The winter holiday season is already in full swing. Throughout cities, a myriad festive lights have been lit, and we are busy wrapping gifts for our loved ones and baking sweet treats to make the most of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. The manner in which we celebrate today is in many ways different from the celebration typical of Kočevska region (and elsewhere in Slovenia) before the World War II.
The time of the “twelve holy nights” – from Christmas and until the Twelfth Night – was accompanied by numerous customs and habits connected to the belief in supernatural forces, the malicious activities of which individuals tried to ward off by different means. For example, they sprinkled houses, homesteads, fields and meadows with holy water to guard themselves against witching hags and other creatures of evil. On New Year’s morning, livestock were also sprinkled with holy water, and the sprig that was used for sprinkling was then stored and buried in the first furrow in the field in the spring. This ritual was believed to bring good luck and a good harvest to the farmer. In addition, the house, barnyard and stable got a thorough clean-up on Christmas Eve, otherwise the field crops would be overgrown with weeds.
Foretelling the future
On the three Holy Eves – Christmas, New Year’s and Twelfth Night – they tried to foretell the future in numerous ways. In some villages, this was done by eavesdropping next to fences and at crossroads. Should music or singing be heard, this meant that someone in the household would marry, while weeping foreshadowed grief and misfortune, and the echoing hammering sound heralded death.
The holiday table and Christmas bread – šipling bread
During the festive season the table placed under the “prayer corner” with Nativity scene, was covered with a white tablecloth. At Christmas, the housewives made a large loaf of Christmas bread “šipling” and small loaves called guards (Gottscheerisch: bohtarǝ) and neighbours (Gottscheerisch: nohparn). The šipling bread was decorated with dough figures and it had to remain on the table until the Three Kings’ Day (Epiphany). On that occasion, it was cut up and served among family members and visitors. The domestic animals were also given a piece to protect them from witch’s spells. In some places, they stored the wreath from the edge of the šipling bread and placed it at the bottom of the basket upon first sowing to ensure a rich harvest.
On Christmas Eve, various personal and household items were put on the holiday table besides Christmas breads such as: clothing, jewellery, prayer books, kitchen utensils, blessed candles, while under the table were put items that were used when tilling and ploughing the field (plough, hoes, ox yokes, etc.). Whoever wore or used these blessed items would stay out of harm’s way and be protected from the witches.
St. John’s wine
On the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, in the evening of 27 December, a toast with John’s or St. John’s wine was made. The remainder of the wine was stored and used throughout the year as medicine. It was given to drink to travellers before they ventured forth, to newly-weds after the wedding, to patients before they passed away, and also to acquaintances and friends before bidding them farewell.
Santa Claus from the Kočevska region – the Old man
On New Year’s Eve, the children were visited by the “Old man” (Gottscheerisch: dar autǝ mon). The mother or oldest maidservant opened the door of the room where the children were gathered and threw apples and nuts with a greeting Happy New Year. At this ritual, mothers in Svetli Potok and Nemška Loka used the following saying: “Children, cows, goats, lambs, calves, let’s hope that no shortfall befell us and that we would prosper.” (Tschinkel 34). The children then wrestled for the gifts, and a rich harvest would be ensured next year. This was usually followed by singing of Christmas carols.
January the 1st
It was on New Year’s morning that Gottscheer boys went out carolling. Before the break of dawn the boys from Borovec walked from house to house and recited:
“We wish you a Happy New Year,
full of health and rich in grain,
we wish you happiness, blessings and long life,
and at this same time a year from now
to be a thousand guldens richer.”
On the first of January, a “blessed barley broth” (ritschoch) or pot barley broth was cooked from grains they stored and in spring strewn onto the fields for better fertility.
Today, many old holiday customs have dwindled. However, an old Gottscheer wisdom will come in useful to any one of you who suffer from spinal issues. Upon hearing the sound of thunder for the first time after the New Year, immediately do a somersault to be free from back pain throughout the year.
– Tschinkel, Wilhelm. 2004. Kočevarska folklora: v šegah, navadah, pravljicah, povedkah, legendah in drugih folklornih izročilih = Gottscheer Volkstum: in Sitte, Brauch, Märchen, Sagen, Legenden und anderen volkstümlichen Überlieferungen. Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU.
– Hauffen, Adolf. 1895. Die deutsche Sprachinsel Gottschee: Geschichte und Mundart, Lebensverhältnisse, Sitten und Gebräuche, Sagen, Märchen und Lieder. Graz: Styria.
– Županič, Niko. 1937. Okrog novega leta na Kočevskem: Tudi med Kočevarji žal izginjajo originalni zimski običaji. Jutro.
You can also read more on how to prepare a fragrant Christmas Bread šipling.