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A Merging Of Christmas Cultures: Slovakian Traditions in San Antonio

Many different ethnic groups settled in the San Antonio area, bringing unique foods and customs for the holiday season. In one San Antonio home Slovakian and Hispanic cultures come together this time of year.

When Christmas rolls around, many Hispanic families in South Texas spend hours making or waiting in line for tamales. Tamales are no stranger in the Misko-Martinez household in Live Oak, but Slovakian traditions like pagach, kolach, and oplatki are just as familiar.

“My father was 100 percent Slovak, his parents where 100 percent Slovak and they met in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania,” says Mary Kay Misko-Martinez. In her kitchen she’s kneading by hand the dough for a family recipe.

“Part of the Slovak tradition at Christmas and Easter and the process is from scratch,” she says. “Now we have Kitchen Aid to help us but when I was a kid you’d have to get the person who could knead the dough who could be willing to let this hands get hot from the hot milk and butter that goes in.”

She’s making what’s called Kolach. “Which is different than the kolaches you can get at bakeries. The roll looks like a roll of bread and you can slice it and there’s a swirl of a filling in there,” Misko-Martinez says.

She also plans to make pagach, which is like a pizza crust. “A soft crust that has potato and cheese put together with the dough and then a lot of sugar and butter on top.”

She picks up a rolling pin and flattens the kneaded and risen dough. “And every year, there’s a question ‘How was the dough?’ Cousins e-mail and text each other, “How was your dough?” and I’m going to go ahead a call it, my dough is good this year.”

Mary Kay’s husband, Toro Martinez, and her mother Gerri Misko, begin making three different fillings for the kolach. The lekvar is a type of jam. One has nuts. Another includes apricots and prunes. Then there’s the one with poppy seeds. The rolls are tossed in the oven for about 20 minutes. They’ll be served at the Slovakian dinner known as Velija.

“The Vellija dinner is the dinner before Christmas Eve mass and you couldn’t have meat in the olden days which is not so long olden ago and so you would have foods that had filling, that could fill you,” she says.

The first course is a post-card sized wafer.  Gerri takes one and places it on a plate. “This is Oplatki, it is a pressed Christmas wafer about six inches high and three wide,” Misko says.

“The material is just like the host at the Catholic mass,” Misko-Martinez says

“On that in this particular one is the nativity scene, each one could be different. Each person gets one on their plate and the oldest woman at the table takes honey and puts a cross on everyone at the table and then honey is passed around and poured onto this Oplatki and then each person eats it,” Misko says.

“When I was a kid I had no idea what the tradition of the oldest woman in the house blessing people on the forehead [meant] until I read up on it. And it turns out that it was supposed to only bless the single girls who were then somehow supposed to find husbands that year and my mother never pressed me on that and for that I am thankful,” Misko-Martinez said.

Growing up Misko-Martinez’s home was filled with Slovakian traditions. Her husband’s with Hispanic ones.  He likes the blended holiday they now share

“It’s all one. We’re now creating new traditions but keeping the old ones as the same,” he says.

In the Misko-Martinez household tamales with kolach are a real celebration.

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules