Sauerkraut, peas, cream of wheat, and evergreen stems on the table – not the first thing you think of when someone is referring to a Christmas dinner. But, in my husband’s family, it’s a yearly tradition.
Passed down through generations
Twenty years ago I married into the Suvar family. I knew that they had family roots from the Czech Republic and Slovakia but didn’t know how much of that had carried forward from the move to America. But, like many traditions that get passed along through families – food and holiday traditions were part of it.
A tradition that has become special to me is the Vilija dinner that we enjoy together every Christmas. There are specific decorations used and certain foods that we eat. Each part points to the story of Jesus in some way and I love the reflection that comes with it as we gather together as a family to commemorate Christ’s birth.
As with every great meal, the prep starts way beforehand. Special nut breads are made called Kolace – grandma teaches the grandkids how to make them – and the whole house fills with the scent of fresh baked bread. Everyone joins in with the setting of the table and going down the list to make sure everything is accounted for. The house is warm, the noise is high, and the kids bounce around with excitement knowing gifts are coming later that evening.
The Vilija Dinner
The Vilija Dinner is like a Passover Supper. Everything we eat and do has a special meaning. To begin, a candle is lit in the window to tell the Holy Family that they are welcome in our home. The table is covered in a white cloth, signifying Christ’s purity and how He covers us with His righteousness.
Down the center of the table is placed hay – to represent the manger Jesus was laid in, evergreens – to represent eternal life, candles – to remind us that Jesus is the Light of the world, and money – to remind us that all good and perfect gifts come from God. There is an empty place set at the table to help us remember the less fortunate and that we should always open our hearts and homes to those in need.
The dinner is traditionally held on Christmas Eve, when the first star appears. This reminds us of the star that guided the Wisemen who sought after the King.
Connecting it to Christ
Twelve dishes are served at this dinner – to represent the 12 disciples of Jesus. In Slovakia, foods varied depending on what village you lived in, especially since the mountain villages were so remote.
To begin, the oldest son leads the family in a prayer of thanks and a blessing for the meal. He then takes honey and makes a cross with it on everyone’s forehead wishing them a sweet new year. Oplatky, a thin wafer used for communion is shared. One large one is passed around the table, each person breaking off a piece and wishing each other Merry Christmas. Then each person gets their own oplatky to eat with honey and drink with wine. This is done in remembrance of Passover and Communion.
The oldest son picks up an apple and cuts it in half. If the seeds form a star, then the family will have a healthy year. The apple is cut into slices and shared around the table. Three walnuts, still in their shells, are placed at each person’s plate. Everyone takes turns opening them up. Good nuts mean a good year ahead, bad nuts mean hardship.
Dinner is shared
After this, the rest of the dishes are passed around and shared.
- Fish (we usually serve shrimp or a Shrimp Corn Chowder) and bread – these remind us of the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes
- Sauerkraut served with garlic – this represent the bitter things in life, and that the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
- Peas – to remind us to be thankful for the fruit of the earth
- Prunes – to remind us of the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree and His frustration for those who put up a false front of piety but bear no fruit
- Baby Kaska – similar to Cream of Wheat (that’s what we serve!) It’s white and very sweet and stands for purity. We add lots of cinnamon, brown sugar, and vanilla.
- Opecanse – little balls of baked bread called bobolki are served in milk and farmer’s cheese. We use a bit of the nut bread dough to make the balls and bake them. We then add them to a bowl of cottage cheese. The bread added into the cottage cheese reminds us that though we are living in this world, we aren’t a part of it. We are pilgrims passing through, headed to our home of heaven.
- Kolace – the nut breads are served for dessert and remind us of the sweetness of heaven that is waiting for us.
There is no doubt that our Vilija dinner does not look like the Vilija dinners from generations before, tucked away in the cold, snowy Slovakia mountains. But, for certain, the meaning remains. Family gathers, joy is shared, Jesus is celebrated, and hope continues. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate Christ’s First Coming while we wait in hopeful anticipation of His Second.
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6 thoughts on “A dinner of hope and celebration – a Slavic Christmas tradition”
How cool that their traditional Christmas meal is so intentional in pointing to Jesus!
Yes! The intentionality is definitely what gets it for me 🙂
My heart aches to have a tradition like this for my children to cherish and pass along for generations to come. When we were in PNG, on sunday evenings we starting something we called Blessing Supper. It was our own version of Shabott. One day I will have my own version of this beautiful Vilija Dinner. I have tears in my eyes still as I share my thoughts with you.
The Blessing Supper sounds wonderful! Traditions often start out as something that feels insignificant at the time, but faithful implementation brings about a beauty in the repetition that grows every year. I encourage you to do it even when it feels like your kids are too young. I have memories of our kids as babies taking part in the Vilija. Your desire to be intentional in the tradition will help it to be established in your family!
We are doing Vigilia supper with Kerry and family and I am trying my best to replicate what we’ve done since I was born. This means a lot to us and I am so thankful that other branches of our family are sharing this traditeion with us.
Veceli Vianoce (phonetic spelled Slovak Christmas wishes) to all!
It is my favorite Christmas tradition and I plan on continuing it into the grandkid years 🙂 Blessings on your Christmas, Joan!