Sunday morning we drove across Long Island and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge and Staten Island and the Outerbridge Crossing to Holmdel, New Jersey, arriving at the 29th Annual Slovak Festival which was held in a park and exposition space adjacent to Exit 116 of the Garden State Parkway, owned by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and operated by Clear Channel Entertainment.
Remembering the Czech and Slovak Festival we had found in Omaha, Nebraska, we expected something similar -- a fairly sedate small gathering of a few dozen Americans of Slovak ancestry, most of whom had forgotten their native tongue, some home-cooked meals, and some American children feeling awkward about wearing Slovak costumes. About the biggest difference we anticipated is that, whereas the Omaha Festival had been mostly Czech-American, this festival would be predominantly Slovak-American. We thought that attending the Slovak Festival would get us in gear for our trip to Slovakia next Friday. We were right only in our last expectation!
This Festival was crowded with thousands of people, all chattering away in Shopping for Slovak crafts Slovak, meals brought in from several Slovak restaurants in and around New York City, plenty of adults wearing Slovak costumes, Slovak professional soccer teams, and an auxiliary bishop from the Archdiocese of Kosice with seven priests and monsignors helping out, giving a Slovak mass in a huge tent to over a thousand Catholics, all singing the Slovak church music from memory! The 53-page program featured greetings from politicians and diplomats, including the President, Governor, Senator, Ambassador, and seven lesser leaders. We weren't in Omaha, baby!
We arrived just before the official opening, to find vendors busily setting out their tables full of books, maps, clothing, puppets, decorated Easter eggs, ribbons, religious medals and icons, china and crystal, audiotapes and CDs of Slovak folk music, little cornhusk dolls which are a traditional craft, magazines, jewelry -- anything that might be associated with memories of Slovakia. Perhaps a half dozen travel agents were there, offering guided tours to eastern Europe.
We had the opportunity to chat briefly with Tom Peters, a genealogist (who happened to go to school with our cousin) specializing in Slovak family research, who assured us that we could count on good support while in eastern Soccer players from Slovakia Slovakia, where we will be looking for church and civil records in obscure corners of that country.
The soccer games were already under way. Four teams from the Slovak Republic were playing a tournament, with a total of six games ending at 6:00 p.m. We watched in admiration as these men worked magic, passing the ball adroitly, even by well-placed headers, racing up and down the field.
Then it was time for mass. Before we watched the soccer we had seen that there were several hundred empty chairs under the tent, but when we returned these were all filled and we were lucky to find a place to stand in the shade, as hundreds more surrounded the tent on a hot fall day. An organ warmed up, and far down the tarmac we saw the procession forming up, led by a solemn man carrying a golden cross surrounded with a circle of fresh red roses. An older man, in national dress, including a hat with long black feathers, who carried the American flag, was accompanied by a beaming woman with the flag of the Slovak Republic. The Bishop, in his cream-colored mitre and robes, was accompanied by a half-dozen priests, and a handful of lay readers filled out the procession.
In the ninth century, the brothers and Byzantine priests Cyril and Methodius brought the gift of written language to the Slavs, at the invitation of Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia, which included what is now western Slovakia. Pope Adrian II formally authorized the use of the Slavic liturgy, at a time when all of Western Europe heard the mass exclusively in Latin. The Slovak people over the centuries successfully withstood efforts to force them to hear the Crowds throng the Slovak mass mass in Latin, a fact which has enabled them to retain their national identity through centuries of Hungarian and Czech domination. All of which is to say that attending a Slovak mass is an event of enormous political significance to the people.
The bishop delivered a fairly lengthy (to our unaccustomed ears) homily which produced applause, laughter, and nods of approval from the audience. We followed along as best we could with the Slovak text in the Order of Service which we all held. The most impressive part of the service to us was the music. There were hymns and musical responses throughout the mass, beautifully sung by the congregation. Toward the end of the service one song sounded like a Slovak folk song.
Following the mass we shared a kielbasy with a portion of some of the best sauerkraut we have ever had, plus two stuffed cabbage leaves. Then it was time to watch some more soccer and crowd in around the vendors' stalls. Meanwhile an ensemble of two violins, a base viol, a xylophone and an accordion were playing lively gypsy-sounding music, while a group of school-age dancers were preparing for their time on stage. Some visitors had brought ponies, and were giving rides to children, and others had rigged up huge inflated play rooms. A number of families were sensibly using their tailgates for luncheon, as there were far too few tables and chairs for the crowds. We managed to beat the afternoon thunderstorms as we drove back through New York City to our Long Island hotel.
What stuck with us was the experience of spending much of a day in the company of people whose primary language was mostly unfamiliar to us. Slovak food was served to all Most people in attendance were speaking Slovak -- old, young, children -- all greeted each other and were talking easily in a language most Americans may never hear. These families came, probably primarily for the mass connecting them to their homeland, but also to visit with friends and relatives they may not often see during the rest of the year. They came to enjoy the food, to purchase ribbons and findings and decorations and china. It was, in short, a festival of remembrance for all of the Slovak-Americans in attendance, and a pleasant trip abroad for all the Slovak athletes, priests and individuals who had come across the Atlantic.
We feel very fortunate that we could participate, even at the edges, of this friendly, happy occasion, and to understand once more that Slovakia, whose flag carries the double barred cross of Saints Cyril and Methodius, is a vibrant, important new nation whose children are proud Americans still honoring the country of their origin.