The Vilija, Christmas Eve in Slovakia

Map of Slovakia

Figure 1 - The Map of Slovakia - Source: CIA The World Factbook



This report on the Vilija in Slovakia explains the importance of the Christmas Eve meal in Slovakian culture. Specifically, it will address symbolism in the meal along with the focus on agriculture, and how this rite of intensification contributes to increasing the social solidarity and religious faith of the family. It will also give a brief description on the origin of Slovakia , and how that relates to the meaning observed in the Vilija. Finally, it will be suggested that the popularity of the Vilija in Slovakian culture is not waning, and still remains strong in both Slovakia and American descendants of Slovakia today.


Additional Image 1   Additional Image 2

Figure 2 - Unleavened wafers (Oplatka) are distributed to each family member with honey to remind them that harmony and friendship might sweeten their lives  Source: Figure 3 - A bitter soup made with mushrooms and garlic is served in order to remind Slovakians of the bitter life before Christ Source:


Christmas Eve in Slovakia , or the Vilija, is filled with symbolism and meaning that is significantly different than the American Christmas. The meal is rich in religious tradition, and serves as a constant reminder to those present of how blessed they are to have the privileges and wealth that they possess. This tradition has been passed down through many generations, and has transcended borders with the immigrants from Slovakia . It is still widely celebrated by their descendants in Slovakia and America today. Throughout the preparation and consuming of the meal, a focus is put on the primary adaptive strategy of the early Slovakian people, namely agriculture. This rite of intensification is marked by the social solidarity, feeling of communitas, and strengthening of faith that is generated among all involved.


Context of Slovakia

Slovakia is one of the smaller, land-locked countries in Europe . Bordered by the Czech Republic , Poland , Ukraine , Hungary and Austria , it is at Europe 's geographical center. With a population of five million people and a total land area of 49,000 square kilometers, Slovakia boasts a comfortable, not-so-crowded population density of 107 people/square kilometer. In its central and northern regions, rugged mountains tower to maximum heights of 8762 feet, while the southern regions consist of fertile lowlands. The chief crops cultivated in this part of Slovakia include wheat, rye, corn, potatoes and sugar beets. Slovakia has a temperate climate, consisting of cool summers and cloudy, cold winters ( Slovakia ).     

Formerly Czechoslovakia , this region of Europe is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia . The former Soviet Union took control of Czechoslovakia following World War II, but lost control in 1989, once again making Czechoslovakia a free country. The Slovaks and Czechs peacefully separated in 1993, forming the two present-day countries (World Factbook). With a predominantly Roman Catholic (60%) population (World Factbook), when Christmas time comes around, the greater part of the country is immersed in the celebration of the Vilija, along with the symbolism and religious dedication that comes with it.


Origins of the Vilija

The earliest documentation of the Vilija can be seen in the Carpatho-Rusyn settlements of Slovakia in the early 16 th century. The Slovak Vilija is translated “The Vigil,” and is also known as Svjatyj Vecur, “The Beautiful Evening.” The event represents the anticipation of the coming of Christ in Christian doctrine, but is not limited to this denomination. For Slovaks of Jewish heritage, the celebration of the Vilija is observed in the Passover, specifically in the form of the Passover Seder (Musinka 1983).



Religious tradition and deep symbolism is seen in the Vilija from the beginning of the meal to the end. At the beginning of the celebration, a prayer is said and consecrated communion host (oplatky) is distributed with honey to celebrate the sweetness of life with Christ, and a bitter mushroom soup (hribova kapustanica) is served, symbolizing the bitterness of life before Christ (Franko). A lavish meal consisting of a variety of foods and desserts is provided (see Artifact), and finally at the end of the meal where a candle is blown out, then lit again by each member of the family to symbolize the end of the year and a fresh start to the next one. After the meal, women begin to cook the cakes and pastries for the following day (Christmas Day), which will be distributed by the children of the family to people of the village. That day the children will also participate in what is called “mumming.” This consists of going to the doors of the village dressed in costume, performing a skit, and then delivering the food to the people. These skits are also carried out in the village square (Firestone 1978: 93). This ritual is very similar to that described by Turner, when it is said that religious celebrations “are often performed in the center of towns and cities, in full view of everyone. By this means, societies renew themselves at the source of festal joy, having purified themselves through reflective self-criticism and jocund reflexivity (Turner 1982:203). The focus is on a genuine appreciation for what the Slovakian people are blessed with and for what they are truly thankful. The idea of family rings true from start to finish, and once seated no one is allowed to leave the table until the closing prayer has been said.



Figure 4 - Typical meal of the Vilija, consisting of a variety of meats, pirohy, garlic and beans

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Prognosis for the Vilija

The popularity of this religious celebration is still strong in both Slovakia and in the descendants of Slovakia in American today. Many of the same traditions are still carried out, including the baking of the cakes and pastries by the women of the family the night before Christmas ( Slovakia ). Although farming is not the chief source of income in most American homes today, most of the traditions during the meal are still carried out in the same fashion. The times may have changed, but the sacredness of the meal still remains, and the feeling of togetherness and communitas is still felt throughout the celebration.



Historically, the Vilija meal has served to bring social solidarity and reinforced religious faith to the agriculturally-dependent Slovakian culture. Deep symbolism is seen throughout the celebration, from the bandaging of the trees in the harvesting of the food by the men, to the use of honey and sacramental bread to remind the family of the sweetness of life with Christ, to finally the overall feeling of communitas felt by all involved in the celebration. The dinner table is filled with an abundance of food, reminding the Slovakian people of the great amount of blessings they have, and from beginning to end a focus is placed on thanks for the previous year and hope for the upcoming one. The tradition still is practiced in Slovakian homes today, albeit with less emphasis on agriculture due to industrialization. Despite those few changes, the people involved in the celebration come away from it with a great feeling of hope for the future, and an immense feeling of gratitude for what they have now.


Internet References Cited

  • Franko, George M. This site gives genealogical research into a traditional Slovakian Christmas Eve. Accessed Sep. 16, 2004.

    Romani Christmas . This site talks about how the Roma celebrated Christmas in former Czechoslovakia . Accessed Oct 13, 2004. , This site is a guide to the Slovak Republic . Accessed Sep. 16, 2004

    Slovakia , Heart of Europe . This site talks about the Christmas traditions in Slovakia . Accessed November 10, 2004.

    Turner, Jillian. This site discusses the lives of Slovak immigrants. Accessed Oct 14, 2004.

    World Factbook. “ Slovakia .” I accessesed this site for the map and information on Slovakia . Accessed Sep. 16, 2004.


Peer-Reviewed References Cited

    Baklanoff, Joy Driskell

      1987  The Celebration of a Feast: Music, Dance, and Possession Trance in the  Black Primitive Baptist Footwashing Ritual. In Ethnomusicology . 31 (2). 381-394

    Firestone, Melvin

      1978   Christmas Mumming and Symbolic Interactionism. In Ethos. 6 (2). 92-113.

    Musinka, Mykola

      1983   Folk Customs of the Carpatho-Rusyns: Christmas and New Year. In Carpatho-Rusyn Customs and Traditions. 6 (3).

    Newell, Venetia

      1989   A Moslem Christmas Celebration in London . In The Journal of American Folklore . 102 (404). 186-190

    Rice, Timothy

      1980   A Macedonian Sobor, Anatomy of a Celebration. In The Journal of American Folklore . 93(368). 113-128.

    Turner, Victor

      1982   Religious Celebrations. In Celebration . pp. 201-218. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington , D.C.


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