary was.”

Passion Play 3

MEMBERS OF THE CAST assemble in the final scene (above) and on a Pittsburgh street after work (below).In the foreground of the stage is John Matico, the director of the play, who also plays a high priest. The Christ on the cross (Joe Ponist) stands on the far left in the picture below. The thief on the cross at right (Peter Kanski) stands next to him in the street. Next are Joe Timko (Saint Peter) and Larry Trainor (leper). The others had small parts.

Thank you again Mike for reminding me to remember! I can’t help but wonder if the “Pittsburgh Street” identified in the last picture was actually taken in Duquesne. Any thoughts?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Christmas Greeting and a Special Gift

1958FP

Just wanted to take a moment to wish all of you the happiest and most blessed Christmas ever! Take time to cherish the memories of the Christmases of your youth, the pride in your heritage, and the love of the town that built us ….. DUQUESNE!!  

MERRY CHRISTMAS MY FRIENDS!

As a special treat, I am posting access to the December 23, 1958 issue of Manger2the Duquesne Times. It contains pages of Christmas greetings from many merchants and businesses that existed in Duquesne and the surrounding areas. In order to view the paper, click on the link below. (Since this is my first time trying to post this type of link, if you are unable to connect and view the paper, my apologies. If you ARE able to connect and view the paper, enjoy your journey back!)

Click here ->   1958_1223

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The Little Things That Mean A Lot At Christmas

There are just a few days remaining before Christmas Day arrives. As usual, I have no hopes of seeing a White Christmas here on the shore, with temperatures expected to be in the mid-70’s. It will be far from the crisp, cold days that I remember as a boy. With such a consistent absence of Christmas-like weather each year, I’ve had to rely on “artificial inspiration” to get that heartfelt holiday mood as Christmas comes closer and closer.

I remember how my mother and/or my Aunt Mary and I, would spend evenings leading toward Christmas in front of a black and white TV watching some of the classic Christmas movies. The networks would air movies such as “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “White Christmas” in lieu of their regular programming, and each time, I would be glued to the set. We would always enjoy goodies while watching the movies. The movie was enough incentive for me to ask for a few slices of poppyseed roll and not be afraid that I’d be turned down with the “Not until Christmas” answer!

I have managed to gather a wonderful assortment of holiday DVDs that I resurrect each year to once again harness those wonderful Christmas feelings. Unfortunately, it has been quite a number of years since I last enjoyed some good old HUNKY poppyseed roll. I’ve learned to substitute just about every other Christmas treat in the house that isn’t nailed down for the poppyseed roll instead.

With today’s technology, being able to enjoy your favorite Christmas movie or Christmas Special is just a click away on your computer. I used to think that watching movies or shows on a computer screen was absurd, considering that we’ve all grown very accustomed to big screen TVs. Although, if you think about it, many of the televisions when we were young, had screens even smaller than some computer monitors! I remember watching TV at my Uncle Mike and Aunt Kay’s house on Archer Street in Port Vue on a tiny black and white screen and was perfectly content to do so. My cousins Michelle, Arlene and Michael Stepetic, and my brother and I would enjoy any show just as much as watching it on today’s big screen TVs…. well, sorta!

The following are clips from my three favorite Christmas movies; White Christmas, Its A Wonderful Life, and Miracle on 34th Street. They’re not very long, and they may be preceded by a short commercial, but they are still worth watching once again.

WHITE CHRISTMAS

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (The little girl, Susie, is played by Natalie Wood!)

AND  AS AN ADDITIONAL CHRISTMAS TREAT…..

FRANK SINATRA AND  NAT KING COLE

Christmas VILIJA! What In The Hunky World Is That??

My mother was Croatian, my father was Slovak. As a result, I was immersed in two different Eastern European cultures, each with their own set of traditions. It seems that these traditions came to the forefront during the holiday season.

As a Slovak, I was fortunate to be able experience one of the most beloved Christmas traditions, theVilija (pronounced vă – lē´ -yă.) Vilija is the traditional Christmas eve gathering and dinner that is rich with traditional foods, religious symbolism and family.

The vilija continues to this day in my family, and although the venue may have changed, the traditions and symbolism remains intact. What an incredible testimony and homage to the parents, grandparents and hunky culture that helped to set our moral compass.

As part of this posting, I have included a 2005 article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review by Karin Welzel. The author does an outstanding job of explaining the tradition, the content and the meaning behind the celebration. Rather than be redundant, allow me to give you my impressions and memories of the event as I experienced it in the 50’s.

The vilija always took place at my Uncle Gary and Aunt Helen’s home in West Mifflin. Just like a scene from “A Big Fat Greek Wedding,” I remember entering their house and immediately getting drawn into the crowd of family that were already preparing the feast.

Their home was always decked out with Christmas decorations galore and every light in the house seemed to be burning. Usually, by Christmas eve in Western Pennsylvania, the weather had usually taken a definite turn and it was normally either snowing or on the verge of doing so. For that reason, whenever I entered their home, it felt so toasty warm compared to the outdoors. Their windows were usually steamed up from all of the cooking that was occurring and from the cranked-up thermostat (Grandma was always cold you know). And then there were the smells! The freshly cut Christmas tree scent hit me as soon as I entered the house. (It must have been the magic aspirins!) Combined with the smell of fresh pine was the amazing aroma emanating from the kitchen and dining room.

All of my aunts were buzzing around a rather cramped kitchen preparing all of the traditional foods. Somehow, all of the foods which were part of our every day lives growing up as a hunky smelled so much better on Christmas Eve!  Stuffed cabbages, pirogies, kielbasa and poppy seed rolls smelled like food for the gods! I was a very picky eater in those days, but somehow, a became a modern day foodie during the vilija.

My uncles had the responsibility of creating a dining surface large enough to accommodate our ever growing family. Since my dad was one of 8 children, the number of people attending was quite large. There was no such thing as a “kids table” in those days, so the eating surface had to accommodate approximately 25 people PLUS the feast itself. The table was usually assembled using two tables which supported large sheets of plywood. It was at least 16 feet long, extended from the dining room into the living room and was always covered with crisp white linens. There were never any decorations on the table, only food, lots and lots of food! The chairs that surrounded the table were a potpourri of chairs from around the house, the out-of-town neighbors and often times from St. Michael’s Church hall. Your seat may not have matched with the neighboring chair, but every family member had their place.

The timing of the dinner was very strategic. It was essential that we ate and were finished with dinner by 6 p.m. In those days, it was important that we allowed for the correct about of time before receiving communion at midnight mass. The Roman Catholic Church has very specific rules governing communion.

Grandpa would always begin the vilija with a blessing. This would be followed by the passing of oplatky (non-blessed communion bread). We would pass a large square piece of oplatky and each person would break a small piece off to be consumed in unison at the end of Grandpa’s blessing. I remember tha the oplatky would always come to the table in an envelop that was decorated with a colorful representation of the birth of Christ.

Once we had taken our oplatky, the feast began. With amazing speed and dexterity, plates and bowls of food were passed around the table and plates were loaded up to the max. Jokes, teasing, memories, and plans for the holidays were just some of the discussions that occurred during the meal. My dad would always be yelled at by my mom and my Aunt Helen for something he might have said to instigate some trouble, but that was expected, and welcome. After the main courses were completed, out came platters and platters of goodies. Poppyseed, apricots and walnuts seemed to be part of every creation. Each would probably be capable of clogging any artery in the room, but somehow, it either didn’t happen or didn’t matter in those days. Naivety was bliss in those days.

Once the dinner was over, my aunts would begin clean-up. Sexist or not, that was the way it was in those days. The men would gather and have some celebratory “shots” and beers, the kids would share their wish lists with each other and the ladies would clean-up the remnants of the feast. There seemed to be an unspoken exception to the communion rule in our family that shots and beers didn’t count when it came to abstaining before communion. Go figure.

After everything was in order, each family departed to get ready for midnight mass at their own parish church. Fully stuffed and raring to go, the remainder of the Christmas Eve activities still laid ahead.

More later………

 

Celebrate Slovak Style

By Karin Welzel
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, December 11, 2005

From the straw scattered under the dining table to the honey that is spread onto thin oplatky to share among diners, the Slovak Christmas Eve meal — called the Vilija table — abounds with religious symbolism.

Christmas Eve is the most awaited day of the Christmas holiday season, according to Albina and Joseph Senko of Mt. Lebanon, members of Western Pennsylvania’s Slovak community.

“The big day is Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day,” says Albina Senko, a native of Spis in Slovakia. She is a director of the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association, founded by her husband in 1997.

A certified public accountant with McKeever Varga & Senko and a certified financial planner, Joseph Senko also is honorary consul to the Slovak Republic.

The Senkos continue to observe the customs and traditions of their ancestry — Joseph Senko was born in Pittsburgh to Slovakian immigrants — and have made it a personal mission to educate Slovak-Americans and the general public about their culture. They are Roman Catholic, as are most of the inhabitants, but they say Byzantine and Orthodox Rite worshipers might follow similar traditions. Slovakia features a wide variety of dialects and customs, varying from region to region, village to village, family to family.

Albina Senko has her home decorated Slovak-style, including a table-size tree festooned with edible ornaments, such as whole walnuts and wrapped candy. There are intricate ornaments made from straw. On larger trees many years ago, family members used apples, paper roses and candles for decorations, too. The top of the tree often was a star made from straw.

Slovak cooks are busy on Christmas Eve, Albina Senko says. Sauerkraut-mushroom or pea soup, bobalky (sweet dough dumplings) and a variety of fish are a must, as well as meatless pirohy, to maintain the fast observed by the faithful during Advent, which begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas.

In anticipation of the celebration, hay or straw is placed under the tablecloth or under the table — or both places — to symbolize the poverty of Christ in a humble manger. Some families place straw in the center of the Advent candle wreath, Albina Senko says, and a figure of the baby Jesus is placed on top.

The table is covered with a white cloth as a symbol of the swaddling clothes of the Christ child. Another tradition is to set an extra place setting to receive a stranger or in honor of a deceased loved one.

The dinner starts at the sighting of the first star of the evening.

“You tell the youngest child to look for it — it may be that it’s just to keep them occupied, because there is a lot of expectation,” says Albina, adding that there is just as much merriment at her house for Christmas Eve now as when her six children were small. She has grandchildren who are excited about the lights, the dinner and gifts.

After the house and table are blessed using a pine bough and holy water, a mulled red wine steeped with cinnamon sticks or herbs and honey is served to diners. Albina Senko sweetens her wine with cranberry juice, cinnamon-sugar and a dash of nutmeg.

The ceremony then focuses on a waferlike “bread” called oplatky (altar bread) that is broken, dipped in honey and distributed to each family member, starting with the husband to his wife. The head of the household dips his thumb in honey and makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of each member of the household so they will be reminded to keep Christ foremost in their thoughts and praying that harmony will sweeten their lives.

Part of this ceremony focuses on daughters who are eligible for marriage.

Says Albina Senko: “The mother takes honey on her finger, makes a cross on their heads and says, ‘May you be sweet and find a husband soon!’ I did it with my own daughters.”

The next course usually is a tart soup — sauerkraut and mushroom is a popular choice — to represent the bitter destiny of Christ and his suffering for humanity. The family then loads up their plates with bobalky, sweet dough balls baked and mixed with sauerkraut or poppy seeds, symbolic of a plentiful crop. Joseph Senko likes a topping of cottage cheese on them, too.

Platters display a variety of fish that has been floured and quickly sauteed in oil. Because Slovakia is land-locked, carp and trout are common, but Albina Senko likes white fish such as tilapia to grace her table.

Also served are pirohy stuffed with fillings ranging from sauerkraut to cheese and potato; and English peas, which represent a bountiful growing season. Albina Senko folds peas into a mayonnaise-rich potato salad; other families fold peas into hot mashed potatoes. Holubky are cabbage rolls stuffed with ground mushrooms and rice.

The Vilija ends on a sweet note, with nut and poppy seed rolls. Walnuts in the shell and apples also are placed on the table.

None of the foods contain meat, still keeping with the Advent fast.

To wrap up the meal sweetly, Slovaks traditionally serve kolaci, pastry rolls made with sweet dough filled with poppy seeds, dried fruit or nuts.

In recognition of the empty seat at the table, none of the food is removed from the table after the diners are finished. “It’s for the people who couldn’t be there,” Albina Senko says. Before midnight in Slovakia, the animals in the barns are given remnants of the meal — the food from the table is supposed to make them healthy and productive for the coming year.

The Senkos host tours regularly to Slovakia to acquaint Americans with their culture. Albina Senko is a retired travel tour operator, as well as a frequent translator for Slovakian visitors and officials who visit Pittsburgh. It is their wish to improve the lives of their countrymen across the sea and bring Slovakian culture into the homes of the general public.

These traditional dishes of a Slovak Christmas Eve table feature simple, earthy ingredients — plus a bevy of sweets.

Slovak Christmas Eve Soup
(Sauerkraut Soup)

This recipe is adapted from one by Albina Senko, a native Slovakian who lives in Mt. Lebanon. Senko is from Spis in the northeast region of the Carpathian Mountains. Although Slovakia is only about the size of West Virginia , with 5.5 million people, Senko says, there is a lot of variety in customs among the towns and villages.

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 medium-size yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 cup sliced mushrooms
  • 1 can (16 ounces) sauerkraut, drained but rinsed only lightly
  • Water
  • Paprika, to taste
  • Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 vegetable bouillon cube, optional
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1 potato, peeled and diced

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onions and mushrooms and saute until translucent. Add the drained sauerkraut, water to cover the sauerkraut, paprika, salt, black pepper and the bouillon cube, if desired. Let simmer — do not boil — adding more water so you still have broth.

Add the carrot and potato and simmer until tender, for about 15 to 20 minutes, adding more water as needed to keep a souplike consistency.

Bobalky

These bite-sized dumplings can be made from frozen and thawed sweet bread dough to save time. Form portions of the dough into 1-inch rolls, then cut small pieces and bake. The National Slovak Society offers this recipe.

  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided
  • 6 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting board
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil, more for greasing baking sheet
  • About 2 cups tap water
  • Boiling water

Dissolve the yeast in the lukewarm water. Add the salt and 1 tablespoon sugar. Let set to proof, for about 10 minutes.

Sift together the flour and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Add the yeast mixture, 1/4 cup oil and enough of the 2 cups tap water to make a workable dough. Knead well. Let the dough rise until doubled.

Meanwhile, grease a cookie sheet with oil.

Punch down the dough. Cut off portions of the dough about the size of an egg. Roll each out on a floured board by hand to make rolls about 1 inch in diameter. Cut into 1-inchbobolky pieces. Place the pieces on the prepared cookie sheet and let rise for about 20 minutes.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake the dumplings for about 10 minutes, or until lightly browned. Let cool, then separate. Place in a colander and pour boiling water over them. Drain quickly to prevent sogginess.

Combine these mixtures with half of the bobalky.

Sauerkraut: Saute 1 small onion, chopped, in 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Add 1 pound drained sauerkraut. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add to half of the bobalky.

Poppy seeds: Combine 1 cup ground poppy seeds, 2 tablespoons honey and 1/4 cup water. Add to the remaining bobalky.

Oplatky

g-karlovarske-oplatkyCommercially prepared Oplatky — the thin wafers coated with honey and then broken at dinner on Christmas Eve and shared among diners — is available from specialty food markets, Slovak and Polish churches and can be purchased through the Internet. Or, you can make your own, using a hot iron form or mold. This recipe is from the National Slovak Society.

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 5 teaspoons butter, melted
  • 2 cups cold milk
  • 3 3/4 cups cold water

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl until the mixture has a “pancake” batter texture — smooth and thin. Pour small portions — about a heaping tablespoon — onto a very hot iron form or mold.

Makes 98 oplatky, about 5 inches in size.

The Slovak Christmas Eve dinner does not contain dairy or animal products because the day before the Feast of the Nativity is one of strict fast and spiritual preparation. Here are some foods likely to be served. Their appearance depends upon whether the family is Roman Catholic, Byzantine or Orthodox.

Bandurky — Potatoes, usually boiled, to which onions sauteed in oil have been added. Many families prepare potatoes that are mashed and mixed with peas or prunes.

Bobalky — Small balls of dough prepared with honey and poppy seeds or sauerkraut

Borscht — Beet soup sometimes prepared with cabbage

Fasolji — Prepared brown bean paste spread onto bread

Garlic — Eaten raw on the Christmas bread dipped in honey, intended to keep away the evil spirits

Holuby — Cabbage rolls stuffed with ground mushrooms and rice

Hribi — Mushrooms sauteed with onions in oil

Kapusta i bandurky — Sauerkraut mixed with grated potatoes

Kasa — Rice, sometimes served as a separate dish with zapraska or macanka over it as a gravy

Kvasna Kapusta — Sauerkraut

Loksa (Loksha) — Unraised biscuits

Med — Honey, symbolic of the sweetness of being with the Lord.

Mezanec — An unleavened Christmas bread usually dipped in honey and eaten with a slice of raw garlic

Orehi — Nuts

Pagac — Two layers of dough between which cabbage or potatoes have been spread, then baked

Pirohy (often spelled pierogies) — Dough packets filled with sauerkraut, potatoes, sweet cabbage or prunes

Riba — Fish, usually a white fish baked or smoked, which is symbolic of the Christian faith because Christ was the fisher of men

Sol — Salt

Suseni slivki — Stewed prunes

Zapraska — A thick brown sauce used to prepare various soups and gravies. Among the soups prepared with Zapraska base:

Macanka (Machanka)— A thick mushroom soup

Sauerkraut Soup, with sauerkraut juice added. Usually single ingredients such as green beans, peas, lima beans, mushrooms or butter beans can be added.

Lima Bean Soup

Mushroom-Sauerkraut Soup

Green Split Pea Soup

Caraway Soup

Green Bean Soup

Rice and Mushroom Soup

— National Slovak Society, Canonsburg

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