Behind the Scenes of the Mikuláš Tradition

Praising the nice and punishing the naughty

If you are walking in downtown Prague on the evening of December 5, don’t be alarmed when you’re greeted by the motley Christmas trio of Mikuláš, čert and anděl – otherwise known as Saint Nicholas and his sidekicks, the angel and the devil. For those who are spending their first Christmas in the Czech Republic, it’s wise to know a bit about the popular Advent tradition, which is called Svatý Mikuláš in Czech. That is, before you get carted off to hell in a devil’s sack.

During my first Christmas in the Czech Republic, I remember seeing winged angels in glittery white and devils wearing flashing horns and rattling chains as they walked in groups across the main town square. It looked like teenagers out for Halloween trick-or-treating who’d all gotten a memo that said to dress alike. Most of the angels had halos and long, blond wigs, while the majority of the devils were dressed in black hairy costumes with black-painted faces and fake waggling tongues. I somehow missed noticing Mikuláš in the mix – the devils took center stage. It wasn’t until the following day when I asked my English students what had been going on that I learned about the Mikuláš tradition.

Celebrated on the evening of December 5 throughout much of Europe, the Mikuláš tradition honors Bishop Nicholas who was born in the 3rd century in then Greece and was a patron saint of children and those in need. On the evening before his svátek (name day) on December 6, squares in villages, towns and cities around the Czech Republic come alive for a pre-Christmas celebration that is almost as big a deal, at least for children, as the full blown Christmas holiday on December 24.

St. Nicholas traditions vary by country. In the past, in Germany and Poland boys dressed as St. Nicholas and begged for alms for the poor. In Germany today, children put out their shoes at night and in the morning, they find candies, chocolates and nuts as well as sticks, twigs, coal and even potatoes if they’ve been naughty. In the Netherlands, Sinterklaas (the Dutch name for St. Nicholas) arrives by steamer from Spain. He rides a white horse into town to greet the mayor and his arrival is broadcast on national television. During the days leading up to December 5, Sinterklaas visits homes and checks to see if children have been behaving themselves. The children make wish lists for Sinterklaas and leave carrots and hay for the saint’s horse. In return, they find candy, chocolate or coins in their shoes.

In the Czech Republic, Mikuláš is a tall bearded figure dressed in a long white robe carrying a staff and wearing a pointed bishop’s hat with a cross symbol. He carries with him a Book of Deeds, which is used to check if a specific child has been naughty or nice. Not to be mistaken with Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas is taller and slimmer. Although modern marketing campaigns have conflated images of the two on chocolates and candies that are sold during the Advent season, word on the street in the Czech Republic says that Santa doesn’t represent a traditional Czech Christmas. Despite my affinity for Santa, I tend to agree.

Since Christmas gifts on December 24 are delivered by Ježíšek (the Baby Jesus) who doesn’t have a physical presence, Mikuláš is the only Santa-like figure in the Czech Christmas.

Mikuláš and his cohorts visit community centers, cafes, restaurants and schools in events that range from well-organized functions, where parents must sign up their children in advance and provide their own sack of Mikuláš treats, to impromptu town square sightings where Mikuláš trios give out candy to all passers-by. Many of the costumed trios you see on the street on Mikuláš night are teenagers, just old enough to be excluded from the receiving end of the tradition but not old enough to be out partying. There are also adults who dress up year after year to play their roles, much like Santa figures in the US.
Upon parents’ requests, professional Mikuláš services can be hired to pay a home visit. Although our neighbors have invited us to join them in their home Mikuláš visit, my family has always declined, mostly because my children seem intimidated enough from their Mikuláš experiences at school. Some of my non-Czech friends go as far as keeping their preschool aged children at home on the day of Mikuláš, but that seems a little extreme on the other end.

In the Czech Republic, Mikuláš traditionally brings a sack of small gifts, such as fruit, nuts or chocolates to children with good behavior. For children who are considered to be mischievous or otherwise naughty, Mikuláš reads them a list of their misdeeds, and then the devil gives them a lump of coal or a potato. Special chocolate figures in the shapes of St. Nicholas, the devil and the angel are sold for the holiday. In order to receive their goodies, Czech children are trained to recite a Christmas poem or to sing a Christmas song. This is done one by one, so be forewarned that if you accept an invitation to a more personalized Mikuláš event, you may spend hours there waiting for each child to say or sing his piece.

Preschools usually teach children a poem to recite, and sometimes they let the children go in pairs to ease stage fright and perhaps to speed up the process. Although there hadn’t been much talk of Mikuláš from my sons this year, the other day I heard my five-year-old singing “Mikuláš ztratil plášť, Mikuláška sukni, hledali, nenašli, byli oba smutní.” According to him, it’s a song about Mikuláš losing his robe and Mrs. Mikuláš losing her gown. In the end they are both sad. It’s probably the shortest Mikuláš song that exists, but my son seems glad to have it in his repertoire.

The role of the devil seems particularly vital to Czech (and Slovak) Mikuláš celebrations. With his shaggy black coat, waggling red tongue, pitchfork and rattling chains, a well-costumed devil is a threatening sight. It is common knowledge that the worst fate that can befall a naughty child is to be carried off to hell in the devil’s sack, a threat known to reduce preschoolers to tears and to send brave fourth graders boasting about being naughty in hopes they’ll be carried off in the sack.

Years ago when we were attending a Mikuláš event that was hosted by Czech friends at a cafe, I was asked to write down the bad habits of each of my children so that Mikuláš would have something authentic to say. Put on the spot, I tried to write something that was true but wouldn’t embarrass them. Just getting up on stage or standing at the front of a room alone with the three characters was enough to reduce my young daughter to near tears. I don’t even think she heard what Mikuláš said because she was so nervous standing that close to a devil.

This year, however, when my daughter’s fifth grade class was invited to put on the Mikuláš show for the first through fourth graders, only two children wanted to be angels. The tallest boy in the class volunteered to be St. Nicholas, and the rest of the children begged to be devils, including my daughter. In the end, the teacher convinced a few other girls to be angels. Still St. Nicholas and his entourage were a lopsided crew.

Although the devil seems as far from a Christmas figure as I can imagine, he is often cast in Czech fairytales as a bit of a bumbling idiot, which is perhaps why none of the Czech adults with whom I’ve discussed the tradition find the devil’s role problematic or worrisome. Most Czechs adults seem to see the tradition as fun and light-hearted. Children on the receiving end of the tradition fall between the very serious believers (my five-year old practicing his song) and those like his older brother who told me years ago that he wasn’t scared about getting a piece of coal from the devil. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I saw the devil was wearing tennis shoes.” As for my in-between preteen, she’s stayed up late two nights in a row helping her dad cut out and decorate cardboard angel’s wings. According to her new line of thought, anyone can be a devil, but it takes someone special to be an angel.

If you’re looking for an authentic town square Mikuláš experience, head to the Christmas market at Náměstí Míru (Prague 2 – green line metro) at dusk. It won’t be as crowded as in Prague 1 and should have a more neighborhood feel. If you’re brave enough, you can ask St. Nicholas to check his book to see if you’ve been naughty or nice this year. Just don’t call him Santa Claus.

Happy Mikuláš!

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