Tasty Traditions | Johnstown woman marks Slovakian heritage with feast

Paulette Simunich, of Johnstown, cooks a 12-course Slovakian meal as part of a Christmas Eve tradition.

Each year, as Christmas Eve approaches, Paulette Simunich, of Johnstown, begins the preparations necessary for a 12-course meal, a Slovakian tradition that goes back generations in her family. 

Vilija, the celebration of Holy Night, includes a meatless and dairy-free dish for each of Jesus’ 12 disciples, Simunich said. 

“It’s a lovely tradition, and it’s very meaningful to the people who were brought up that way,” she said. “If it weren’t celebrated, it would just be another day, and it shouldn’t be.” 

Simunich’s parents, Peter and Julia Bulick, were from different villages in Slovakia before their families moved to the area and eventually met in Franklin Borough. 

She remembers growing up learning from her mother how to make the dishes she now makes for her family each year, including breads, boiled potatoes, peas, lima beans, rice, prunes, pierogi, vegetarian pigs in a blanket and a mushroom sauerkraut soup. 

“You don’t even miss the meat,” she said. 

Although the cooking process takes Simunich two days, she said it’s important to carry on a tradition her family counts on.  

“This is Christmastime for me,” she said. 

Simunich said the soup is a staple in the meal that many look forward to as one of the last and most flavorful dishes. 

Along with German-style sauerkraut and Pennsylvania Dutch mushrooms, Simunich said the soup calls for a thickening called the zapraska, which consists of oil, flour and onion. The mixture is also used in other dishes served in the meal, she said. 

Loving the rituals of the Slovakian Holy Night tradition comes from growing up with it, Simunich said, with the meal beginning when the first star appears in the sky the night of Christmas Eve. 

Following the meal, the Carpatho Rusyn religion Simunich belongs to observes midnight Mass and carries on with the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day. 

Other traditions during the meal include a toast inviting the table to the meal, prayer and a candle blown out by the oldest child in attendance to acknowledge whether each member of the family at the table will attend next year’s gathering. 

Simunich said her family also continues to sing Christmas songs in their native dialogue and some families place straw underneath the dinner table to honor the animals in the stable when Jesus was born. 

A few years ago, Simunich traveled to her father’s village of Jarabina and discovered family members who still observe the traditions she holds dear. 

“It’s nice to know you’re part of something bigger than yourself,” she said. 

​Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.