Highlights of a Czech Christmas

Christmas is knocking on our doors

Since my first Christmas in Prague a decade ago, I’ve spent some time comparing a Czech Christmas to Christmases I know from the US. Although I miss caroling door-to-door, waking early to find stockings at the fireplace and eating sausage casserole in my pajamas, I have come to cherish some of the Czech symbols and rituals that seemed strange to me years ago.

Surprising a friend with a gift of mistletoe, baking Christmas sweets like “wasp’s nests” and “paws” and watching my children’s delight at decorating our Christmas tree with edible chocolate candies, I have welcomed Czech traditions into my family’s blended holiday.

Painted mistletoe

Called jmelí in Czech, you can find this evergreen plant at any garden shop or Christmas market during the Advent season. Although you can buy the natural green version, Christmas mistletoe is also sold painted in glittery hues of silver or gold. Mistletoe is hung in Czech houses, usually on a chandelier or put in a vase as a table decoration.

With roots in Celtic and Nordic mythology, mistletoe is thought to bring good fortune and ward off evil spirits. There is no shortage of mistletoe living in deciduous trees like apple and willow along rural roads in the Czech countryside, so if you are up for a challenge, you can collect your own.

Czechs say that mistletoe is lucky only when you receive it as a gift and not when you buy it for yourself. So, if you’re invited to a Czech holiday dinner, bring your host or hostess a bundle of mistletoe. It’s up to you whether you try for the kiss or not.

Carp in the bathtub

You might wonder why fish tanks are set up in town squares and markets several days before Christmas. In a tradition dating back to the middle ages, the main course at dinner on December 24 is breaded and fried kapr (carp), usually served with potato salad.

Christmas carp are harvested from manmade fish ponds in Bohemia and kept alive in aerated tanks until they are purchased. Although it’s possible to pay a fishmonger to butcher, behead, descale and gut the carp for you (each step is an additional cost), the carp are traditionally purchased alive. The fish is kept in a family’s bathtub, much to the delight of the children of the house and the chagrin of whichever adult didn’t make the purchase. For my children, the Christmas carp is one of their favorite parts of the Czech holiday, even though they don’t like the taste of the cooked fish.

One year, our carp died unexpectedly on Christmas morning after living happily in our bathtub for several days. My husband raced to a store that still had live carp so he wouldn’t have to fess up to the children. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded eating a substitute. However, keeping the ritual has given the children first-hand knowledge of where our Christmas dinner comes from as well as an excuse to get out of bathing before Christmas. Visit the Trebon fish ponds to see the magnitude of the carp industry in the Czech Republic.

Carp scales in your wallet

In tandem with the tradition of eating carp for Christmas dinner, Czech superstition says that each family member should receive a cleaned scale from the Christmas carp to carry in his wallet throughout the following year to bring good luck and wealth. Even if you have your carp butchered and cleaned by a professional, don’t be shy about asking for a few scales for luck.

Seeing a golden piglet

In the Czech Republic, Christmas dinner is eaten on the evening of December 24, known as Štědrý Den or “generous” day. According to legend, those who fast on Christmas Day will see a zlaté prasátko (golden pig) at midnight. It is common for both atheists and believers to hold the fast. Some Czech families prepare a light lunch called kuba, a baked casserole made from mushrooms, barley, onions and spices. I’m not clear if eating kuba counts as breaking the fast or not, but since no one I’ve ever spoken with has seen a golden pig, I’d recommend sampling all the tasty foods that are offered to you on Christmas Day.

When I asked my grade school English students to draw symbols of a Czech Christmas, several students drew a pig. Unfortunately, they weren’t any better than their parents were at explaining why Czechs use this symbol at Christmas, but they did learn how to say “golden” in English.

Hanging chocolate & lighted candles on the Christmas tree

The Christmas tree used to be decorated on December 24 by the adults in the household as a Christmas surprise for the children. Today, many families still leave their tree on the balcony until just before Christmas. In the past, trees were decorated with handmade ornaments, gingerbread cookies, chocolate candies and lighted with real candles. Although the candle tradition has been slowly replaced by strands of electric lights, I know a few families who still use real candles. For the old-fashioned look without the fire hazard, you can buy strands of electric candles to clip on to tree branches.

Hanging assorted chocolates wrapped in shiny aluminum is another Christmas tree decorating ritual. Gift boxes of chocolate tree decorations are sold by brands like Orion or Figaro. Of course, the best part is eating chocolate from the tree later on when no one’s watching.

Attending midnight mass

In the Czech Republic, midnight mass is a church service held at midnight on December 24. One year, my husband and I visited the mass with neighbors. I was surprised to find the church nearly filled with village goers, especially since the country is largely atheist. I don’t claim to have understood much that the priest said, but I liked the listening to the hymns. The ritual of leaving our house after the meal and gift-giving had finished and being awake in the stillness of the night struck me as particularly refreshing. Dress warmly since chapels aren’t usually well heated.

Ježíšek (Baby Jesus)

The other day I heard my five-year-old son describing a red-faced, plump character on a box of chocolates as Ježíšek (baby Jesus). He was corrected by his brother who told him that it was Mikuláš (St. Nicholas). My daughter chimed in and corrected them both – the old man on the box was Santa Claus, she declared, pointing out a red sleigh and reindeer.

With host of characters including angels, devils, St. Nicholas, and even Santa and his reindeer appearing on the modern Czech Christmas scene, it’s no wonder that kids get confused by who’s who.

Unlike St. Nicholas or Santa, there is no distinct physical presence attributed to Baby Jesus’s personality, although he alone plays a starring role in the December 24 gift-giving. At some point after Christmas dinner, the family gathers in one room, usually watching fairytales on television. After a while, a bell sounds and everyone returns to the Christmas tree. Presents have appeared. In the past, the candles on the Christmas tree were also said to be lighted by baby Jesus.

Some children imagine baby Jesus as a curly-haired boy who flies in through an open window to deliver presents. When my students drew Christmas symbols, one third-grader puzzled over his paper. He finally draw a circle of light. When I asked him to explain he said, “It’s what I see when Ježíšek comes.”

Czech Christmas sweets

After Christmas dinner, there is no figgy pudding, unless you count apple strudel. However, most Czechs pass around Christmas sweets. Popular versions include perníčky (gingerbread cookies), which are made weeks in advance so the cookies can soften in time to eat them. Linecké sušenky are a light, two-layer wafer cookie filled with jam. A third favorite is called vanilkové rohlíčky, sharing the same name as the famous Czech bread rolls. Rohlíčky are vanilla-flavored crescent-shaped cookies made with crushed pecans, almonds or hazelnuts and dusted in confectioner’s sugar.

When I asked my adult students what their family’s favorite Christmas sweets were, they named the varieties above, plus such delicacies as vosí hnízda (wasp’s nests or beehives) a cone shaped dough filled with egg liquor, and medvedi tlapky (bear paws), a two-sided cookie shaped like a paw dusted with sugar or dipped in chocolate.

Although baking holiday sweets is traditionally a Czech woman’s job, I grew up with a father who made many of our Christmas sweets. It seemed logical to include my husband in the process, especially for the Czech recipes. When I tell Czechs friends that it’s my husband, not me, who decorates our gingerbread cookies and presses out shapes for the linecké sušenky, they’re surprised. In return, I make a few American favorites like fudge and peanut butter balls to add to our sweet collection.

Whether this is your first Czech Christmas or your twentieth, may your family’s holiday be blessed with a mixture of symbols and rituals that make the days special this year.

Do you have a favorite Czech Christmas tradition to share? If so, please contact us.

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