Wishing someone a merry or happy Christmas in the Czech language is ‘Veselé Vánoce’ and like other European countries in the region, celebrations start early in December. St. Nicholas Eve is marked in the Czech Republic as the evening of 5th December when children eagerly wait with excitement for Svatý Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) to arrive. He is said to normally arrive with one or more angels and one or more devils and asks the children if they’ve been good all year. He also asks the children to read a poem or sing a song before bestowing on them a present of a basket, usually containing fruit and chocolate. However, if you’ve been naughty, the devil will give you a lump of coal instead. St. Nicholas Eve, although falls in the run-up to Christmas, the two festive days are considered as separate holidays
The actual Christmas celebrations in the Czech Republic, start on Christmas Eve and is called Štědrý den or ‘Generous Day’. Traditional Czech Christmas ornaments will decorate the Christmas tree and preparations are made for a festive dinner, one that fills the table.
Some people will fast for the day with a hope to see a vision of ‘the golden piglet’ or zlaté prasátko on the wall before dinner. If it is seen it is said this is a sign of good luck.
During the Christmas Eve dinner- the children have their dinner in a separate room to where the Christmas tree is and in excitement wait to hear the bell on the tree ring. This sound means Ježíšek ‘Little Jesus’ (the Czech version of Christkindl) has brought the Christmas presents and placed them under the tree. As you would expect, the presents are opened after the dinner on Christmas Eve.
Christian services also take place in the Czech Republic and people go to the church either at midnight or on Christmas Day. Families will also engage in singing carols by the Christmas tree, in celebrating the festivity.
A tale, related to those that are single, goes if you throw a shoe over your shoulder on Christmas day and the toe of the shoe points towards the door then you will be married soon.
A personal story:
By Dena & Frank Grombir
Q1. What do you have for Christmas dinner?
As soon as the first star appears on the sky on Christmas Eve we start the dinner by saying grace and remembering that Jesus was born as a vulnerable child in complete poverty.
The table is laid with evergreens (symbolising life and hope), chocolate gold coins (prosperity), candles (light). We break Christmas wafers and share them with each other.
Then the broth-based soup is served of which there are many regional varieties, including fish, mushroom and vegetable and even sweet plum butter one. We follow Dena’s family tradition which is a thick white bean soup with egg noodles and root vegetables. For the main course, we have potatoe salad with breaded fish. The salad contains things such as carrots, parsnips, onions, pickled gherkins, salami, eggs and mayonnaise but each family have their own unique recipe. Many Czechs prepare carp or any other pond fish (obtained from the Christmas market and put in a bath tub for a few days before Christmas). In Huddersfield, carp can be ordered from any Polish shop but we have always eaten sea fish fillets in our house.
For those with a sweet tooth, there are always plenty of Christmas cookies at the end. These are baked during Advent and my mother-in-law makes as many as thirty different varieties!
The dinner is concluded by the singing of traditional Christmas carols. Their words and melody always provide a vivid reminder of our Moravian Czech heritage.
Q2. What is your fondest memories of Christmas?
The memories of Christmas overlap over the years but there is always a special Christmas sensation that survives in our hearts thanks to the traditions we keep alive. Most years, we travel to Czechia to spend Christmas with our extended family.
Our Christmas is enveloped in the smell of evergreen branches, lebkuchen spices, cinnamon apple strudel, sparklers and when we are lucky, we spend some time outdoors sledging.
When a member of the family fasts all day up until the Christmas Eve dinner, there is a chance that a golden piglet might appear to him on the wall. It usually comes in the form of reflected light on the wall coming from a mirror hidden in the hands of an adult under the table. Children chase the light and always fail to see where it is coming from. It is great fun for adults to watch.
Children are always full of excitement and hope that their behaviour was good enough to be rewarded with presents brought by baby Jesus. When he comes, he rings his little bell and the whole family sing Christmas carols to celebrate his symbolic arrival. Everyone then goes to the room with the Christmas tree to unwrap their presents.
The fondest memory – Life stopped and roads disappeared under an unusually thick layer of snow on the 24th December. Everything was peaceful and quiet in our little Moravian village. There was no need to clear the roads. Everyone was stocked up for Christmas and adults relished the prospect of having a few days off work. We enjoyed the fresh air, climbed on the first White Carpathian hill close to our house and sledged until we realised that we should save some energy for the evening festivities. Later that night, we climbed the hill again to attend midnight mass in the chapel that stands there.
Q3. What types of presents do you get from friends and family?
We have recently adopted the four things rule– something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read. This seems sensible in times when so much goes to waste and yet, ironically, there are so many others with little to eat and no money to spend on presents for their children. Christmas therefore gives us an opportunity to help out those in need.