Christmas is our favorite time of the year, especially here in the Czech Republic. If you’re visiting, you should probably be aware of the basics, and some of the more quirky Czech traditions. Christmas Eve is the main day of celebration – with a big family dinner and the opening of gifts, while Christmas Day is more low-key. Here’s all the ways Christmas time in the Czech Republic might differ from what you’re used to…
Darling, let’s scare the kids…
On December 5th, the eve of Saint Mikuláš Day (St. Nicholas Day), adults dressed as the saint, an angel and a devil wander the streets, visiting children and handing out presents. Children are asked if they have been good that year and they respond with a yes and a song or poem. Good children receive candies and fruits, bad children get a lump of coal or old potatoes. Horrible children are supposedly taken to hell by the Devil, so naturally children are terrified of the already scary-looking character. Although St. Nicholas looks similar to Santa Claus, he is actually based on the real-life patron saint of children and those in need. You’ll most likely see the three characters walking along the street; you can definitely find them in Old Town Square.
Happy Name Day, Adam and Eve!
Similar to a birthday, Name Days involve celebrating a day of the year that is associated with one’s given name. Homage is paid to those bearing the name of the first man and woman on December 24.
…and Speaking of Apples
During or after Christmas dinner, each person cuts an apple down the middle to see if it has a star, which means they will survive the next year, or a cross, which means they will die (luckily it’s almost impossible to get a cross).
Thanks for the gifts, Baby Jesus
Unlike most Germanic cultures, baby Jesus (Ježíšek) brings the presents, not Santa Claus. Gifts are delivered during dinner through an open window and the presents are left under the tree. Before you start picturing infant Jesus carrying in a kids bike, it should be noted that there are really no images associated with the diving being.
Prague’s Most Famous Tree
Every year, Old Town Square’s beautiful Christmas tree is selected from among 20 choices, none of which are in a public forest – this year’s tree comes from a private estate in Liberec. It’s a Smrk (Spruce) tree and is the tallest in recent years at 23 meters – it’s more than 60 years old!
Excuse me, there seems to be a carp in my bathtub…
The carp meal on Christmas Eve dates back to the 18th century when the fish was cheap enough to be a common traditional meal amongst all Czechs.
In more modern times, the fish were often kept living in the family bathtub in the days leading up to Christmas to filter out the dirty riverwater and for the amusement of the children. Live carp can still be purchased at many markets and processed on site for your refrigerator, or packed up and ready for your tub.
Seeing Golden Pigs
Looking for a bit of luck? Perhaps try the Czech tradition of fasting all day before the big Christmas dinner. Superstition has it that if you see a golden pig (zlaté prasátko), you’ll have good luck for the entire upcoming year.
First one to leave the dinner table dies…
It may sound like the plot from a murder mystery dinner, but it’s actually an old superstition. Once Christmas dinner begins, no one is allowed to leave the table until everyone finishes and can all stand up together to go and open presents. The first person to leave the table is said to be the first to die in the new year.
More Christmas Ways to Die
Superstition and fortune-telling seem to surround the traditional Czech Christmas, foretelling not just upcoming success, but also impending death.
Families put a candle in a walnut shell and watch where the walnut boat floats, which provides a prediction for the upcoming year – once again including death as one of the many outcomes. Other superstitions include pouring molten lead into water and reading the shapes to determine your fate in the upcoming year.
St. Stephen’s and Chill
A more recent Czech tradition, which takes place on Svátek svatého Štěpána (St. Stephen’s Day), involves jumping into a freezing cold lake or river. In Prague, you can join the plunge into the Vltava by the National Theatre. We’d recommend bringing your own towel and a bottle of slivovice.