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Earlier in the year, a woman began working at our real estate firm. When she introduced herself I recognized her accent right away and asked if she were Slovak. She confirmed that she was, and thus began the conversation of family ties and foods we eat, etc. I love meeting fellow Slovaks because I find it to be such a unique heritage, especially here in Virginia.

corn husk dollsI have always embraced my Slovak ancestry. Our living room had photos and portraits of relatives in traditional Slovak garb, our china closet had Slovak dolls and corn husk figurines, and once a month our fridge reeked of garlic and spices from the sausages and  meats my dad would bring home from a Slovak butcher in New York City.

My older brother and sister had to attend Slovak school on Friday nights and a few times a year were dragged in full costume to several Slovak events in New York City along with cousins of mine. My brother even had to take accordion lessons.

I had travelled twice to my dad’s birthplace in what was then Czechoslovakia, staying with relatives and gorging myself on incredibly awesome foods…soups, goulash, dumplings, cookies and wine. I’d been to Prague, Bratislava and the Tatra Mountains. All these things combined left me with an overblown sense of being in touch with my heritage.

Hovadina.

Yesterday afternoon, my Slovak co-worker, Marcela, called to invite me to her St. Nicholas celebration. Not having any clue what she was talking about, she explained that it was a Slovak Christmas tradition where Mikuláš (St. Nick) shows up to give the children treats. She said that she does this with a group of local Slovaks every year, and wondered if I would like to join them. Hmmmm – I wouldn’t know any of these people, but I figured it would be fun to meet them and see what this St. Nicholas thing was all about.

Slovak Sandwiches

My daughter and I arrive at the party to a table loaded with traditional Slovak open-faced sandwiches (aka obložené chlebíčky – had to look that one up), cookies and puddings, and a gigantic pot of goulash on the stove. I ate and talked to the other guests, all of whom were phenomenally friendly and social. They knew I was a newcomer and took great pains to include me in conversations, and I was grateful for it.

Then came time for St. Nicholas to arrive. Called “Mikaloosh” by everyone there, he entered the room flanked by a devil in all black, and an angel in all white.  I had asked about the tradition earlier in the evening, and was told the tradition was meant to keep naughty kids in line. The devil carried a sack over his shoulder, and if a child was deemed bad, was carried off in the sack. If Mikuláš found the child to be worthy and good, the angel gave him or her a treat.

I had never heard of this tradition. We never did it growing up.

Mikuláš began calling children up before him. He was kind, but I have to tell you, these kids were scared shitless, even with the angel there. Each of them got up and listened to Mikuláš list their more virtuous traits, but each time he mentioned a bad thing that they needed to work on, the devil would sneer and gobble at them. Then they had to recite a poem or sing a song.

Each child, all very American, and all under the age of 10, got up and sang a song. In Slovak.

In Slovak.

I’m 50 years old, and I think my Slovak vocabulary consists of 12 words, and 3 of those are dirty ones. And here stood these children singing songs in Slovak –  and it was evident to me that their parents took the time to teach them these songs, and to make sure they rehearsed them to have their performance perfected for good old Mikuláš. I was stunned, impressed, and a little envious.

Here I was thinking that because I had regularly eaten Slovak sausages, could hold my own during a Polka, and drank my fair share of Slivovice, I was a true blue Slovak. Now I feel like I don’t know the first thing.

I know that’s dopey, but I’ll tell you, it makes me want to go cook some dumplings and have a shot of Shlivy…

And teach my daughters a Slovak song or two.

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