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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4 Responses to The Little Things That Mean A Lot At Christmas

  1. barry long says:

    After reading these I made myself a gigantic sandwich at 9:00pm. It all sounds delicious.

  2. Claudia Repko Misage says:

    Hi there, just had too tell you we do it all. On both sides of the families we are through and through Slovak. I belonged to Holy Trinity Church in Duquesne, my husband Jim came from St Michael’s in Homestead. Both our parents and grand- parents are all Slovak. We do the sign of the cross with honey on everyone’s forehead. The mushroom, sauerkraut soup, the three different kinds of bobolky and three different kinds of pirogi, fish, used to be navy beans, and rice, but how heavy duty of a meal can you eat. Then like you said and the article said all different kinds of nut, poppy, apricot rolls and cold dough cakes. Now my sons and wives bring their tradition which include tamales. we have a blast and enjoy it all and each other. This year it is warm here in Texas, right now almost 80 outside. I usually kept my cookies and nut rolls in the laundry room where it was cooler but not this year. We will probably have the air conditioning running. Everyone have a very Merry Christmas and enjoy your traditions. If they are the old ones great, more power to you, just make and keep and enjoy and remember to always give thanks to our Lord for everything and everyone he has given us….

  3. Roger Matthias) Yurko says:

    Memories of long ago. North Braddock for Dad’s side: Duquesne for Mom’s. Nearly 70-75 years ago. This captured all of our celebration. Congratulation for bringing those memories to all of us. Too bad we have lost so many of these traditions. Thank you for these. And when capturing the Duquesne life, don’t forget the other hunky towns where many of us grew up, I never will. Thank you again.

    Representing the Yurko and Ponist Hunkies.

  4. Monica Barnes says:

    My Scotch Protestant husband (who, as far as he knows, hasn’t a drop of Hunky blood) has been trained by me to make excellent poppy seed rolls. It’s too late for Christmas, but send me your postal address in a private e-mail and we’ll make you some and mail them to you.

    Monica Barnes

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