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Celebrating Christmas with Slovakian traditions in Saratoga

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Celebrating Christmas with Slovakian traditions in Saratoga

Oplatek is a centuries old custom
Celebrating Christmas with Slovakian traditions in Saratoga
Zuzana Lundeen makes her traditional Slovakian Oplatki in her home in Saratoga Springs, October 28, 2018.
Photographer: Erica Miller/Gazette Photographer

Love and blessings. Good health. Joy and good luck.

On Christmas Eve, as they gather around the table in their Saratoga Springs home, David and Zuzana Lundeen and their two daughters share a thin white wafer called an oplatek. There is a prayer, and then, as the wafer is broken, each person receives a small piece along with heartfelt best wishes.

In Zuzana’s native Slovakia, the oplatek is a beloved Christmas tradition that is centuries old. Believed to originate with early Christians, the custom began in Poland in the 17th century and then spread to neighboring countries. Immigrants brought the practice to this country, and in the 21st century, their descendants go online to buy commercially made oplatky. These wafers are often square in shape and embossed with a Nativity scene.

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Zuzana Lundeen makes her traditional Slovakian Oplatki, or Kaledaiciai in Polish, in her andmade Oplatki press for Christmas season in their home in Saratoga Springs, on Sunday, October 28, 2018.Zuzana’s oplatky are unique because she makes her own in a press, similar to a waffle maker, that was custom made in Piestany, Slovakia, the city where she grew up. In honor of her new hometown, each seven-inch-in-diameter round piece is imprinted with the silhouette of a horse and the words “Saratoga Spa Wafer.”

As Christmas draws near, Zuzana makes hundreds of the fragile Saratoga wafers and wraps them in pale green tissue paper.

More from Celebrate 2018: Food

“I am bringing the tradition here,” she says. “I’m making them for all my Slovak and Czech friends. It’s such a good feeling to give them to people who are away from their family and traditions.”

For the past two years, she has sold Saratoga Spa Wafers at Blessed Virgin Mary of Czestochowa National Catholic Church in Latham during its PolishFest in June. Last Saturday (Dec. 1), Zuzana and her oplatky returned to the church for a Holiday Craft Fair. And she and her husband David, who provides technical support for their booth, have already been invited to the 2019 PolishFest.

Zuzana Lundeen and her daughters, Nela, on the left, and Emma, right, wear traditional Slovakian dresses during Cultural Night at Division Street Elementary School in Saratoga Springs. The dresses were made by Zuzana’s grandmothers. Photo provided by Zuzana LundeenZuzana and her daughters Emma and Nela, in traditional Slovakian dress, have also shared the story of oplatky at the annual Cultural Night at Division Street Elementary School in Saratoga Springs.

A few weeks ago, Zuzana invited this Gazette freelance writer (Polish-American) and Gazette photographer Erica Miller (Czech-American) to watch how she makes them.

On a kitchen counter, Zuzana and Emma whip the four simple ingredients – flour, vegetable oil, water and a smidgen of sugar – in a big bowl. Zuzana’s recipe, in metric measures, makes 80 oplatky.

“It’s how my Dad makes them. It needs to be very smooth,” she says.

When the batter is ready, she carefully pours a spoonful on the flat round plate in the center of the oplatky press. When she pulls down the heavy handle, pressing the design into the batter, a cloud of steam rises into the room with a loud hiss.

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Zuzana Lundeen and her daughter Emma, 12-years-old, help mix the ingredients for their traditional Slovakian Oplatki, or Kaledaiciai in Polish, for Christmas season in their home in Saratoga Springs, on Sunday, October 28, 2018.“It takes about 10 seconds. You know by the steam,” she says. A minute later, she hands us an airy edible artwork that’s like an ultra-thin Italian pizzelle.

“Everyone in Slovakia makes them round,” she says.

Zuzana and David, a process engineer at GlobalFoundries, wrapped the heavy machine in clothing and packed it in their luggage when they brought it home from Slovakia four years ago.

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Honey on the oplatek is another Slovak tradition. Zuzana drizzles the sweet stuff on a wafer, breaks off a piece and covers the honey with pieces of wafer to form a tiny sandwich. With one hand, she touches the honey-filled wafer to her Emma’s forehead and draws an invisible cross.

“Vesele Vianoce,” she says. “Merry Christmas.”

Zuzana, a reiki practitioner at Tushita Heaven in Saratoga Springs, always makes sure there is goodness in her heart when she makes oplatky.

“It’s important to do things with good energy. When you do something with joy and pleasure, you can tell.”

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Zuzana Lundeen’s traditional Slovakian Oplatki, or Kaledaiciai in Polish, ready for Christmas season in their home in Saratoga Springs, on Sunday, October 28, 2018.While oplatky always show up at Christmas, they are also made and eaten year-round in Slovakia. Double wafers with a chocolate filling or plain ones are enjoyed like a snack with coffee. Salty oplatky are served with wine.

Piestany, Zuzana’s city of 30,000 in western Slovakia near Czechoslovakia, is home to the country’s largest and most famous spa resort. After soaking in the hot mineral springs, visitors buy fancy boxes of oplatky as souvenirs.

“It’s very typical in a spa town,” Zuzana says.

However, it was microchips not mineral water and a romance with an American that led Zuzana from her European spa town to a spa town in the U.S.

In 1999, Zuzana Miklovicova met David, a Connecticut native, while he was working at a microchip manufacturing facility in Piestany. They married in 2002, and their daughters were born in Slovakia.

In Slovakia, Christmas Eve is a night of solemn celebration, Zuzana says, and it begins when her father walks into the house with a special illuminated “Bethlehem candle” from the church.

“We have a prayer and then the oplatky. The atmosphere is very calm.”

ERICA MILLER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER  
Zuzana Lundeen blesses her daughter Emma, 12-years-old, with her traditional Slovakian Oplatki, or Kaledaiciai in Polish, and fresh honey in their home in Saratoga Springs, on Sunday, October 28, 2018.The father or mother presents a piece of the wafer and a blessing to each child. A meatless Christmas Eve meal called “Velija” follows.  

 “Then we open presents and go to midnight Mass,” Zuzana says. “The 25th is more for visiting family, eating a lot of cookies.”

In Saratoga Springs, the Lundeens, their daughters and friends will dine by candlelight on Dec. 24. There will be cabbage soup with mushrooms, dried plums and dried apples, then fish and potatoes, and many cookies.

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As for the oplatky, any American family is welcome to add this custom to their Christmas Eve.

 “I would love that,” says Zuzana.

For more information, visit Saratoga Spa Wafer on Facebook or send email to [email protected]. There is also a Facebook site called “Slovaks and Czechs in Upstate NY.”

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