A comprehensive guide to Czech Christmas traditions (part 1)
Christmas in the Czech Republic involves a combination of pagan and Christian traditions. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between the two, but it doesn’t matter too much, for we love them all irrespectively. There used to be major celebrations of winter solstice already before the birth of Jesus Christ. Also known as midwinter, winter solstice is the time when the days start to get longer and nights shorter. For our ancestors, this meant the warm and sunny days were approaching, when they would have plenty of food again. Of course, the ways of celebrating this event have significantly changed over time and some of the customs we perform today are in fact just a couple of decades old. The traditions and cuisine also differ from region to region. The population of Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, is more religious than the rest of the country, which means they keep more of the Christian traditions than they do, for example, in Prague.
St. Nicholas Eve
On the 1st of December, children open a box with number 1 on a special chocolate calendar that has only 24 days – we call it the “advent calendar” and it is quite popular, sometimes even among adults. As opposed to an actual calendar, this one serves as a countdown to Christmas Eve.
However, before Christmas there is St. Nicholas Eve, or as we would say Mikuláš. This involves a group of people dressed in the costumes of St. Nicholas and his train, who pass through houses with small children inside. Accompanied by an Angel and a Devil, St. Nicholas brings bags with treats, fruit, and other small presents for the children. In order to acquire the treats, the children have to do a little performance, such as sing a song, recite a poem or play some musical instrument. If they have misbehaved during the year, they get a piece of coal or a potato instead. To make sure the Devil won’t put them inside his sandbag and bring them to hell, the children promise to behave better next year.
Advent and Christmas Carols
On each of the 4 Sundays preceding Christmas Eve, the so-called Advent Sundays, we light one candle placed on top of the Advent wreath. This is a special occasion when the whole family gathers around a table and sings Christmas carols in the candlelight.
From this day on, you will hear carols everywhere for the rest of the year. You might even know one of the Czech carols (or you might think it is Czech) – the one about our Good King Wenceslas. The protagonist of this song was a celebrated Czech king, whose statue you can find in front of the National Museum in Wenceslas Square. While the lyrics were written by an Englishman in the 19th century, the melody is much older. It became popular when the daughter of our King Charles IV married into England in the 14th century and it subsequently spread through all countries of the British Commonwealth. The funny thing is that while the carol is nowadays quite famous all around the world, it is not so popular here in the Czech Republic.
The beginning of Advent is connected to the Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony in all cities, towns, and villages around the country. The tallest tree is always in the Old Town Square in Prague, among the stalls of the main Christmas Market. Apart from this one, there are a couple more markets around the city center, which stay open until the 6th of January. The ones outside of the center usually close down on Christmas Eve. If you would like to explore some of these markets and learn about the Czech Christmas traditions firsthand, try our Prague’s Merry Markets Christmas Tour.
Czechs love to stroll around the markets and enjoy local goodies. The most popular include various kinds of sausages, roasted chestnuts, hot mead (or medovina, an alcoholic beverage made of honey, that has actually a longer-standing tradition in the country than beer), and especially mulled wine, or svařák.
Would you dare to make one yourself? Many Czech families like to come to Prague for Christmas markets, so the city might get quite crowded in December. But don’t let that discourage you, there is always plenty of quiet places you can escape to.
About 3-4 weeks before Christmas is the best time to start looking for a Christmas tree, packing presents, buying a mistletoe and a carp (we will get to these in a minute), and baking the traditional Christmas cookies.
People often start with the honey-bread cookies called perníčky. It is basically the same dough as gingerbread cookies, but there’s no ginger. What are the essential ingredients? Cinnamon, coriander, clove, aniseed, cardamom, pepper, and honey! Once you have carved all sorts of shapes, you put them in the oven and the Christmas season may officially begin. The smell is simply magical! Then you just have to find a cool place to store the cookies for a few weeks. In case that Christmas has almost arrived and your cookies are still too hard to eat, you can add slices of apple in the box; it makes the cookies softer.
The rest of typical Czech Christmas treats include a lot of butter, crushed walnuts, vanilla, or chocolate. Some of them look like little pieces of art. The more types of Christmas cookies a woman bakes, the better housewife she is considered – at least that’s what Czech mums teach their daughters. I promised myself to add one type each year, but I am still on 5 types which is rather average. My aunt bakes up to 13 kinds and my mother is somewhere in between the two of us. I am always very strict with my family about eating the cookies too soon, so I hide them until Christmas really starts. Sometimes it is a real challenge with all the kids begging for cookies!
Vánočka and Mistletoe
A day or two before Christmas we usually bake vánočka – a loaf of sweet dough with raisins and almonds inside. It is simply D E L I C I O U S. The shape resembles a newborn Jesus in a baby wrapper. It is a symbol of fertility and new life. This tradition is, in fact, a couple of centuries old. To make a proper vánočka, you first need to split the dough into nine parts, then weave three separate braids, and attach all of them together. If it is too difficult to visualize, watch this video recipe.
Hanging a mistletoe above the dining table is one of those pre-Christian traditions that survived until today. Some cultures connect mistletoe with different traditions, but most people associate it with fertility. It was used by Celtic Druids in their rituals for the same reason. So don’t forget to hang a wad of mistletoe above your table and kiss all the members of the family underneath it!
What’s up with all the fish around?
About a week or two before Christmas, you can see stalls selling live carp all around the city. They are kept in large tanks full of water. People get to choose which one they want and whether they want in dead or alive (no kidding).
If you want it the traditional way, you will get a live one and put it inside your bathtub back at home. (It is an excellent excuse for kids not to wash for a day or two and they love it.) Some people also buy a live carp and give it freedom by releasing it into the river. It is supposed to bring good luck, but the sad fact is that it is not good for the carp itself. It is usually the children who persuade their parents not to kill the fish because, after two days spent in their bathroom, they consider it another member of the family.
As the evening is approaching and it is time to start frying the carp. The traditional cold potato salad should already be prepared in the fridge from the night before. While eating the fish, watch out for its sharp bones, you don’t want one stuck in your throat. If it happens, eat a piece of bread to release it. This is actually a popular topic in many Czech jokes and it makes the dinner even more exciting. People also like to place a carp scale underneath their plates. It is said to bring good luck and make you rich if you carry it in your purse afterward.
Those who are not fond of fish or gave freedom to their carp usually eat chicken or pork schnitzel. But the potato salad is beloved by all, with every single household being in possession of the best recipe ever. The one thing they all agree on is the fact that you need to prepare it in advance. The main ingredients are boiled potatoes mixed with vegetables such as carrots, celery, bell peppers, and peas. Some people also add eggs and ham. All the ingredients are covered with mayonnaise, although some families use white yogurt instead. In addition to that, I make my own dressing with water, white wine, sunflower oil, honey, vinegar, mustard, garlic, salt, and pepper. And I’m also pretty sure this recipe is the ONE. You can try an authentic potato salad in Zlatý Kříž Deli in Jungmannovo Square.
To be continued…
November 11, 2019