Christmas in Slovenia is a mix of traditions from different sources that came in three major stages over the course of centuries.
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Slovenian traditions now associated with Christmas came in three successive “waves.” The pre-Christian winter solstice celebrations, sun god worship, and various superstitions were the first wave. The second wave came with the arrival of Christianity in the Fourth Century A.D. At this time, the date of Jesus’ birth was officially determined by the Roman Catholic Church, and new Christian meanings of the mid-winter holiday melded to a degree with the old pagan traditions. The name for Christmas in Slovenian even derives from words meaning “little god,” in reference to the “rebirth” of the sun at the winter solstice. The third wave came in 1800’s, when many traditions from Germany were brought to Slovenia.
One Slovenian Christmas tradition with pagan roots is that of decorating a “Christmas room” with evergreen branches, threaded-together beans, fruits, wheat, and other agricultural products. This was originally done to celebrate the previous year’s harvest and to garner good luck for the harvest to come.
Slovenian Christians, like Christians in other lands, often go to a midnight church service on Christmas Eve to celebrate Christ’s birth. They also gather as families and eat festive meals on Christmas Eve and a festive breakfast on Christmas Morning. Nativity scenes have been set up in private homes and in public places in Slovenia since Jesuit missionaries introduced the practice in the 17th Century.
From Germany, the decorated fir tree, cars, foreign-sourced carols, the exchanging of gifts, and many other traditions were popularised in Slovenia from the 19th Century on. However, traditions like fortune telling, sprinkling holy water, and slaughtering the “Christmas pig” lived on despite the “Germanisation” of Slovenian Christmases.
“Santa Claus” came to Slovenia in many forms. Saint Nicholas comes on December 6th, either Santa or Baby Jesus on Christmas Day, and Grandfather Frost on New Year’s Day. Finally, the Three Wise Men appear on January 6th, which is Epiphany. In fact, Slovenians speak of there being “three Christmases,” a “big” Christmas on December 25th and two “little” Christmases on New Year’s Day and Epiphany.
Burning incense is done on all three of these Christmases, originally for the purpose of gaining magical powers from the smoke produced in order to drive away demons. Slovenian carolling also goes on on all three Christmases and has been a tradition since the 16th Century. Where such caroling is still practiced, the carolers go door to door and spread “good luck” to each house.
Should you be in Slovenia during this festive season, here are some activities you may want to take part in:
- Shop and mingle at any of the numerous outdoor markets held in Slovenia’s major cities. The biggest market is in the capital city of Ljubljana, which has many smaller markets within its city limits as well. The main Ljubljana Christmas market is held downtown through the whole of December. The area is fully decked out for the season, and there are many accompanying events. Both food and souvenir stalls are abundant.
- Visit either of the two most famous live nativity scenes in Slovenia. One is inside of the Postojna Cave, which allows you to combine spelunking and Christmas in a way you probably never imagined. The second is held at the Franciscan Church in Ljubljana’s Preseren Square.
- Look for “potica,” which is, essentially, “Slovenian Christmas cake.” The cake is sold almost everywhere you turn during the Christmas season, including at Christmas markets, in restaurants, and at grocery stores. Potica is a rolled, filled bread that comes in many varieties. It often contains walnuts, poppy seeds, coconut, or tarragon, and it can be made of wheat, rye, or buckwheat flour. Originally, potica was used ceremonially to ensure the good health of people and animals alike.
Visiting Slovenia for Christmas will give you a chance to discover these customs firsthand.