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Merry December

A time for hope and new beginnings. I guess this year we all really need it. December has always been a happy month. There is something about wrapping up the year that almost passed and preparing for the new one to arrive. This year there will be a lot to wrap up. 2020 was a year of challenges for every single citizen of this globe. Not a single person has been off-the-hook. Everyone was facing its own battles and challenges, that for most weren’t easy. Looking back at 2020 I still cannot believe we almost managed to come to the end of it. Day by day, we are also a step closer to the end of these harsh times. December came in the right time – it will give us time to sum up our lives, moments, to enjoy with family and look towards brighter days.

A detail of Christmas decorations

For us merry December starts already on the last weekend in November. It is the start of the Advent time, when families start decorating homes and lighting up candles on advent wreaths, bringing more light into the murky and gray November days. Traditionally wreaths have been made out of spruce or pine branches and topped up by 4 candles, each one of them representing one week towards Christmas day. With the first advent religious folks remember the birth of Jesus and are awaiting his re-birth. The circle of the wreath symbolizes eternity, the greenery is a mark for new life and hope of renewal. The candles symbolize the light of God. The most common color is purple – the color of expectation. Jesus is represented by the candle flames, which are coming from darkness to life, they are also a reminder for us all that we should spread the light and be the light in this world. With the first Advent weekend, our Christmas markets in big cities open up as well and they last all the way until Christmas Eve. On the same weekend the illumination is lit up and all our cities and towns shine in newly acquired beauty. If the year would be normal, most of us would take the time to go and visit our capital city of Ljubljana, do some fun shopping on the Christmas market and support local artisans, the stalls would offer everything from sausages to ginger-bread cookies, the air would be intoxicated with aromas of caramelized almonds and mulled wine. Even the tought of all that makes my mouth watery.

Homemade Mulled wine by Sašo.

With years passing by we all have a feeling that Christmas comes sooner every year. Big markets are offering chocolate Santa’s and beautifully wrapped gifts already at the end of October. In mid November some of the favourite Christmas tunes start playing on the radio – Jingle Bells, Last Christmas and some more Slovenian versions of the same theme. It bothered us all in previous year, but I guess this year is like no other before so we are not bothered as much as we used to be – I still prefer listening to George Michael singing about who stole his heart last Christmas than our news reporters sharing the only thing they share lately, update on Covid-19. But this is just my personal preference.

In Slovenia we have always been on a crossroad of cultures and influences. This is also visible in how varied our Christmas celebrations can be. With that being said, the celebrations vary from family to family, from one region to another, from whether you are religious or not. It varies from what we eat, to when we put up a tree and how you lay out your Nativity scene. But one thing is common to all of us – it is a family celebration that is being cherished immensely. Luckily our families live close together, sometimes you can find three up to four generations under the same roof. This will come handy this year, when we are being locked up. Because family members that live in the same household or house to another can share those moments together. And that is a definite advantage for the year 2020.

Photo credit

Because of  various influences each family also has a different “good man” that brings the gifts. In general there are 3 of them – Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus and Father Cold. Who will bring you the gifts mostly depends on the generation you were born in. In our area political influences as well as cultural ones have been changing immensely in the last 100 years. The customs you learn as a kid will most likely be passed on to your kids. Even though kids would love all three man to bring them the gifts, parents and their wallets wouldn’t be so excited. Saint Nicholas is the oldest one of the bunch and has the longest tradition in our country, he comes on December 6 and is accompanied by Parkeljs, evil devils that take care of the misbehaved children. For some families he is the main gift giver bringing toys and clothes, mittens, scarves, gloves and socks, but to general public he brings only sweets and tangerines. If you misbehaved, hazel branch and some dried figs might be waiting for you. In some areas of Slovenia, kids rapidly clean their shoes on December 5 and they lay them on their window shelves that night– if all goes well they will be filled with goodies the next morning. Other areas have small baskets set up by kids waiting to be filled with goodies. The second good man is Santa Claus. He is actually the newest member of the three. He arrived in the early 1990s, when socialist regime ended on our soil. He was not a known man in our neck of the woods, since Christmas during those times was more of an intimate family gathering  and gifts only arrived at New Years. But we recognized his image from the Coca-Cola commercials, the drink we all loved and just adopted him as one of the good man as well. If in the family the presents arrive on Christmas Day, they usually do early in the morning and they are found underneath the Christmas tree. Before that kids would write up a letter to Santa and leave them on the window shelves. This is usually done somewhere in mid-December. On Christmas Eve kids might prepare some cookies and milk for Santa, so he gets some strength in his busy schedule. When presents arrive the joy is indescribable. The third man, but in our country considered the second one that existed, was introduced in the 1950s. For the new political orientation of the time they took an example of a good man from Russia, modified him to the needs of our people and told the story that he is arriving from the area beneath Triglav, our highest mountain and is being accompanied with snowflakes and animals. He brings us gifts on January 1st. His name is Father Cold dressed up in a beautiful embroidered white coat and fury hat made out of dormouse fur. And as far as I can remember he was the only one who brought me presents when I was a kid. This is also why New Year has always been a very special time of the year for me. Christmas was the time when family gathered and ate. But New Year was the day of the gifts. We also set up cookies for Father Cold beforehand and a letter was written to him as well. In our country we even have a song dedicated to Father Cold:

“Gray fury hat, white beard, warm coat and basket full of gifts, hey, finally he is here, good old Father Cold is here…”

With time, different families and generations, nowadays everyone has its own good fella that brings the gifts. As long as he brings happiness and as long as the kids believe in the miracle of the good man, all will be good.

Nativity scene at Bled Castle

Other traditions that follow Christmas festivities are of course decorating a Christmas tree and setting up Nativity scenes. Traditionally Christmas tree should be decorated on December 24 when the whole family gathers and sets up their tree which holds a special symbolism –  the head of the family is always the one to add the last ornament to the top of tree. The Christmas tree is a sign of human mercy and goodness. First they were decorated with apples, walnuts and hazelnuts, in poorer families they were sometimes left undecorated. The history of decorating the trees goes way back, some notes talk about 15th century. We didn’t stop with that tradition, but we now usually set it up much earlier than December 24th. Decorations on the tree are different, most commonly you can find porcelain balls in different colors, together with some lights and sugared candy. Decorations are passed on from one generation to the other, each little ornament has a story of its own. Our ornaments remind us of our grandparents, the story of our family and our travels. My favorite one is the ornament  in the shape of a heart that says “happiness is home made”.  With the upcoming holidays that will be spent in the circle of the beloved family members this is so true. When the tree is set, family sits down for dinner and conversations, followed by a walk to a nearby church for the Midnight Mass. The non-believers stay outside of the church and drink mulled wine and hang out with friends, while the religious ones follow the mass and join the festivities outside later.

Another tradition that comes with the festive days is also the setting of the Nativity Scene. Usually you can find them underneath the tree on a fresh moss. Ours was the gift of my grandfather and a memoir of him as well. It is tiny, but other families can have a larger version of them. Usually they are set up at the same time as the tree and are a reminder of the moving circumstances of Jesus’s birth. They symbolize humility and humbleness of a man. Historically the first one was set by Saint Francis of Assisi. At that time Christmas trees didn’t exist and Nativity was the only remembrance  of Jesus’s birth. Nativity also stays much longer than the tree – the tree is removed on the arrival of the Three Kings, January 6th when Jesus’s birth is being proclaimed, but Nativity stays up until February 2nd when a celebration of Jesus’s donation to the temple took place.

Religious or not we all have our Christmas trees and Nativity scenes up for different reasons. It is a tradition that is being passed on from one generation to the other and it is the family that meets and celebrates together. The most special of all days is the Eve before Christmas day. This is when the family gathers and shares a traditional dinner. Food depends on the area and family, but generally we eat sliced ham, salami, prosciutto and cheese, beef tartare on toasted bread, French salad, eggs with horseradish and our traditional pastry, potica. This is a rolled pastry made out of leavened paper-thin dough filled with a variety of fillings, most often with walnuts. It is a festive pastry baked in a special shaped baking mould out of ceramic and beautifully decorated. The birth place of this traditional pastry is the W and SW part of Slovenia. The first ones were mentioned already in the 17th century. They were filled with fruits and honey, the ingredients available in the countryside. Walnuts followed, raisins were added much later, because farmers didn’t know them. You could also make salty ones – with pork cracklings, bacon, tarragon and cottage cheese. The sky is the limit. Potica can be in a way comparison with our life as well – it is round, it goes in a circle. It is rolled, sometimes sweet and sometimes not, sometimes salty sometimes not, with a bigger or smaller hole, sometimes the baking goes smooth, sometimes it just doesn’t. And what kind of filling you will put in, is completely up to you. Yes, life sure is like a potica!

Christmas Day is usually spent somewhere in the nature – most preferably on snow. Sledging, cross-country skiing, skiing or just hiking around. Midday we try to have something small for lunch – usually it is a minestrone soup, that is made out of barley, carrots, potatoes and spiced up with the water where we cooked ham the previous day. Slice of potica is an obvious dessert of the day. Afternoon is lazy, mostly spent playing some board games or cards and later in the evening we try to watch a movie on television. We do not have any Slovenian Christmas classics, but we usually watch one of the first two Home Alone movies or Letters to Saint Nicholas.  The last one, filmed in Poland, has a Slovenian director, so we kind of feel we part-own it.

Homemade ginger bread cookies

There are a few more celebrations in the upcoming days – December 26
th is our Referendum Day,  that is marking up the day Slovenians voted for the independency in our country back in 1990. The same day also holds the name of Saint Stephen and numerous farmers take their horses for the blessings before the upcoming year. In the following days we will all be glued to the screen since one of the most popular winter tournaments is on – the Championship in Ski jumping. We will be cheering for our heroes and hoping their jumps will bring them gold. Last but not least arrives December 31st. This is where we try to have a party with our friends. If a year would be normal, a lot of people would head out to nearby towns that all organize New Year’s parties on open-air. Live music is being played, food is served on stalls and mulled wine is being drank. At midnight there is a countdown, than we open up some sparkling wines and toast to a year that is ahead of us. We admire the fireworks and maybe crack a few of them ourselves. We shake hands with good wishes and give kisses on the cheeks to everybody we know. Of course this year the celebration will be a bit different. But I am sure, there will still be a countdown, some bubbles and a lot of wishes for the year 2021 to turn out better for the entire world.

Vesel božič in srečno novo leto 2021!