Christmas in Prague: Czech Christmas Traditions
Here in Prague, tradition runs deep. It’s part of what makes the city so special at this time of year.
There’s the stunning Christmas tree in Old Town Square, which is shipped from northern mountains and lit with thousands of twinkling lights in a ceremony each year. There’s the handmade souvenirs of the holiday markets, like wooden toys, glassware, and embroidered lace, which recall decades worth of Czech history. Even the Czech traditional Christmas dinner—fried carp—dates back to the 18th century, when it represented the only meal cheap enough for the entire country to eat.
Really, there’s no better time to get your fill of Czech tradition than during the holidays, and in this month’s issue, we’re doing just that. Those age-old customs range from feasting on carp to fasting in the hopes of seeing a vision of the lucky golden pig (zlaté prasátko)—and don’t worry, by the end of this issue, we’ll explain them all. Prague’s world-famous Christmas markets are a wintry marvel every visitor should see, and we’ve put together a guide to all the hits, from Old Town Square and its 31-meter Christmas tree to the nearby smoked meat stalls at Náměstí Republiky.
The Czech phrase for Christmas Eve, Štědrý den, translates to “Generous Day,” making December also the month of giving back. It’s not hard to do in a place like Prague, where dozens of local creatives are crafting quality goods, all part of this month’s gift guide.
But Prague wouldn’t be the revolution-born city it is without people willing to push the boundaries of tradition. It’s fitting that New Year’s comes so soon after Christmas—as much as the holidays are a time of appreciating the traditions we’ve built, it’s also a time to look ahead to the history we want to make ourselves.
Going into the new year, you can find us wandering the stalls at the Christmas markets, sipping svařák, and frying our carp, and we hope you’ll join us. Here’s a few of the dates to remember in the coming weeks ahead!
Svatý Mikuláš (St. Nicholas Day)
Look out for December 5th, a holiday known to English-speakers as St. Nicholas Day. In the U.S., this holiday is celebrated in some families by an elf who puts candy in children’s shoes overnight. In Ireland it is recognized with a mass. The Czechs have a slightly different, and scarier way of celebrating. Widely recognized and practiced across the country, this holiday is completely separate from Christmas, when St. Nick (a.k.a St. Mikuláš) doesn’t even appear. In the evening, children wait for St. Mikuláš to arrive at their front door accompanied by an angel and one, sometimes two, devils. The mythological guests then ask the children how they behaved that year, and unlike the American Santa Claus, the costumed guests (often friends of the children’s parents) know the answer. They may even ask the children to sing or recite poetry. Good children will receive a basket of presents containing candies and fruit. Bad children might receive a lump of coal.
Štědrý den (Christmas Eve)
Christmas Eve is the main day for celebration in the Czech Republic and when most families gather together. During the day, families decorate their Christmas tree with glass ornaments or the less expensive straw decorations. After sunset a large dinner is served that often contains fish soup, fried carp and potato salad. Leading up to Christmas, markets often have large tanks full of carp. Families select their carp from a large tank and let the storekeeper do the filleting himself.
Unlike many other Germanic and English-speaking countries, it’s baby Jesus (Ježíšek) who brings Christmas presents for the children. Families eat in a different room than the Christmas tree, and during dinner baby Jesus will magically put gifts under it. As dinner finishes, a bell might ring signalling that the gifts have arrived and children will rush off to open them.
In the evening, religious families often go to midnight mass.
Boží hod vánoční (Christmas Day/Feast of the Nativity)
Christmas Day is more low-key here. When Czechs think of Christmas, they typically think of December 24th. The day after is still recognized, however, and families will spend it winding down and visiting the side of the family they did not see on Christmas Eve.
Sv. Štěpán (Saint Stephen’s Day)
Historically, St. Stephen’s Day (Sv. Štěpán) was a day when the poor children, students and even teachers would go to people’s homes singing Christmas carols. More recent, the tradition of jumping into a cold lake or river has been come popular. If you want to watch (or participate), it normally happens in Prague near the National Theatre.