It’s the quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s, a good time to introduce you to our family traditions for the holiday season. My in-laws – Valerian’s parents – are wonderful hosts. Even better, they are wonderful cooks, and there is no time of year we enjoy this more than Christmas Eve. There is a whole ritual to the meal, many courses, and then the grand finale: a crash from the living room, the door is flung open, and there’s the outrageously spangled Christmas tree, overflowing with gifts from Jézuska/Ježiško (the baby Jesus).
But let’s back up. A couple of weeks before, my mother-in-law starts baking the Christmas cookies. Chocolate bear paws, powdery vanilla kifli, iced spice cookies, a whole selection. These are deliberately made in advance so that they have some time to soften. Personally, I think they’re so delicious when they’re newly baked and still crisp I don’t know how it’s possible that they last until the holiday, but there are a lot of them.
The menu for the Christmas Eve feast itself is well established. We start with a toast, of course, everyone raising a glass and wishing one another good health – Egészségedre! Na zdravie! Then each family (Valerian has two brothers) chooses an apple and a walnut. These are split open: if there are no worms or blemishes, the nut predicts a year of good fortune, the apple one of good health. I admit I have gotten rather spooked the few times we’ve drawn a bad apple! The shells and other bits are put in a bowl in the center of the table; for each course, everyone is supposed to add a little off their own plate to this bowl, which is “for the birds”.
Next comes the oblatky, thin wafers called “spa wafers” as they are sold year-round at spas and baths. Valerian’s family always serves them with the peculiar combination of garlic and honey; I just rub a little garlic on the wafer and drizzle on the honey, but the less timid chop the garlic a bit and pile it on.
Rounds two and three are also sweet: makos guba, followed by plum pudding. Don’t forget to put a little in for the birds!
My favorite comes next, lentil soup. I always have at least two servings, even though eating too much of any one course leaves dangerously little room for what’s coming next. We usually take some soup home with us, murmuring a little prayer that it doesn’t overturn in the car on the way.
Now the main spread is set out. Fried fish is the centerpiece; at this time of year most of the supermarkets have live carp for sale since it’s traditional to serve fresh river fish on Christmas. Side dishes include two kinds of potato salad, one with mayonnaise and one without and some kind of vegetables for me and anyone else who wants them.
The little ones start to get restless at this point, and so after an exchange of meaningful looks among the adults, it’s time to check out what Jézuska brought. Sometimes it can be hard to decide whether it’s more important to finish dinner first:
We nibble the cookies and sip coffee and try to talk over the shrieks of joy/indignation as the kids examine their haul. It’s a smashing conclusion to a very satisfying evening.