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Slovenians have kept to roots of Christmas

Thursday, December 21, 2000

By Jane Miller

As the final week of Advent approaches, many wonder if there is a place on Earth to celebrate the Christmas holiday without the excesses.

A few exist, and one is Slovenia, a tiny country in Europe formerly known as part of the Republic of Yugoslavia. When it's Christmas in Slovenia, it's a time for church, music and food.

"In Slovenia, the major focus is on the creche, the manger scene that every family erects in a corner of the house -- and people give gifts of food," says Violet Rupar- cich, the radio host of "Songs and Melodies of Beautiful Slovenia." The program airs on WEDO-AM (810 on the dial) from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturdays.

"You can't really separate the traditions. The food, the music and the customs are all so intertwined," she said.

Ruparcich is known as one of the leading Junior Tamburitzans dance instructors. The group started in 1957. Under her leadership, it grew from 12 tamburitza students, who played the guitar-like instrument, to 30 performers who have recorded eight albums and danced, sang and played instruments halfway across the world.

Ruparcich, a retired singer with the Pittsburgh Opera (her 37th consecutive season was in 1995), no longer bakes the Slovenian treats that she grew up with in her first-generation Slovenian home in Minnesota.

For that, she depends upon her dear friend, Louise Kolman, a native of Slovenia, who lives on the North Side.

Many Slovenians and their cultural cousins the Croatians immigrated to the Pittsburgh region in the late 1800s for employment in the mills. But Kolman and her husband escaped, for fear of their lives, during the country's Yugoslavia rule in the 1950s. Her husband, Joseph, came in 1955. She was 6 months pregnant with their daughter, Milly, and couldn't safely follow until three years later.

Forty-two years later, she can still recall the austere times.

"We were poor. We lived in the country. There wasn't much. No gifts. We had a better meal. That was it," she says.

The religious traditions are remembered most fondly.

Recalls Ruparcich: "On Christmas Eve at dusk, the mother prepares the family table, a white tablecloth first placed on the table with the special bread baked for the occasion, and it is following that meal when the father calls the entire family together, when the blessing takes place."

Christmas Eve finds all members of the family attending midnight Mass, with families, led by the oldest males, walking several kilometers to church.

"These services are so beautiful, and you never hear a peep out of even the tiniest of children," she says.

Returning from church, the family holds a blessing service, with holy water, of the home and the animals in the barn.

Christmas Day is considered strictly a family holiday. "Visitation by friends and other family are not really welcome," Ruparcich says. "However, the next day, Dec. 26, which is St. Stephen's Day, is when relatives, acquaintances and friends visit one another."

On Christmas morning the table is laden with a homemade wine and delicacies not eaten at other times of the year, such as homemade smoked meats or special breads, such as potica (pronounced po-tee-sa), a nut bread.

Although she admits to being Americanized, Kolman holds tight to her Slovenian tradition of baking (fresh only, no freezing), and giving the gifts of food to her neighbors and family members. One potica will be sent to her younger daughter Caroline in Charlotte, N.C.

"My grandsons love it," she says.

It's also a favorite of Ruparcich, who says Kolman's recipe, which uses warm milk, is an easier version of the recipe her mother used.

"I can still hear my mother saying, 'Violet, you handle the dough much too roughly.' I wasn't getting to first base with the basic dough," she says.

Gifts also include candy treats for children, wrapped in a tissue paper and tied with a ribbon bow to hang on pine bows. When times were really poor, Kolman remembers her family wrapping large beans, just so there would be something for the children to open.

"I had never heard that before," Ruparcich says. "Many of these traditions relate back to the hard times."

She recently returned from her 60th trip to Slovenia in 39 years. She leads a tour every two years, but says she didn't keep track, at first.

"It was my mother who saved all my postcards and kept a written record with every postcard I ever sent her. When she passed away, she was so accurate in all that that I decided I should just continue."

Those trips have affected her profoundly, particularly around the holidays, she says.

"My philosophy of life changed a great deal. Slovenians accomplished a great deal in their daily lives, but they also knew when to take the time out to enjoy for one's own fulfillment. Here in America, we're rushing here to do this and that. I've asked why. I'm caught up in it like everyone else."

On recent trips, she has seen the impact of Western, or American, culture. "Slowly, the merchants, for example, decided to follow Western ways of Christmas trees in shopping areas. But it hasn't followed in the gifts. We hope they never lose the true Christmas they knew it to be."

"Songs and Melodies of Beautiful Slovenia" will feature Slovenian Christmas music from 4 to 5 p.m. Saturday on WEDO- AM, the Station of Nations, at 810 on the dial.

Jane Miller is free-lance writer.


1 small cake (.6 ounce) refrigerated yeast
1/2 cup milk (lukewarm)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 cups milk, room temperature
4 egg yolks, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
2 pounds (approximately 6 cups) un- bleached flour (we used approxi- mately 61/2 cups)
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon rind, grated

Dissolve yeast in lukewarm milk. Add sugar. Let stand in warm place until foamy.

Melt butter. Add milk and set aside to cool. Place flour into a large bowl. Add salt, sugar, lemon rind and the cooled milk, butter and beaten eggs. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Make a well in the flour and add yeast mixture. Mix until dough separates from side of bowl. Knead dough until smooth and pliant (about 10 minutes). If necessary, add more flour. Place dough in greased bowl. Cover with a clean cloth towel and set aside in warm place to rise until doubled in size (1 to 11/2 hours).

Nut filling:

3/4 cup milk
1 pound walnuts, ground
2 tablespoons rum
3/4 cup sugar
2 to 3 tablespoons honey
2 egg whites

Scald milk. Mix remaining ingredients together. Pour milk into mixed ingredients and let entire mixture cool. Just prior to rolling out the dough, beat 2 egg whites until stiff peaks form, and fold into filling mix.

Roll out dough evenly on lightly floured cloth or tabletop until 1/8 inch thick. Spread nut mixture evenly over the dough. Roll tightly (as for a jelly roll) and place into 12-inch greased and floured loaf pans.

Let rolls rise in warm place at least 1 hour. Bake in 350-degree oven for approximately 1 hour. After removing from oven, allow potica to rest in pans for approximately 30 minutes or more. Then remove and cool on racks. Makes 4 loaves.

Tester's note: This is yummy. It's like a cinnamon bread, only with a nut filling. Kolman says results aren't as good if dry yeast or bleached flour is substituted. Make sure milk is not too hot or too cold, since it would kill the yeast. (We zapped 1/2 cup in the microwave for about 20 seconds to bring it to room temperature.) We don't have 12" pans and used three 8-inch bread pans (we cut rolls to 8 inches and put extra 1-inch rolls into molded muffin tins, and the fourth roll was wrapped inside a 12-inch bundt pan). This makes a nice gift -- but save one for your family.

Adjust cooking times accordingly. (Ours was done in 35 to 40 minutes.)

-- Recipe of Louise Kolman

Holiday Raisin Bread (Sarkelj)

Violet Ruparcich comments: "I do not consider this a bread. It's a pastry and no longer just a holiday item. I like to compare this with sponge cake, although the texture is entirely different."

1 package dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm milk
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
4 egg yolks, beaten
1 lemon rind, grated
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
3/4 cup sweet cream or half-and-half
1 tablespoon rum or brandy
1 cup raisins

Crumble yeast in milk and add sugar and flour. Set aside to rise.

Cream butter and sugar. Add beaten egg yolks, grated lemon rind and salt. Add yeast mixture and beat. Add the flour, cream or milk and brandy. Beat with a wooden spoon until mixture leaves spoon and sides of bowl. Beat in the raisins. Pour into well-greased tube or round form pan and let rise until double in bulk. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 50 minutes.

Tester's note: This recipe is identical to a recipe given to Ruparcich by a friend she visits each year in Slovenia. It is less sweet than Americanized recipes.

"Treasured Slovenian and International Recipes," by the Progressive Slovenian Women of America, Cleveland, Ohio

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