Monday, December 31, 2007

Another year in America...

To all of you reading 100 Years in America:
Sretna nova godina & boldog új évet!
(That's Happy New Year in Croatian & Hungarian)

I'm glad that you've enjoyed this blog during 2007, its inaugural year. Hopefully you will find that 2008 brings more reasons to visit.

If you have been reading, please take a minute to send me a quick message letting me know. I'd like to hear what your favorite posts have been and what you would like to read more about in the coming year at 100 Years in America. Email me at smallestleaf at earthlink dot net. I look forward to hearing from you!

In the meantime, here is a blessing for you in the new year 2008. In the words of St. Francis of Assisi:

May the Lord Bless
you and keep you;
May He show
His face to you
and be merciful to you;
May He turn
His countenance
to you and
give you peace.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Stipendan, Ivendan and a little Croatian brandy

Today, December 26, is the second day of Christmas and also the feast of St. Stephen (Sveti Stipan in Croatian). Tomorrow, the third day of Christmas, is the feast day of St. John the Apostle (Sveti Ivo).

Ivan Ćurković, on his Croatian family history blog, has described the St. Stephen's Day and St. John's Day traditions of his family members and others from the Buško Blato area of Croatia.

If you go visiting on Stipendan (St. Stephen's Day) or Ivendan (St. John the Apostle's Day), you may find yourself the recipient of some good Croatian treats, such as walnuts or Croatian brandy, called rakija.

If you do go for a visit, don't forget to greet the host with this traditional greeting of the season:

Hvaljen Isus i Marija; dobro vam došao Božić i Sveti Stipan i Sveti Ivo!

Praised be Jesus and Mary; may this Christmas and St. Stephen's and St. John’s be a good one!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Keeping watch on Badnjak (Christmas Eve)

"Who can sleep on the night that God became man?"
- Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross)
I have often asked the same question since I can't seem to rest for long on Christmas Eve. It may have started when, as a child, I spent hours gazing out my bedroom window at the beautiful Christmas candles that our family lit outdoors each year on Christmas Eve. It may just have been the magic of the evening - the wonder of the Holy Child's birth surrounded by the joy and excitement of sharing Christmas Day with family.

Only this year did I learn of the Croatian custom. It turns out that Badnjak, which is the Croatian word for Christmas Eve night (and also the word for the yule log in Croatian), is traditionally kept awake, burning candles and a yule log. The custom is to keep watch (or vigil) throughout the night, at least until the return from Christmas Mass.

According to this article by Betty Labash Kovacs on Croatian Christmas Customs, the etymology of the word Badnjak actually comes from the Glagolitic (ancient Slavic script) for bdjeti, which means "to be awake". Thus, vigil is kept through the night as the shepherds kept watch on the night of the Savior's birth.

The article, which was published in The Zajednicar, the newspaper of the Croatian Fraternal Union, goes on to explain that traditions of Christmas Eve vary in different villages and regions of Croatia. However, the use of the yule log is the center of the celebration in many Croatian homes. Here she describes its use in Croatia and in other countries of the former Roman empire:

On this night there must be heat and light, represented by the ritual candle and as no other light may appear before the ceremonial candle is lit, the domaćin [head of the household]lights it before dark has fallen, accompanied by traditional phrases and verses, varying from region to region. Some of these still remain and are carefully nurtured not only by peasant families, but by specialists - folklorists who travel from village to village, recording and codifying folk culture for future generations. The custom of the Yule Log or panj existed in pre-recorded times in all of southern Europe - Spain, Portugal, France, Croatia, all former regions of the Holy Roman Empire or lands adjacent to it. Northern Slavs from Poland, the Ukraine, the Carpathians did not adopt the practice, but just as there are remnants of the Roman connection in the Istrian word for Christmas (vilija), so the Croatians as they settled in southern lands accepted the Badnjak, the Yule Log.
Badnjak is not only a night of "keeping watch", but the evening when all the house is to be decorated for Christmas. Andrea Janekovic's Christmas in Croatia article describes her memories of Badnjak. According to Janekovic, Christmas Eve was a day of preparation. By this day the Chrismas Wheat (Pšenica) would be at its height. On Christmas Eve food is prepared (although the baking may have been done already) and homes are decorated with ivy, holly and tree branches and the traditional straw is brought in. If the family has a Christmas tree, this is the night to decorate it. And, of course, the candles and yule log are lit, and prayers are offered for departed family members and friends.

As you celebrate your own traditions on this Christmas Eve, I hope that you enjoy the beauty of this night of celebration after the long wait through Advent. Light a candle, say some prayers and enjoy the magic of Badnjak as the shepherds did on that night so long ago.

In the words of a traditional Croatian Christmas Eve blessing:

Eto sine, živ i zdrav bio - do godine Badnjak na kucu metnio!

May you live and be healthy to place the log on the house next year!

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Eve on December 24.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Childhood memories of a Croatian winter's night

Marija Bango wrote a charming children's book entitled Kralj Drave (King of the Drava) about the lives of two young sisters growing up in the village of Legrad in what is now northern Croatia. Marija was born in the village in 1917 and became friends with my great-grandmother and her family, visiting them in New York after her immigration to Canada in 1960. She went on to become an accomplished poet, and divided her time each year between her home in Montreal and her stays in her native village of Legrad.

Marija's book of children's stories gives a heart-warming glimpse into her childhood and the traditional way of life that was still common in Legrad and the rest of the Međimurje area during the early 20th-century. I enjoyed reading the chapter entitled Pod snijegom (Snow Bound). Her story makes it easy to imagine myself as the little girl Marica trying to keep awake to listen to the storytelling of the grown-ups as they gather at her family's home in wintertime for feather-sorting.

Enjoy this excerpt from Kralj Drave (King of the Drava) and a nostalgic trip back to Legrad's winters past...
Darkness came early; it crept across the garden and into the stables; the chickens were dozing in the coop; the Back Room (as it was called because it faced the kitchen garden, across from the Front Room which faced the flowerbeds along the street) was already dark. Marica and Klarica's mother Agneza lit a kerosene lamp and hung it on the wall by the window. Grandma was steadily stirring corn mash on the stove, corn flour mixed with a little melted lard in the pot; a sharp hissing sound could be heard now and then as the steam rose from the water sprinkled on the cooking mash. Its aroma filled the room... The table was set. The men, five of them (Agneza's brothers), bringing with them the smells of the stable. They were quick to eat their supper because family and neighbors were coming to help sort feathers collected all year in large sacks.

The muffled sound of footsteps could be heard, snow stamped from boots at the front door. The door to the room was opened to let light into the hall. The women were the first to come in from outdoors, wrapped mummy-like in woolen shawls from head to waist. They took seats around the table while the men settled on benches along the wall, on Grandma's chest of drawers, on the edge of the bed. Since there were unwed girls among the womenfolk, there were plenty of young men. This was to be an evening of singing, storytelling, jokes and laughter until late of night. These were evenings when Marica listened, all ears, while her younger sister Klarica lay fast asleep on the bed next to her.
I'm thankful that Marija took the time to turn her childhood memories into these sweet stories about Marica and Klarica. They are a treasure to those interested in life in Legrad and similar small Croatian villages in centuries past.

If you are interested in reading more of Marija Bango's writings (both poetry and prose), here is a list of some of her works in various languages:
  • Children's stories: Pinklec na panklec (English & Croatian)
  • Stories for the young: Večernje pripovijetke (French)
  • Poem cycles: Po naši poti (Kajkavian) & Po belem svetu (Kajkavian)
  • A collection of children's games, legends and beliefs: Kre Drave (Kajkavian)
  • Lyric and prose poetry: Poetska čežnja (French, English & Croatian)
  • A study of poetry and prose: Les Beautés de ce Monde - The Beauty of this World (French)
The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Grab Bag on December 22.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Heavenly music and "little stars"

I've often wondered what Christmases were like for my great-grandmother as a child growing up in what is today northern Croatia. What were the traditions of the season in her home and village when she was a six-year-old girl in 1890? I know that Christmas was predominantly centered around their Catholic faith and the way in which their village church celebrated the season. A big part of their celebration must have been the beautiful Christmas carols sung at church and around the village.

I was interested to learn, according to Darko Žubrinić on this Croatian history webpage, that there are more than five hundred Christmas folk songs in the Croatian language. Many of these originated as far back as the 12th-century. It is interesting that even though Croatia is a small country many of these folk songs have traditionally had different melodies in various regions while retaining similar lyrics.

Thankfully, many of these beautiful songs are alive and well. In fact, they have been performed on a worldwide scale thanks to a Croatian girls' equivalent of the Vienna Boys' Choir. In fact, many Europeans consider them to have surpassed the famed Vienna Boys' Choir. Zvjezdice (in English that translates to Little Stars), is an international award-winning girls' choir out of Zagreb which was selected as a Cultural Ambassador of the European Union Parliament. They are two-time world champions of the Llangollen International Music Festival of choir music. Zvjezdice has brought the music of Croatia to venues all throughout Europe and the United States.

For a taste of Croatia's rich heritage of Christmas folk songs, listen to their renditions of Radujte se Narodi (Rejoice, Peoples) [mp3] and Svim na Zemlji mir veselje (Peace and Joy to All on the Earth) [mp3] (The choir is accompanied here by the Zagreb Soloists.)

Here are the words in Croatian to Svim na Zemlji mir veselje, thanks to this Croatian history webpage:

Svim na Zemlji mir veselje
Peace and joy to all on the Earth

Svim na zemlji mir, veselje
Budi polag Božje volje.
To sad nebo navješćuje
I glas s neba potvrđuje.

Dobre volje svaka duša
grijeha neka vech ne kuša
Nego hvali, diči Boga,
Što je posl'o Sinka svoga.

Sinka svoga, Boga moga,
S Ocem, Duhom jednakoga
Duhom Svetim začetoga
Od Djevice rođenoga

Check out Croatia Records' Christmas webpage for other suggestions for Croatian Christmas music, including some links to iTunes downloads.

For more on the music of Zvjezdice see this Cantus webpage or this Tamburaland webpage. I have been unable to find an official site for Zvjezdice. If anyone knows of such a site, please let me know.

Radujte se narodi (rejoice, peoples!) in the beautiful Croatian music of the season!

In the mood for more Christmas carols? Check out footnote Maven's "heavenly host" at A Choir of GeneaAngels. The angel to footnote Maven's right in the center of the choir is standing in for me.

Also see Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Music on December 21.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

An attic, suitcases, and a window into a hidden world

In the process of closing down the Willard Psychiatric Center in New York's Finger Lakes over ten years ago, workers discovered a collection of suitcases in the attic of one of the facility's buildings. There were hundreds of suitcases, all enclosing remnants of the lives of many of the hospital's patients, and probably untouched since the day that each of these patients had entered the institution.

The contents of the suitcases and the stories that those contents told intrigued the New York State Museum. Staff members spent several years learning more about the stories of some of the people who had left these suitcases behind as they entered the Willard Psychiatric Center decades ago. In the process they asked questions such as: "Why were these people committed to this institution, and why did so many stay for so long? How were they treated? Why did most of the suitcase owners live out their days at Willard?"

The result of the discovery of the suitcases and the research done about their owners' lives is The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, now a traveling exhibit currently on view at the New York Public Library's Science, Industry and Business Library through January 31, 2008.

The exhibit and the companion book, also entitled The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, provides a window into the world of the thousands of ordinary people who became "mental patients", many of whom lived a majority of their adult lives in institutional settings.

According to a review by Gail A. Horstein, Ph.D., "The Lives They Left Behind is a unique and mesmerizing evocation of lives erased: an extraordinary portrait of ten of the many thousands of people incarcerated for decades in mental institutions. Forcibly removed (often on only the barest pretext) from their families and occupations...they disappeared behind asylum walls, never to be seen again."

This project has a personal significance for the Ujlaky family. Our very own Frankie Ujlaky, believed to be a victim of encephalitis lethargica (sometimes called "sleeping sickness"), found himself institutionalized for seventeen years from the tender age of nineteen until his death at age thirty-six. His story and the questions surrounding his institutionalization, have always intrigued me. I have felt compelled to learn what I could about his life at Manhattan State Hospital on Ward's Island (once the largest psychiatric institution in the world) and Harlem Valley State Hospital in Duchess County, New York.

As the The Lives They Left Behind website phrases it, I want to be sure that Frankie is "memorialized in a respectful way that celebrates the richness of his life." I'm sure that his mother and father and other family members, who loved him dearly and suffered much because of the painful events that transpired due to his illness, would be happy to see that things have changed in the world of mental institutions. I am thankful to the researchers and writers of The Lives They Left Behind for their efforts toward bringing to light the value of the individual lives that were impacted by what was considered "modern medical care".

If you'd like to learn more about the project, please visit the The Lives They Left Behind website, pre-purchase the book which will be released in January 2008, or plan to see the exhibit at the New York Public Library through January or at other venues in the coming year.

Thanks to Dianne Haddad's Family Tree Magazine Genealogy Insider blog for the article that introduced me to this exhibit.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A pot of pšenica for Sveta Lucia

One legend about the Holy Family's flight to Egypt tells of a miracle that occurred to protect them from danger. One version of the story is retold in Frederick Hackwood's Christ Lore: The Legends, Traditions, Myths, Symbols, Customs and Superstitions of the Christian Church. The story is also illustrated within the beautiful 15th-century illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry painted by the Limbourg brothers. (See the bottom frame of the image below. You may click on it for a larger view.)

According to the Christus Rex webpage about the manuscript and the Christ Child's flight into Egypt, the story goes like this:

"While fleeing Herod's men, the Virgin and Child met a peasant sowing wheat. Jesus reached into the bag of seed and threw onto the path a handful, which immediately sprang into wheat as high and as ripe as if it were a year old. When Herod's soldiers arrived and asked the peasant if he had seen a woman carrying a child, he answered, 'Yes, when I sowed this wheat,' whereupon they gave up the pursuit."

This legend may have inspired the origin of one of my favorite Christmas traditions that I mentioned earlier. It is perhaps the most distinctly Croatian of all Christmas traditions: Bozicna Pšenica.

On December 13, Sveta Lucia Dan (St. Lucy's Day), wheat seeds are placed in small round bowls or dishes of water (no dirt is needed). If all goes well, the wheat will grow to about 6-8 inches tall by Christmas Eve. When it is tall enough, a red, white and blue tri-colored ribbon representing the Croatian trobojnic is tied around the wheat. The wheat may be a symbol of the soul's rebirth in Christ. This tradition also represents the hope that the new year's growing season will be a good one.

A candle is sometimes placed in the middle of the pšenica. The candle may symbolize Christ, the Light of the world. According to Christmas in Croatia by Andrea Janekovic, in some regions "a small glass with water and oil is placed in the center of the wheat, on which a floating wick (a dusica - from the word for soul, dusa) is placed. Its glow can be seen through, rather than above, the wheat. The glow represents the soul within each of us."

According to's Croatia's Christmas Traditions in the Past & Nowadays, the wheat is planted or given to birds after Christmas. Croatian tradition dictates that nothing from Christmastime should be thrown away.

Although it is a small country, different areas of Croatia celebrate Christmas in many different ways. In fact, in some parts of the country, Sveta Lucia may deliver gifts to children on her feast day.

If you would like to grow your own Bozicna Pšenica, visit a local farm supply or similar store and purchase seed wheat. If you are reading this on December 13, today is the day. A happy Sveta Lucia Dan to you!

I'm off to go plant my wheat seeds...

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Grab Bag on December 15.

Image of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry courtesy of Christus Rex.

Image of Bozicna Pšenica courtesy of Roberta F. via Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A random thank-you for genealogical kindness

In the pile of envelopes that I received in the mail were a couple of items that looked like possible Christmas letters. One was marked on the front: "photo". I placed that one on the top of the stack of mail, looking forward to a new Christmastime photo of some of my friends or family and their children.

Opening the envelope I had an even more pleasant surprise. Inside was a photo of my grandfather's gravestone, kindly sent to me by a volunteer from Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. I had found this group's website several months ago, and happily discovered that one of the volunteers offered to take photos at the cemetery where my grandfather was buried.

Not living near the area, and with no plans to visit in the near future, I had looked up the correct plot number and hoped that this volunteer might have a chance to take a photo of my grandfather's gravestone.

She had kindly done so, and here it was in the mail. But the photo held even more surprises. Unbeknownst to me, my grandfather had been buried beside his first-born son, who had died as a toddler. There was baby Stephen's name along with his birth date and his death date.

My eyes couldn't help but tear up a little as I took a look at the calendar to confirm what I thought was true: the photo had arrived on Baby Stephen's birthday.

A very special thank-you to the volunteer who took the time to find my grandfather's gravestone, photograph it, have the film developed and mail it to a complete stranger. Thank-you also to all of the other volunteers who have performed Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness. Your kind efforts are what the Christmas spirit is all about.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Hungarian boy's 1st Christmas in America, 1923

I enjoyed reading the beautiful memoir written by Richard Bujaki about his father, seven years old at the time, and his first Christmas in America in 1923. "This may be the greatest Christmas present you will ever receive," Bujaki's grandmother told her children. The "gift" that this little boy and his siblings received that year was to make it the most memorable Christmas of his life. You can read Bujaki's story, Twas the night before Christmas, 1923 on The Christmas Archives website.

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Holiday Travel on December 11.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A ring, yellow roses & a Flying Cloud

It was Christmas 1929 and when Mitzi arrived home her mother had some news for her. There was a small package for her on the Christmas tree. It was a box from Steve, whom she had met at the St. Stephen of Hungary Catholic Church during Easter that year. Steve's sister Helen had taken Mitzi for a nice visit to their home in June of that year, and Mitzi and Steve had gotten further acquainted. Now this gift awaited her on the Christmas tree, accompanied by a dozen yellow roses.

She opened the box to find a friendship ring from Steve with a sapphire stone. In the months following that Christmas, the two exchanged letters. Steve came to visit Mitzi's family's home several times, always arriving in his Reo Flying Cloud automobile with loud "cut-outs" on the exhaust, as Mitzi remembers.

It was only six months after she received the Christmas friendship ring that Mitzi and Steve were married. A beautiful outdoor reception was held for the guests, complete with an arbor made just for the occasion by her father. According to Mitzi's sister Wilma, "He had brought fresh sapling trees from the nearby forest to place into holes dug into the yard to shade the wedding feast. They looked as though they grew there."

Mitzi's mother and a friend made all the food for the reception. It was a beautiful day in 1930 for this eighteen-year-old bride and her twenty-five-year-old groom and their families.

The wedding celebrated, the reception waning, the couple drove off to their honeymoon - in the same Reo Flying Cloud.

Minus the "loud cut-outs".

Image of the 1927 Reo Flying Cloud Sedan ad courtesy of
John's Old Car and Truck Ads.

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Gifts on December 10.

This article has also been included in Tim Greenman's virtual Cabinet of Curiosities (1st impression, part 2 version) on December 17. Step on over for a good show as Tim raises the curtain on some other interesing curiosities including dolls, a watch, lace, a stool, and winged cats (?!), all with good stories behind them.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Kifli by any other name

One of the most enjoyable holiday treats in my childhood memory (counting all the holidays) was one of my grandmother's specialties. Everyone in our family calls them "Gramma's Christmas Cakes". When I was a child and the Christmas season rolled around we could always be sure that these delicious treats would make an appearance. Sometimes we would hear in advance that Gramma was working on them. (Later in life I learned how labor intensive they were.) Other times we would be surprised by the sudden appearance of a pretty doily-decorated plate loaded with the apricot jelly-filled crescent-shaped goodies. Every now and then Gramma's beloved Christmas Cakes would make an appearance at Easter, to the great delight of those who enjoyed them the most.

Inspired to carry on the tradition of baking these holiday goodies, I invited Gramma over to my home one day to have her teach me how to do it. I learned that day just what a labor of love Gramma had performed for her family for so many years. With my own small children causing distractions underfoot throughout the whole process, I gained a new appreciation for my dear grandmother and her patience and dedication to Christmas Cakes and her role as grandmother and great-grandmother.

Gramma had learned to make Christmas Cakes by watching her mother-in-law, who had immigrated to America from northeastern Hungary. Because of this I assumed that the recipe was probably something from that region. It was only a few short years ago that I learned, thanks to a letter from a family member of my grandmother's generation, the true identity of these goodies. Like so many of our ancestors who emigrated from their home countries and found it more convenient to Americanize their names, the Christmas Cakes had done the same. Their Hungarian name was Kifli. I was thrilled to learn this and also to find that recipes for them were found in many Hungarian cookbooks and orders could be placed for them with Hungarian bakeries even in the U.S.

Of course, nothing can replace the taste of Gramma's own version of kifli. With the understanding that written directions can never replace watching and learning from an expert like Gramma, here is my version of Gramma's recipe for those of you that are interested in giving them a try:

100 Years in America's
Family Kifli Recipe
Otherwise known as "Gramma's Christmas Cakes"

Apricot Jelly

3 lbs. apricots
1 1/2 cups sugar

Put them in a pot with enough water to cover them plus about 1 inch more
Cook for about 45 minutes until soft, stirring frequently
Mash the apricots
Add sugar
Cook about 1 1/2 to 2 hours until very thick (the longer the better), stirring frequently
Sprinkle the jelly with cinnamon

Christmas Cakes

4 cups flour
1/2 lb. sweet butter at room temperature
6 eggs - separated - at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
8 oz. sour cream at room temperature
4 tablespoons sugar
1 packet of yeast (prepared by mixing with 1 teaspoon sugar & about 1/4 cup milk)
Homemade apricot jelly
1 lb. walnuts (add 4 teaspoons sugar to each lb. when chopped)
Confectioner's sugar

Mix flour with butter and then salt and sugar
Make a well in the middle - add egg yolks, vanilla and sour cream gradually
Mix and kneed until smooth (keep working the dough until ready)
Use flour to make it not too sticky (can freeze - wrap in freezer paper and cover with flour)
Roll out dough
Cut the dough into 4 pieces
Chop walnuts and whip egg whites
Roll out one of the 4 pieces of dough
Cut into individual 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 squares and fill with a heaping teaspoon of homemade apricot jelly
Roll each into a horn (crescent)
Top each with egg whites and nuts
Bake in the oven at 350 degrees until light brown (about 30-35 minutes)

Kifli may also be served with a prune filling (prepared similarly to the apricot filling) or a walnut filling, although the apricot kind has always been the favorite in my family. If using walnut filling, add boiled milk to the nuts until pasty, then grated lemon rind.

I am always happy to hear that family members are baking a batch of Christmas Cakes and continuing to keep them in the family for the future generations to enjoy and remember.

We join with generations of Hungarian families that have made and enjoyed these goodies. In fact, the origin of kifli may go back to the 17th century. According to The Urban Fakanál by Andrea Miklós on The New Hungarian Voice webpage, legend has it that Budapest was threated by Ottoman Turks at the end of the 1600's. Supposedly the Turks intended to capture the city by building tunnels under the city wall. Hungarian bakers, who worked the early shift, caught the Turks in action and the attempt failed. To remember their success, the city's bakers baked bread in the shape of the Turkish Empire's emblem: the crescent. Kifli immediately became popular in Budapest and Vienna. In the 18th century, Marie Antoinette may have brought kifli back to Paris, inspiring the French to make their own version: the famous French croissant.

If you're pressed for time or not brave enough to try making your own kifli, here are a few bakeries in the U.S. that offer them for purchase:

Or buy just the apricot preserves and bake the kifli yourself:

Kifli image copyright © 2007 by Smallest Leaf Press. All Rights Reserved.

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Cookies on December 8.

A "Merry Christmas" has no language barrier

The joy-filled Christmas season is celebrated in so many countries on so many continents throughout the world. The merriment and hope of the season crosses borders and language barriers.

How much fun it is, though, to learn how to wish others a "Merry Christmas" in a different language.

Here are some phrases to learn if you would like to wish someone holiday greetings in Croatian or Hungarian.

In Croatian the equivalent of "Merry Christmas" is "Sretan Bozic". If you want to get a little more specific, you might say, ""Sretan i Blagoslovljen Božić! Nadam se da ce vam nadolazeća godina donijeti mnogo radosti, mira i sreće." This means, "Have a blessed and joyful Christmas! Hope this coming year will bring you and your family a lot of joy, peace and luck."

In Hungarian, you may wish someone "Merry Christmas" by saying "Boldog Karácsonyt". Another traditional Christmas wish is, "Kellemes Karácsonyi Ünnepeket " which means "Abundant Christmas Holidays". Adding a wish for a happy new year to your greeting, you might say, "Kellemes Karácsonyi Ünnepeket és Boldog Újévet!" which means, "Pleasant Christmas celebrations and a Happy New Year!". If you'd like to hear how to pronounce that last phrase, click here.

Reading these phrases is one thing. Learning to say them is an entirely different matter.

I'll work on the pronunciations for next year, but this year I'm happy to be able to avoid having to attempt them while I wish you...

Sretan Bozic and Boldog Karácsonyt!

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Christmas Grab Bag on December 7.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

On the eve of Szent Mikulás

On the eve of Saint Nicholas, December 5, Croatian and Hungarian children's homes fill with excitement. Shoes and boots are polished, then placed out in hopes that they will be kindly filled by Sveti Nikola (as he's called in Croatian) or Szent Mikulás (his name in Hungarian).

He may come with a record book recording the children's deeds or an angel who helps distribute presents, but he is always accompanied by the mischief-making Krampus, who leaves twigs for children who "deserve" them.

If Szent Mikulás filled your shoes this year, would you receive candies, fruit, nuts and chocolate other small goodies, or would you find potatoes, stones, switches, or wooden spoons in honor of your misdeeds? If you're like many Hungarian children, you might find a little bit of both.

While many American children today hardly notice the passing of December 6, Saint Nicholas has influenced their Christmas celebrations in many ways. Not the least of which is the tradition of hanging stockings "by the chimney with care in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon would be there". Read more about St. Nicholas' influence on American Christmas celebrations at the Saint Nicholas Center's Discovering the Truth About Santa Claus.

And if you're reading this on December 5, don't forget to polish your shoes and put them out!

Image courtesy of the St. Nicholas Center collection. It is the cover illustration of Obitelj, 1933.

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Santa Claus on December 6.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wheat on the table, straw on the floor

I've always admired homes with yards beautifully decorated for Christmas. Pretty lights, wreaths with red bows, even full-fledged nativity scenes...

During this time of year when so many are working on decorating the great outdoors for Christmas, I can't help but think of how many of our beautiful Christmas traditions began by bringing the outdoors in.

The Christmas tree is the biggest example. Nothing can compare to the sweet smell of pine in your living room during the holidays. But even our artificial trees bring a little bit of the natural world to us. And garlands - with berries, fruit, pinecones and so many other reminders of the great outdoors gracing the inside of our homes.

I like the tradition of the Croatian people who hang a kinc made of small pine branches and other decorations on the ceiling during the holidays. What a wonderful place to put a seasonal decoration in a small home. Other items that Croatians traditionally use to "bring the outdoors in" are corn, apples, ivy, holly, and other small tree branches.

The favorite of the small children has to be the large pile of straw placed on the floor on Badnjak (Christmas Eve) in memory of the Holy Infant's birth. Traditionally, most of the straw is placed under the table, but sometimes the table is decorated with it. In some families, it was traditional to sit upon the straw after dinner until it was time to go to Christmas Eve Mass. In some parts of Croatia, children were even known to sleep on straw the night of Christmas Eve. Talk about blurring the lines between the indoors and out!

The Ethnographic Museum of Zagreb has a few nice photos of Croatian Christmas decorations and customs, including the kinc and a table with straw decorating the floor beneath it pictured above.

Probably my favorite Croatian Christmas tradition is the small pot of wheat planted on St. Lucy's Day, December 13. A symbol of life and fertility, the wheat grows in a container that graces the table. Once it grows to a nice height, it is trimmed and decorated with the Croatian trobojnica: red, white and blue ribbon.

Tree branches, ivy, holly, fruit, piles of straw, little pots of wheat - what an aroma of the outdoors begins to scent the Croatian home at Christmastime!

You can learn more about Croatian Christmas traditions at and Andrea Janekovic's article on Christmas in Croatia.

Apologies to Thomas MacEntee and his Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories for taking liberties with the outdoor decorations theme for today and discussing indoor decorations with an outdoor flavor. Check out Thomas' calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Outdoor Decorations on December 5.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

From the corner of my grandmother's kitchen

Images of my grandmother's kitchen work like a slideshow timeline in my memory. I remember as a young girl sitting in the corner at the table in her tiny kitchen while she, aproned and always beautifully dressed, worked busily to prepare a meal for visiting family members (including me). Gramma worked miracles in that tiny kitchen which was hardly bigger than the closet in my bedroom today. In later years, she moved to a newer home and a larger kitchen - and more family. What a joy to bring my own children to my grandmother's home to enjoy her warm hospitality and delicious concoctions.

I was well into adulthood when I made a realization: the foods that I thought were just Gramma's specialties were not just her own. She was a Hungarian chef - and her menu could be found in many other Hungarian homes. Imagine my surprise when I picked up a Hungarian cookbook for the first time and found Gramma's cucumber salad, stuffed cabbage, cottage-cheese-filled crepes, apricot-jelly-filled crepes, apple pie and apricot-jelly-filled Christmas Cakes. There they were going by names such as uborka salatá, töltött káposzta, palacsinták, almás pite and kifli! (In that particular order, in case you're wondering.) I had always thought that they were Gramma's distinctive menu - now I knew that her dishes had a much longer history and a much wider appreciation than only our extended family.

Since my amazing culinary discovery, I've enjoyed a couple of Hungarian cookbooks in particular. Earlier when discussing szaloncukor, I mentioned Anikó Gergely's Culinaria Hungary. It is a wonderful resource for recipes, culture, traditions and all things Hungarian. According to Gergely, a Hungarian Christmas celebration would not be complete without borleves (wine soup), rántott ponty (breaded fillets of carp) or halászlé (fish soup), mákos guba mézzel (poppy seed pudding with honey), karácsonyi pulykasült (Christmas turkey), or roast pig or töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage), párolt alma (stewed apples) and diós és mákos bejgli (poppy seed and nut rolls). I'm personally not familiar with all of these dishes, but they sound delicious.

Another good book for Hungarian recipes is Susan Derecskey's The Hungarian Cookbook. Derecskey did a wonderful job converting the traditional recipes of Hungarian grandmothers into forms that modern day American cooks can easily use in their kitchens. Perhaps the best part of the book is her substitution of hard-to-find Hungarian ingredients with items that are more readily available in America. Although The Hungarian Cookbook does not have a Christmas section, many of the recipes found in it are traditional foods that are often found within Hungarian holiday feasts.

Croatian Christmas feasts do not differ greatly from the traditional Hungarian fare. The Best of Croatian Cooking by Liliana Pavicic and Gordana Pirker-Mosherg has a nice chapter on Croatian Christmas traditions. Traditional Christmas foods include bakalar (cod fish), honey cake, Christmas breads, sarma (stuffed cabbage), mlinci (turkey with pasta), odojak (roasted pig), orehnjača (walnut roll), makovnjača (poppy seed roll), loza (Grappa) and more.

I guess it is never too early to begin planning a Christmas feast, especially if you decide to try creating some new dishes.

I'm getting hungry just thinking about it...

...and wishing I was that little girl again sitting in the corner of my grandmother's kitchen.

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post will be listed under Holiday Foods on December 3.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Reflections from underneath the Christmas tree

One of my earliest memories is the view of the beautiful lights on the Christmas tree overhead as I rested on the floor near the manger scene. I loved to watch all the ornaments go by on our spinning Christmas tree (thanks to a revolving tree stand that our family has had ever since I can remember).

Our tree always had such a nice menagerie of ornaments - angels, bells, little elves, balls, silver tinsel (I fondly remember the messy kind, although I've never introduced my own children to it).

There are so many types of beautiful Christmas trees, but my favorites are always the ones that have a truly unique character. I love to visit Christmas stores on my vacations, no matter the month. This year I had a festive time picking out nativity ornaments in the Christmas shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico in mid-summer. Several years ago in early fall I wandered through the Christmas store in Rockefeller Center to find a special ornament memento of our visit there. Ornaments from Basel, London, New Delhi and other places family members have visited grace the branches of our tree. Thanks to their presence, Christmas is filled with memories of places we've been and also places we would like to visit someday.

I have always admired the beautiful felt embroidered ornaments from Hungary on my grandmother's Christmas tree. These colorful ornaments, called Matyós after the Hungarian people of Slovak origin who began using this style of embroidery on folk costumes, are now well-known throughout Hungary and around the world. Even though these styles of embroidery only became popular during the late 19th century, they have come to represent Hungary today and make their home on many a Christmas tree in the old world and the new. For more on Matyó rose embroidery (including some interesting books for the serious Matyó collector) see this Kisjankó Bori Memorial House webpage.

I understand that in Hungary it would not be right for a Hungarian Christmas tree to be decorated without including szaloncukor - traditional candies wrapped in tissue paper with fringed ends (although foil is now often used). The name, according to Anikó Gergely's Culinaria Hungary, means "drawing-room sugar". Supposedly it is permissible to eat the candy as long as the wrapper is left to beautify the tree. Gergely writes that "the ability to remove the tempting confectionary from its wrapper without leaving any sign of tampering or damaging the aluminum foil is a skill acquired at an early age by this nation of candy-lovers and perfected until late on in life".

Licitar hearts (Licitarska Srca) and other Licitar shapes are now the most traditionally Croatian ornaments, although they may also be given throughout the year to loved ones. The hearts, edible although usually not eaten, are honey cakes decorated with icing. The mirror in the center of the heart represents the loved one who received the little gift of love. The origin of Licitar dates back to the 16th century in the Pannonian region of Croatia. The area around Zagreb in northwestern Croatia is most well-known for these decorative confections, although the tradition has spread all throughout Croatia. A beautiful description of the history and tradition behind the Licitar hearts of Croatia can be found in this Croatia Airlines article online.

The Christmas tree has truly become an international phenomenon. What a wonderful way to get a taste of our heritage: by decorating a tree with some beautiful ornaments from the countries in which our ancestors spent so many Christmases.

Think I'll go take a rest under my tree now...

The topic for this post was inspired by Thomas MacEntee's Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories at Destination: Austin Family. Check out his calendar daily this month for some good mini-memoirs of this nostalgic season. This post is listed under Christmas-ornament-themed stories on December 2.

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