Atheist or not, many Czechs attend Christmas Eve midnight mass

Tomáš Roule

Czechs have a reputation for being one of the most atheistic nations in Europe, but when it comes to Christmas, churches are packed. According to a survey conducted by the Median agency, about one quarter of the Czech population will be attending midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Ruth Fraňková spoke to Tomáš Roule of the Prague Archbishopric and asked him what brings so many Czechs to church at Christmas time.

“The population of the Czech Republic is 30 percent Catholic, if we talk about the figures on paper. I would think that for some of those Catholics the traditional Christmas mass, once a year, is their measure of identification with the institutional church. Plus you have people who view attendance of the mass as part of Christmas. I believe it is their effort to bring some spiritual dimension to the mostly material way of celebrating Christmas. ”

So you are saying that not all of the people that come to church are necessarily religious?

“They might be religious in their own way, without necessarily identifying themselves with the institutional church. In the present day the Church tries to meet this need of religiousness. The listeners might be familiar with the new custom of spreading the light of Bethlehem, which has become very popular. The Church also meets this need by having carols sung in the churches and playing the famous Czech Christmas mass by Jakub Jan Ryba and by not pushing religion too much down their throats.”

Is that idea reflected in the mass itself, in the themes addresses in the mass?

“Yes, I believe it is a great challenge for every priest having, once a year, a church packed with people. It is a great challenge to touch people’s lives and share a different message than the one saying that a nice Christmas is about expensive gifts, which may even bring some people into financial difficulties and some sort of depression, something that we experience every time before Christmas.”

On the other hand Czechs seem to be quite conservative. Around ten thousand people recently signed a petition calling for the preservation of the Czech Christmas tradition according to which it is Baby Jesus – not Santa -who brings the gifts at Christmas

“Only rightly so, because Santa Claus is a commercial figure really. I believe that trying to preserve these traditions and these values which have been passed on through many generations, something that doesn’t change that much, is only right.”