24th December or, until lately, 6th January (according to the Julian calendar) has been a very special celebration for us, the Rusyns. It is very much a Christian holiday and it is baby Jesus who brings presents to children. We do have St Nicholas, for sure, but he's a different magical being - he comes on 6th December and leaves small treats in children's clean winter boots placed under a window or balcony door.
I am aware of small differences in Rusyn Christmas dishes across the eastern regions of Slovakia, but for me the ones we have been making in my family are the "true" dishes and in some way representative of the Rusyn Christmas.
Before sitting down to eat, we have to prepare the table in a traditional way. Under the table we usually put a bunch of straw as a symbol of having enough to feed our livestock throughout the year (even though not many Rusyns keep cows and horses and pigs anymore). Under the tablecloth we put a bank note to make sure we have money in the following year. A chain or a rope is tied around the table's legs so that the whole family stick together. When everything is ready and the last dish is finished cooking, we wash our hands and faces in the bathroom sink with water into which we had dropped a few coins. Obvious reasons. :)
The dinner starts with saying a prayer and a toast led by the head of the household, in my family it was my grandma, now my mom. At this point we usually well-up because we feel really happy being together and grateful we made it so far. The whole dinner is really lean: no eggs or meat or mayo and things like that. It's eaten at the end of the pre-Christmas fasting, hence the leanness.
The first course is bread and cloves of garlic dipped in honey - a symbol of having food, staying healthy and kind throughout the year, respectively. Then kapustnica, which is a sauerkraut soup with mushrooms, picked up over the summer or fall in our forests. Without them you can't really make the dish. It just doesn't taste the same. After this, we have kolochena fasolya, a thick, cream of beans soup. It usually looks purplish due to the type of beans we use. To make it even yummier, we add fried onion on top as garnish once it's served . We also have whole potatoes boiled in their skin on the side. Peruhy are next - delicious dumplings with sauerkraut filling. We rarely make them throughout the year so eating them feels really Christmasy. At this point we are getting pretty full, but the tradition commands to have a little bit of every single dish, so we have to make room for fish, usually carp and cod fillets fried in the pan with a touch of flour, salt, pepper and caraway seed.
For kids especially the dinner was a prequel to opening presents and so we couldn't wait to be done eating and moving on to presents and a myriad of Christmas cookies and desserts baked for the occasion. Our parents always made us work for it just a bit more by having us sing Christmas carols at the piano that me and my sister used to play. I remember Grandma sitting on my bed and singing Koly Jasna Zvizda in her strong, husky voice - I'll never EVER forget it. My dad has some of that voice when he sings, and whenever my boys play the song on the piano or the guitar, my Grandma is suddenly there.
I've made this dinner every year since I left home. But somehow it never feels the same. Now that I am the carrier of our tradition I don't think I can spark the same magic in my kids as my grandmothers and my mother have done. I feel we are missing that shared, unspoken experience of growing up, of living in our village.