Czech Christmas Traditions

Despite creeping commercialism, old favorites like Mikuláš, carp and cookies survive and thrive

CHRISTMAS 2008 ON PRAGUE TV
Gift Ideas | Vouchers | Dining | Traditions | Shopping

Czech Christmas: the pernicious influence of Santa, and the season starting in October.

Not what you wanted to hear but, unfortunately, globalization is making Christmas in the Czech Republic just like anywhere else.

Czechs, however, seem to been spared the fast track to insanity offered by Slade's mindlessly stupid Merry Xmas Everybody being played as soon as they set foot inside a shop from Halloween onward – so far, at least.

But don't worry – the essential traditions of Czech Christmas continue, despite the advent of shopping malls and piped carols.

For one thing, part of the attraction of a Czech Christmas is that some of the clichés pictured on Christmas cards actually do bear a resemblance to reality. Snow is a possibility, and even at the rather fake Olde Worlde market in Old Town Square, the heart of Prague's tourist mayhem, the scene is enough to make even the most heartless cynic get a little sentimental.

As in other countries, Christmas in the Czech Republic happens in two distinct stages: the first part coming at the beginning of December, around St. Nicholas Eve, and the second on December 24th, when families get together to celebrate the main Christmas event.

The season kicks off on December 5th, the eve of the feast day of St. Nicholas (Mikuláš, in Czech). Threesomes representing an angel, a devil (or more commonly these days, a devil and a devil) and St. Nicholas, a figure dressed up as a bishop, with old cotton wool for a beard, are found tramping round neighborhoods looking for children to interrogate about their behavior over the last year.

Sweets are at the ready, although judging by the pictures of terrorized toddlers in the papers each year, child psychologists might be more appropriate. Frightened children apart, it's an enjoyable occasion, not least for cotton wool producers and companies that manufacture flashing illuminated devil horns.

Christmas fever continues to gain momentum after St. Nicholas has done his rounds, and the focal point of Czech Christmas is December 24th.

The Christmas tree is decorated in the afternoon, and in the evening, whole families get together to enjoy the Christmas meal. The meal traditionally involves carp, that unfortunate fish you see being butchered by men in overalls on street corners.

Carp is usually fried in breadcrumbs, and walking through the streets early on Christmas Eve, when everyone is frying at the same time, Prague smells like a giant fish and chip shop. This is particularly noticeable if you walk through an area of paneláks, when the smell of simultaneous frying from several hundred apartments can be almost overwhelming.

Some people eschew breadcrumbs, and many Czech families will tell you their special way of preparing the fish is the best. Such family pride, and arguments about the best way to cook the fish show how carp seems to elicit fanatical devotion and loathing in equal measure.

I never previously realized that a fish could arouse such passions, though it's not that surprising, I suppose, given that many people end up in hospital each year with fish bones stuck in their throats.

There's no sitting on the fence when it comes to carp. After tasting it myself, I'm firmly against it - you might as well feed me with wallpaper paste. On the upside, the fish is accompanied by potato salad, which definitely does get my vote - but it has to be homemade. The version you get in the shops just isn't the same.

After the meal, it's time for everyone to leave the room. Then a bell is rung and everyone comes back in to find their presents, which have materialized under the tree.

As elsewhere, December 25th and 26th are holidays too, and it's a lazy time, with not much happening until New Year's Eve, which many Czech people spend in the mountains.

After the holidays things go back to normal, but it’s not quite back to normal - there's a fair chance that the remaining Christmas sweets, those intricate little pastries (vánoční cukroví) which every housewife seems to make in industrial quantities, will make a last-gasp appearance.

Colleagues come in to work bearing these ubiquitous delicacies and try to foist them on you. Soon the workplace is awash with them, as everyone has the same idea. There are boxes of them, and boxes and boxes.

People look sheepish, wondering if they'll be the one who pushes the whole office over the edge simply because nobody can face any more of the things… Once they've gone you feel a little sad, though, and then it dawns on you that Christmas is truly and finally over.

 

READER'S COMMENTS

"great article, very true and detailed. I know b/c i live it every year even now that I live in the States... The only problem i have w/ this article is that the carp (or Kapr) tastes bad. It does not. It's very juicy and sweet. it is a little fishy because it's very fresh. Most people let them swim around their bath tub before the dad kills and cleans it to get it ready for mom to cook... i was always told to watch out for bones and use your tongue to feel for them before you swallow. :)" --zuzana parrette

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