Czech Christmas traditions
I have many memories from my childhood celebrating Christmas. In Czech Christmas is celebrated on the day of 24 th of December. The whole month of December is filled with unique Christmas atmosphere.
The first tradition that Czech people keep is the visit from St. Nicholas. Children call him Mikuláš. On the evening of December 5th, Mikuláš is eagerly awaited by many little children. He wears long, white robe with red overthrow. Golden cross decorates the front and back. His long white hair are crowned with a pointy, tall hat, decorated with golden and red cross. St. Nicholas is usually accompanied by an angel and a devil (representation of good and evil) . This trio goes to visit families with children, and brings them baskets of goodies. While St. Nicholas lovingly visits with the children, and asks for a favorite song or a poem, the devil lets his presence to be known. The clinking of his chain, stomping on the floor, and making fierce sounds usually frightens the children. He is the one who asks if they were good or bad ,and is ready to hand out black coal to those who didn’t behave, instead of a goodie basket. The angel steps in and shuns the devil aside, while she embraces the child and calms him down. The children look forward to this holiday. If St. Nicholas couldn’t personally visit them, they look forward finding a basket of goodies left for them behind their window the next morning.
As Christmas approaches, the households are busy with many preparations. Baking Christmas cookies is one of them. This is a beautiful tradition that involves everybody in the family. Czechs usually make about 6 or more different kinds of cookies. These are not just any cookies, it takes a lot of patience and talent to create these little works of art.
Cookies were also made for decorations. Gingerbread cutouts decorated with Royal frosting and red ribbon, would be hung on the Christmas tree. In olden days when money was scarce, people used their creative ideas to decorate Christmas trees with traditional handmade ornaments. Decorations made out of flour water and vinegar would make beautiful, tree ornaments, candlestick holders, or door and wall hangings. These decorations are called Vizovické Pečivo.
Another traditional decorations were made out of straw. This beautiful, golden material would be used to create most exquisite decorations , that would last for many years. People would gather wheat left behind the harvest, tied it in bunches and hang them in the attic or barn. The wheat was stripped of all leafs and soaked in water to provide flexibility while weaving these incredible ornaments.
It has been a long time kept tradition where chocolate and candies wrapped in a foil and hung on the tree. These treats were then eaten during the holidays.
Before electric lights, candles would provide the beautiful light up atmosphere. Candles would be inserted into to a special clip and then attached to the branches. Dried fruit and nuts would also beautifully decorate the tree.
At the beginning of December people would either purchase or make an Advent wreaths. These wreaths are usually made out of thin branches from any pine tree, decorated with pine cones, dried berries dried fruit and holly leaves. On the wreath would be four candles. Every Sunday of the month of December, people would light one of the candles, and on the fourth Sunday or Christmas Eve they would light all four at once.
Few days before Christmas people would buy traditional fish ( farm-raised young Carp) for their Christmas dinner. It seems that every store has this fish available for people to buy. These creatures are kept in giant, wooden barrels, filled with water. The customer simply points to the fish he desires, and requests a certain preparation. You may ask to keep the fish alive. Bring it home and place it in a bucket of water until you are ready to use it. This is a fun way for families with children. Whole fish, half or simply fillet it. The fish is cleaned, striped of the scales, cut into slices, seasoned, breaded, and finally deep-fried. The fish is served with traditional Czech potato salad. To add variety of meat some families also make breaded pork – Řízky
Many people keep the tradition of fasting from meat until dinner. Some families have lentils with hard-boiled egg for lunch. This tradition promises to the children, that they will be able to see a reflection of Golden pig in the mirror. It seems that Czechs are very superstitious, and so these are some of the traditions that have been passed on for many generations. When people eat their Christmas dinner, they make sure that all the food and drinks, and everything they need for dinner is at hand. The tradition is that no one is allowed get up from the table until the very last person is finished. This brings the superstition that if this ritual is broken, someone in the family will die within a year. For better luck the hostess places three small scales from the fish underneath each plate. It should bring financial luck in the upcoming year. After the dinner is finished the family will go to see the Christmas tree. Ježíšek ( baby Jesus) imagined as an angel, brings presents through the window and lights up the tree. At least that is what the Children believe. The presents are given, and opened that evening. After everybody opens their presence it’s time for more traditions.
Let’s start with the tradition of predicting the future for the upcoming year. The family members create little boats out of walnut shells. The nut is carefully split in half and emptied of the entire nut. Little candle is fastened in the middle of the shell with the help of melted wax. Each member of the family chooses their boat. All the boats are placed as a group in a big bowl of water. Once the candles are lit, the boats will start moving on their own. Everybody watches the movement of the boats. Made up stories are told of where one is going to be that year.
Another tradition is cutting the apples. Each member of the family receives an apple, which they will cut in half horizontally. The Apple will either show a beautiful star, which brings happiness and good health for the next year. If the center shows a cross somebody will get sick or die.
One of the older traditions involve melting lead, which is then poured into icy cold water. Different shapes will be formed and members are to guess what they resemble. It could also be done with melted wax. Czechs have many traditions, and it is fun to keep them, and also pass them on to the next generations. This country has strong Catholic roots, and so the evening ends with going to the midnight mass, no matter your religion or faith. It’s the atmosphere that brings people together, and ends the beautiful holiday.
Easter is the second most celebrated holiday in Czech Republic. This holiday brings many traditions, that are kept by generations after generations. About two to tree weeks before Easter, people would go and gather branches from cherry trees, pussy willows, and young birches. These branches are kept in vases with water. Pretty soon they will sprout new leafs and blossoms, which brings the spring into the house sooner.
Decorating Easter eggs plays a tremendous role in celebrating Easter. This job usually falls on the girls and women. There are many traditional techniques that are used to decorate Easter eggs. Overall there are about four basic techniques that well represent Czech artistic culture. First technique uses pieces of straw cut into different shapes, which are then assembled into unique patterns and glued on the Easter egg. Because straw has a golden color, eggs are usually died in deeper tones of red, brown, black, blue, and green, to show a contrast between the straw and the background.
Second technique is decorating the Easter eggs with melted wax, applied with the help of a glass head pin. This technique is very beautiful and can be painted with colored wax or white on darker color background.
Third technique is drawing symbolic designs or spring motives with black ink on white egg. Later then colored with paints.
The fourth technique is applying paint in traditional patterns originating from a region called Chodsko. These patterns are used also on pottery, costumes, furniture, or houses.
These techniques would be usually applied on to hollowed eggs. Decorated eggs would be then displayed for decoration. Some would hung on the branches in your vase, or tied into a wreath, or placed in a container with sprouted wheat.
The men are also busy with preparations for Easter with making traditional whips made out of thin willow branches. These whips are called “ Pomlásky”. The branches are soaked in the water, and braided together in many different ways using between three to 12 branches. On Easter morning the men and boys visit the girls and gently whip them. This tradition is used to pass on the youth and health from the young branches to the girls that they may be healthy, happy, and hard working. Afterwards the girls tie a ribbon on top of their whips, and give them one of their eggs. The next morning girls have to repay their respects to the boys. Poring cold water on the boy’s to give them youthfulness and health will do the trick.
Even though each region may celebrate Easter differently they are all familiar with traditional Easter meals. From baking sweet bread filled with raisins and nuts called “Mazanec”. Coffee cake in the shape of a lamb representing the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Sweet rolls twisted in the not, representing the rope on which the apostle Judah hung himself after betraying the Savior, or Easter meat pie called ”Velikonoční nádivka”. The more modern tradition of Easter Bunny bringing basket of goodies to the children, is also kept.