Even though Christmas is celebrated in many different countries, the traditions are a bit different in each one. So let's get into a festive mood and while we wait up on "Ježíšek" to bring us gifts, while reading a bit more about a what a traditional Czech Christmas means! As far as I've heard, some of them are considered "weird" by many foreigners, but let me tell you a secret - the Czechs don't care. We love our Christmas just the way they are, with everything included: Christmas carols, classical fairy tales on TV and fried carp with potato salad. Yum!
In order to make the enless waiting for Christmas Eve and gifts from Ježíšek (Czech version of Santa) a little bit easier (and I suspect to also avoid the endless questions like "And when will Ježíšek be here"), children get an advent calendar in the beginning of December. The calendar has 24 windows with one little chocolate or some other treat for one day of waiting.
In the evening of 5th of December, there is the first pre-Christmas joy. St. Nicholas (Svatý Mikuláš), usually accompanied by an angel and a devil, brings good kids candy and fruit. The trio is usually played by either some relatives or family friends, or by students who want to earn some money. So don't be surprised if you see several in the same place, it's normal. Children usually recite a poem or sing a song for Mikuláš. Sometimes kids who haven't been behaving well get a raw potato or a piece of charcoal as a small warning, along with candy.
Every larger city has a Christmas market. There is a Christmas tree in the main square, lights are shining, children are singing Christmas carols and the atmosphere is full of peace as you sip the mulled wine or hot mead...
Carp and potato salad
Yes, a traditional Czech Christmas meal is a carp (a freshwater fish). The carps are sold alive at stands and you can either have it killed there or take it home alive. I myself don't know anybody who does that, but some people actually keep the carp alive in their bathtub, and kill it themselves on the 24th. The carp should be battered and fried. Many people don't like it and eat other fish, such as salmon or trout, or have a Wiener schnitzel instead. However, you should have a carp's scale in your wallets, so that you'll have a lot of money.
Although every family has their own special recipe, a traditional potato salad is supposed to contain mayonnaise and gherkins. I warn you, never get involved in a discussion about what should or shouldn't be in a potato salad, the Czechs can talk about this for hours without reaching a compromise! Yep, potato salad is a big thing!
Another important part of a Czech Christmas are Christmas cookies (cukroví). Women with the help with children start baking them in the beginning of December. In some families there seems to be a running battle of who's going to have more different sorts!
The most important figure of a Czech Christmas is Ježíšek, baby Jesus. Yes, it's baby Jesus who brings gifts in the Czech Republic and puts them underneath the Christmas tree. And he brings them in the evening of 24th December which is called Štědrý večer (meaning "Generous Evening"), so no getting up at 6 am and opening your gifts in pyjamas. Normally, people don't go in the room with the Christmas tree until, some time after diner, a bell rings, announcing that Ježíšek has been there. It's one of the family members who rings the bell, but children are left to believe that it was Ježíšek. They figure it out anyway once they're old enough, but it's still nice to pretend. Baby Jesus is the best!
Midnight Mass and the echoes of Christmas
After diner and gift giving, many people go to the church to attend the Midnight Mass, or watch it on TV. Then, after midnight, people go to bed so that they will have enough energy for the next two days. What? You thought Christmas was over? Oh no, not yet. The next two days are bank holidays and are usually spent with more distant relatives, eating more food and cookies. Sometimes the children get presents from their relatives on these days as well (we say that Ježíšek has left them there).
Are you looking forward to a Czech Christmas now? We sure hope so!
Veselé Vánoce a bohatého Ježíška!
(Pictures from sxc.hu and wikimedia commons)