The magic allure of Christmas is an atmosphere of expectation and warmth.
Faith was important in the life of the Gottscheers
The Gottscheers have always been deeply devout Catholics. This is also evidenced by the sacral buildings built by the inhabitants of Kočevsko region during the 600 years of their stay there. Almost every village had a church or at least a chapel. They built and maintained the buildings themselves, with their own hands and material contributions. The church was the place where people went, dressed in Sunday’s best, joyful, tranquil and hopeful. The feasts of the Church were celebrated with great reverence of God, modestly and yet richly, without the pomp and splendour we know today.
Christmas in the Kočevje region
Christmas has always been something special for the people of Kočevsko region. It was the time of the birth of Jesus Christ and the time of long winter. During this period, people always looked back on the year and planned for a year ahead full of good harvests, good health for the livestock and good health for the whole family.
On the Three Holy Evenings (bajnnohtahten), i.e. Christmas Eve – 24th December, the New Year’s Eve – 31st December and the eve of the Holy Three Kings – 5th January, all the rooms of the houses, stables, barns as well as the fields and meadows were sprinkled with blessed water. This would prevent the moths, snakes and other “vermin” (cnihtoh) approach the house, where they sprinkled the blessed water. The same aspergil was used to bless the watering cattle on New Year’s morning. The twig that was used for sprinkling was then stored away and during springtime buried in the first furrow. This brought good luck and blessings to the farmer, and above all a bountiful harvest. v
On the eve before Christmas, everything had to be meticulously cleaned. The house, the kitchen and cellar, the yard and the barn had to be cleaned of all dirt and dust, otherwise weeds would overgrow the wheat crop in the fields.
The days leading up to Christmas were especially busy for the housewives, who had to prepare everything for a good family atmosphere. In the house (the room in the house that we now call the living room), a nativity scene was placed under the God’s corner and a white tablecloth was laid over the table. Three or more loaves of fine white bread were then placed on the table. The smaller loaves were called bohtarə (guards) and nohparn (neighbours), and the larger ones were called šipling. The latter was decorated with various figures made of dough, including a baby Jesus in a cradle, doves, domestic animals and was surrounded by a woven border. It was only on the feast of the Three Kings that it was cut up and passed among the inhabitants of the house, and the animals were also given a piece of it mixed in with their feed to protect them against the misdeeds of witches.
On Christmas Eve, in addition to the usual Christmas cakes – šipling and nohpar – the mothers’ generous hands also baked small loaves of bread called taubə for each of the children.
On this day, the female day-labourers, who have helped all year round with the harvesting of grain and other farm chores, were each given a loaf of white bread. Some of them collected from eight to ten loaves of bread from different owners.
On New Year’s Eve, a housewife or neighbour secretly threw and spread walnuts and apples in the room, out of sight of the children. Then the big and the small jumped on all fours, where they scrambled for gifts. Thus the house would be blessed with a bountiful harvest the following year.
Christmas celebration in the Črmošnjiško-poljanska valley
And how did the Gottscheers, who were born in the Moschnitze (Črmošnjiško-Poljanska Valley) in the first half of the 20th century, celebrate Christmas time? They remember these centuries-old customs well, as some of them are still preserved in their homes.
The story goes that on Christmas Eve, a Christmas tree – krisbaum or krispon – was erected, with a nativity scene placed underneath it. The tree was not decorated very much, sometimes with cookies, nuts and candies wrapped in shiny paper. The nativity scene was made of wood or cardboard.
Before that, the hostesses prepared a richer feast. They baked bread – šipling or žipling – of white flour. Before they slid the loaf into the oven, they added a dough pigeon for each family member and placed it under the tree after it was baked. And on Christmas morning, they cut everyone a piece of žipling bread with a dove for breakfast.
For the festive season, they also baked pebauicə – the potica cake. The potica cakes varied, but were usually made with nut filling. The nuts were not ground, but were pounded in a mortar.
On Christmas Eve, there was a richer dinner including meat or sausages and blood sausages was put on tables everywhere. Afterwards, everyone went to midnight mass in the nearest church. Christmas Day was a festive day spent in the family circle everywhere. Zatem so se odpravili v najbližjo cerkev k polnočnici.
New Year’s Eve
On New Year’s Eve, the children used to look forward to the moment when someone would secretly throw treats into the house, mostly nuts, apples, hazelnuts and dried fruit, all this mixed with candies.
Older people still remember the St Nicholas’ Eve party well. On St Nicholas’ Eve, the children were playing around the stove as usual, when the silence of the peaceful evening was suddenly broken by the loud rattle of chains. They hid in fear, but when the door opened, the devious Krampus entered the room, swinging a chain around them. They said they would take away any child who was disobedient. An atmosphere of indescribable fear pervaded the room. Then candies and other treats were thrown on the floor of the room. Of course, the Krampus did not bring anything good: only pebbles wrapped in shiny paper, wooden sticks wrapped in chocolate paper. Then the children looked forward to the morning, when St Nicholas brought apples and candies for the good ones and a rod for the naughty ones. Older people still remember the St Nicholas’ Eve party well. On St Nicholas’ Eve, the children were playing around the stove as usual, when the silence of the peaceful evening was suddenly broken by the loud rattle of chains. They hid in fear, but when the door opened, the devious Krampus entered the room, swinging a chain around them. They said they would take away any child who was disobedient. An atmosphere of indescribable fear pervaded the room. Then candies and other treats were thrown on the floor of the room. Of course, the Krampus did not bring anything good: only pebbles wrapped in shiny paper, wooden sticks wrapped in chocolate paper. Then the children looked forward to the morning, when St Nicholas brought apples and candies for the good ones and a rod for the naughty ones.
May our Christmas celebrations this year be blessed, peaceful, pleasant, and wonderful!
– Wilhelm Tschinkel: Kočevarska folklora (1932), zadnja izdaja prevedena izdaja v slovenski jezik 2004)
– dr. Marija Makarovič: Črmošnjiško – poljanska dolina (2005)
– stories of the Gottscheers.
You can also read more about Šipling – Gottscheer Christmas bread (poprtnik).