Czech Christmas through the Eyes of an Expat: A Practical Guide
Christmas in Prague is picturesque, charming and …well…different than what I grew up with in the US. Back home in the States we have Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole crooning about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”folks “dashing through the snow” and an occasional reference to the Czech Republic’s own ‘Good King Wenceslas”. Santa Claus is seen everywhere complete with sled, reindeer and a bag of gifts. Elves sitting on shelves and more candy canes then any school of kids could eat in a year populate the holiday.
My first Christmas in the Czech Republic was full of surprises, confusion and even a bit of tension at work. Let me tell you about it.
I have lived with Santa Claus visiting on Christmas Eve night since I could understand what a holiday was. No such fat jolly person visits here. Instead the gifts are brought by Ježíšek, or baby Jesus. I just want to stop right there and point out that this is one of the most atheist countries in the world, yet no contradiction is felt here. Even if you are religious and believe in Jesus (the grown up one) there seems to be no issue. Ježíšek is magic. He is the bringer of toys and fun though I suspect he also brings new underwear, something parents claim you need, and no one wants for Christmas. Under the Communist regime there was an attempt to replace Ježíšek with a Santa like figure known as Děda Mráz (Grandfather Frost) but he never had as big of a following as baby Jesus.
The other strange thing about this is he pops by around dinner to leave the gifts while everyone is at the dinner table. After he drops off the gifts, he rings a bell signaling he is done. I imagine this creates a stampede of children running to the Christmas tree in hopes of a glimpse of the baby. At this point the scene is about the same throughout the world; paper being torn, boxes being ripped open, and toys everywhere. If you are looking for “Ol’ Saint Nick” then you will need to be here on the 5th/6th of December. Saint Nicholas was a real dude who brought gifts to those in the church a good long time ago. As we have Santa Claus making visits to homes and parties in America as well as many other countries, St. Nicholas can visit as well. He will bring along an angel and a devil and ask the children if they have been good or bad. Usually the child will claim the status of “good”, sing a song or recite poetry then get a gift. Bad children are given coal and very bad children are loaded into a bag the devil has to take them away. A friend shared with me that once her brother realized he would only be in the bag until the front porch he was “bad all the time”. I imagine my sister may say the same thing.
Christmas traditions and meals are different as well. As a rule, Christmas Eve was a fasting day for some Christians, since you could not eat meat, fish was the alternative for supper. In the Czech Republic that fish is carp. I know what some of you are thinking, “Carp! Why not something like salmon or trout??” This is simple, it is plentiful here. The southern areas of this country have many ponds and small lakes that are stocked with carp and carp farming has been going on here for centuries.
It gets better! Traditionally you didn’t just buy a carp prepared at the market, but you buy a live carp and it will live for a couple of days in the bathtub. The idea was it would make the carp cleaner, meanwhile the children get dirtier. Often the fish will gain a name and the status of “pet” during its stay in the tub. I can see where this may cause a bit of a problem when it comes time to cook the meal.
Commonly the fish is fried and served with potato salad. Why potato salad? Because everything in this country is served with potato salad! I doubt you could visit for two days and not have potato salad or some other potato side with the meal. Seriously, welcome to Prague, now eat your potato salad.
Another big deal food at Christmas is cookies. This is something I think everyone is familiar with and happy about. But, whereas in America there will certainly be some cookies, maybe lots of cookies, the Czechs take cookie baking to a whole other level.
The cookie making may start as early as late November and continue until a day or two before the 24th. Not only do the Czechs make tons of cookies there is seemingly a competition of sorts when it comes to varieties. As a friend described; she had made about 9 varieties when she found out her mother-in- law had made 12 kinds. She immediately returned to the kitchen to surpass her in-law. She then lamented how she would be left with piles of cookies after the holidays.
So, let’s sit down to have the meal. Even that has some rules.
First, since Christmas Eve is day of fasting the tradition is, if you fast before your dinner, you may see the Flying Golden Pig, a sign of good luck. Truthfully, I have asked a number of people and read as many books and articles as I can on the subject but I can’t find out why a pig and how does it fly. I guess you just don’t question the Golden Pig. Since we are now at the dinner table tradition dictates that you must remain seated until the meal is over. According to tradition, the first person to stand up and leave the table will die within the year. Everyone must finish their meal and rise together. That is certainly quite the punishment for having to go to the toilet or if you forgot the salt! Some folks I know have a work around where, if someone needs to leave the table, someone else will stand up with them. I guess this is a simple way to keep death at bay. Another custom is to set an even number of plates at the table, even if there are an odd number of people. If there is an odd number of place settings, there could be death or very bad luck in the coming year. Don’t forget to take an apple and cut it in half from the stem. If you see a star shape all is well but if it is a 4 point cross, you guessed it, death. Who would have thought Christmas dinner with the family could be so lethal?
Now that we have eaten the “pet”, staved off death and opened gifts you would think we could just eat cookies and play with toys. No such luck. There are all sorts of fortunes and prophecies that need to be uncovered.
First, don’t throw those fish scales away! A fish scale carried in your wallet or coin purse will insure prosperity for the coming year. Others say you must put the scale under the plate to bring the house good fortune. I suggest both just to cover all bases.
For the single ladies, throwing a shoe over your shoulder towards the door will predict if you are to be married soon. If the front of the shoe points to the doorway then there will be wedding bells that year.
Walnut shells are made into little boats with a tiny candle in them. Put them in water and what they do will predict the year. As you may guess, death can be one of the outcomes. You would think the Grim Reaper would mellow out around Christmas. Obviously, he is just filling the calendar for the coming year.
There are so many more traditions I will not endeavor to try to cover. This is a blog, not a book. What I can is give you a bit more information about Christmas here.
My first bit of information is that everything about the holiday focuses more on Christmas Eve then Christmas day. A big surprise for yours truly. This became a bit of an issue for me at work. In my planning for my tour guide job I was thinking like an American. For me, Christmas Eve is the final push for gift shopping, and I don’t recall a Christmas Eve that the family had lunch together. Not so in Prague! People will have reservations weeks in advance for that day. I know you are thinking that I just mentioned this is a time of fasting. I don’t have an answer for you. I guess they don’t care about the Pig. Back to my story. I went to get reservations for my tour group for Christmas Eve thinking there would be no problem and ran into a brick wall. I couldn’t understand why everyplace was full. One of the owners couldn’t understand why I waited so long. It became a bit tense trying to find a place that took reservations before my boss threw me out of a window but in the end, reservations were made, windows stayed closed and I learned a lesson. Make those reservations early! Expect many places to be closed that day. Here is a list of the best offers for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day:
- Restaurant “Triton”
If fine dining is your idea of perfect Christmas Eve, this is the right place to go. It has a 100 year-long tradition and undeniably, some of the most talented chefs in Prague. On top of this, it is set in such a unique location that will make your Christmas Eve a once in a lifetime experience. Have you ever dined in a stalactite cave? If like me, your answer is “Hell no!” then welcome to the heart of Prague, you will find the said cave right in the middle of Wenceslas Square. Of course, it’s not a real cave, so no reason to be afraid of going down dark tunnels to reach it. It’s is a wonderful Art Nouveau interior that resembles a cave, so you can relax and just enjoy the truly magical atmosphere it creates! And what is Christmas Eve without a little magic, after all? This year, Triton offers it visitors two menus and it will be open both on 24 and 25 December.
- 24 December: a 7-course Christmas Menu accompanied with excellent live piano music. The price for a 7-course menu is: 2 444, – CZK / person (96 EUR); for extra sommelier selection of wine and coffee / tea you will pay 3 473,CZK / person (136 EUR)
- 25-26 December: St. Stephen Menu, live piano music: 4 courses including toast and coffee / tea 1 132, – CZK / person (45 EUR)
Address: Wenceslas Square 26, Prague 1
Contact: +420-221 081 218 / [email protected]
Open daily 12 p.m. – 11 p.m. Don’t forget to book a table in advance!
- Restaurant “Augustine”
Enjoy the festive atmosphere with live classical music and a 4-course festive menu at the luxurious Augustine Restaurant. It is open both on the 24 and 25 December and offers a sophisticated menu including delicious Czech dishes.
- Price: 1 850 CZK / person (73 EUR) + pairing with wine 900 CZK / person (35 EUR)
Address:Letenská 12/33, Prague 1 – Malá Strana
Info:/[email protected]/ +420 266 112 280
Opening hours: Monday- Friday: 6.30 a.m. – 11 a.m., 12 p.m.- 3 p.m.;
16p.m. – 11 p.m.; Saturday- Sunday: 7 a.m. – 11 a.m., 12 p.m. – 15 p.m.; 4 p.m. – 11 p.m.
La Bodeguita del Medio is a Cuban cocktail bar and music restaurant, so if you want to listen to some great music and even put your dancing shoes on, this one’s for you!Maybe a Cuban music venue is not the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Christmas, but if you’re not staying home anyway, why not try something truly fun, buzzing with life and vibrant energy? It’s located a few steps away from the Old Town Square, so even your walk there will be a fairytale. It is open on the 24 , 25 and 26 December, offering special Christmas menus and menu a la carte.
Some snippets from the Christmas menu:
- Fresh oysters Fine de Claire 2/0 served on crushed ice with shallot vinaigrette 6 pcs – 385 CZK (15 EUR)
- Fried carp fillet with homemade potato salad 195 CZK (8 EUR)
- Strudel stuffed with wild berries, nuts and ricotta with vanilla mascarpone 310 CZK (12 EUR)
- Gratinated snails 6pcs, with garlic butter served on sea salt 340CZK (13 EUR)
- Veal schnitzel fried in butter with homemade potato salad 385CZK (15 EUR)
Address: Kaprova 19/5, Prague 1
Contact: +420 224 813 922/
Wednesday – Saturday: 11 a.m. – 4 a.m. Sunday – Tuesday: 11 a.m. – 2 a.m.
- “Plzenska Restaurace” (Pilsen Restaurant in the Municipal House)
In the most beautiful Art Nouveau pub located in the Municipal House you will find the Czech staples: rich traditional Czech Christmas dishes and mouth watering Pilsner beer. The perfect recipe for happiness if you want a truly authentic Czech Christmas. The special menu includes soup, a wide range of salads, main courses (for example, the typical fried carp) and desserts, as well as 3 drinks.
- Price: 1 590, – CZK (62 EUR)
Address: Náměstí Republiky 5, Prague 1
Contact: +420 222 002 780 / [email protected]
Opening hours: 1.30 p.m – 11 p.m.
- Restaurant “La Republica”
This year, they offer two different variations of the Christmas 4-course menu. If you are looking for traditional Czech Christmas dishes like fish soup, fried fillet or fried carp and apple strudel for a more affordable price, this is the place to go. Plus, the spectacular interior inspired by the 1920s takes you back in time and creates an enchanting atmosphere! It is located in the centre, so it’s very easy to find and it will be conveniently open both on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
- Price: 650 CZK / person (26 EUR) or 580 CZK / person (23 EUR) (depending on the menu)
Address: Na Poříčí 12, Prague 1
Contact:420 602 202 631 / [email protected]
Opening Hours: Monday – Thursday 11 a.m. –12 a.m.
Friday 11 a.m. – 01:30 a.m.
Saturday 12 p.m. – 01:30 a.m.
Sunday 12 p.m. – 12 a.m.
Now, if you don’t want to bother with many complicated reservations (and as I said, it does get difficult to get a table for Christmas), you are more than welcome to try our food tours. They will fill your stomach with countless local delights and take you to the best restaurants. For example, our Old Town Traditional Czech Food Tour leads you through a breath-taking scenic route of the Old Town and it’s best venues. And you guess what? Of course you can book our tours during the Christmas holidays too!
If you are here around Christmas, you will also see several Christmas markets throughout the city. These are marvelous little wonderlands with a variety of handcrafted ornaments, treats and warm beverages. During the season these places are not just for shopping but a place to meet up with friends and family. The atmosphere is joyful and even the grumpiest curmudgeon would be found smiling at them. Plenty of hot alcoholic beverages and I must mention the hot chocolate. Back in the states most hot chocolate is hot water and a powder mix. Here, it is just pure chocolate warmed up. Very rich and very yummy! One of my favorites. You can even find the walnut shell boats I mentioned. I personally skip anything that may foretell death but to each their own. In any case, here is a list of the best Christmas Markets open for Christmas Eve and Christmas day:
- Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) and Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí)
They are open every day from 30 November 2019 to 6 of January 2020. The Christmas goods stalls are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., while refreshment stalls stay open until midnight. At the Old Town Square there is also a large stage with theater performances, concerts, and folklore ensembles. There is usually a nativity scene as well, a mini zoo (children’s favourite) and of course, the star of the show: the humongous Old Town Square Christmas tree! P.S. There is a Christmas Tree Lighting daily from the 3o November to 6 January, and it’s a magical experience, don’t miss it!
- Náměstí Republiky
This lovely little market takes place every day from 23 November to 24 December 2019, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. You cannot miss this as you’re walking around the center: the smell of hot chestnuts, mulled wine and Christmas cookies is so inviting and cosy, that turns a simple walk into a Christmas fairytale.
- Prague Castle
They say that you haven’t really been to Prague if you haven’t visited our famous castle (the biggest in Europe, by the way). So if you decide to see this magnificent building during the Christmas holidays, there is a special bonus for you, that will make your visit even more memorable. Of course, I am speaking of St. George’s Square Christmas Market. It’s small, it’s local and absolutely beautiful. In the cold winter days a cup of hot chocolate or mulled wine will fill you up with Christmas warmth and give you strength to enjoy the lovely view. The market opens on 30 November 2019 and closes on 6 January 2020. From Monday to Thursday it is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
- Náměstí Míru
This Christmas Market is located a bit further from the center, but it’s all the better for it. The location itself is stunning, right under the beautiful cathedral of Saint Ludmila. It is the locals favourite and for a good reason. You can find many Christmas decorations, handmade gifts and local fresh products. It will be open from 20 November until 24 December 2019, so if you come here on Christmas Eve, be sure not to miss it and go during the day!
How to get there from the centre: Just take the green metro line (A), it’s just a couple of stops from the centre.
Of course, if you come to Prague and just take our Merry Markets Christmas Tour we will be able to take you to some of the best markets in Prague. Some have shops where chestnuts are roasted on an open fire! Nat and Bing would be so proud.
Ice Skating Rinks
Once you’ve had your hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts, why not try ice-skating, surrounded by magical christmas lights and beautiful festive music? These ice rinks are totally free, by the way! And if you don’t have ice-skating shoes, they are happy to lend you some for a symbolic price. (You will have to leave a deposit for the borrowed skates, from 300 to 500 CZK (12-20 EUR), which you will get back once you return the shoes.) Here is a list of the best free ice rinks:
- Ovocný trh
This is my personal favourite, to be honest. Located at Ovocný trh, near the Estates Theatre (which is right in the heart of the Old Town) it really has a special, magical atmosphere. It is open from December through January, from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m.. If you are looking for a romantic and fun evening, give it a go.
- Letná Plain
Now, I know that this venue is not exactly in the city centre, but trust me, it’s really worth the short tram ride. From the Letna Park, there is a marvelous view of the Prague Castle and the surrounding landscape, all of it while having fun on the ice. Plus, it’s also good for families with children because of the separate children’s area. Your children don’t know how to ice-skate? No worries, there are even free ice-skating lessons for them!
How to get there from the centre: Take trams 8 or 26 from Náměstí Republiky to the tram stop “Sparta.” Bonus: If you stand at the end of the tram, you will have a special scenic view of the city as the tram goes up the hill.
Public Transport Changes to Look Out For
The public transport in Prague is one of the best in the world, and you can rely on it even during the Christmas holidays, when most shops and services are closed. But be aware that during this time all trains are following a special holiday mode, so they won’t come as often as they usually do, but even so, it’s more than enough if you come prepared. Here is some info about the altered timetables:
- The metro is your safe bet. It will follow the Saturday timetable until 6 p.m. afterwards it will run in intervals of 15 minutes. The last trains will leave the terminal stations before 1am.
- The trams and buses will also run according to the Saturday timetable until 6 p.m., afterwards they will run in night mode (with intervals of 20 to 30 minutes between trams/buses).
- During the day the metro trains will run in 6-8 minute intervals and the trams according to the regular timetable.
- From 12 p.m.- 7 a.m. the metro will not run and the trams will run in night mode (20 to 30 minute intervals)
All in all, even though most museums and landmarks will be closed during Christmas Eve and the following day, as you can see there is still plenty to do! For example, you can visit some of Prague towers and adore the view. Here are their opening hours:
- Petrin Observation Tower (PETŘÍNSKÁ ROZHLEDNA)
24 December: 10 a.m.–3 p.m
25 December: 10 a.m.– 7 p.m.
26 December: 10 a.m.– 7 p.m
- Old Town Bridge Tower (STAROMĚSTSKÁ MOSTECKÁ VĚŽ )
24 December: 10 a.m.–3 p.m
25 December: 10 a.m.– 8p.m.
26 December: 10 a.m.– 8 p.m
- Powder Tower (PRAŠNÁ BRÁNA)
24 December: 10 a.m.–3 p.m
25 December: 10 a.m.– 8p.m.
26 December: 10 a.m.– 8 p.m
Of course, most churches and cathedrals will be open as usual, and there will be Christmas masses and concerts, so the atmosphere inside will be even more enchanting. Also, because the Czechs love staying home for Christmas, the charming streets of Prague will not be as crowded as they usually are, so you can walk around undisturbed and even take wonderful photos. Just imagine the soft, fresh snow gently falling on the ground while you’re holding a warm cup of mulled wine..You get to do this and much more on all our tours, just choose one and let your Prague Discovery begin, with no stress about what is open and what not, let us worry about that!
October 30, 2019