Christmas in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands
The majority of Czech believers are Catholics. However compared to neighboring Poland or Slovakia, Czechs are rather lukewarm in their faith. And Christmas traditions in this part of the world are a colourful mix of Christian and pagan rites.
I meet Ilona Vojancová on a greyish December day, for a walk among some fine, well-preserved wooden cottages in a part of the National Open- Air Museum. Ms. Vojancová is an ethnologist and explains that this part of rural Czechia has always been economically weaker than the rest of the country. Closeness to nature and hard living conditions made people superstitious and rather suspicious of the official religious authority which, in this part of Europe, was represented mainly by the Catholic Church:
“People were lukewarm in their faith. Christianity and Catholicism did find a positive response in some villages, there were quite a lot of Protestants and also some marginal religious groups, for example, Spiritism was quite widespread. In the folk customs, we find many traditions that are based on pre-Christian rituals. There were so-called Slavic carnivals, where the locals would march and dance through the villages wearing various masks, some of them animal masks. Those processions around Hlinsko are really unique and they were even inscribed on the UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2010. These carnival processions that survive to this day are full of pre-Christian ideas of influencing nature, the fertility of both the land and people. They show how strongly-rooted these pre-Christian traditions and ideas were and how long the local population kept them alive.”
These pagan traditions were incorporated into the customs and ceremonies approved by the Catholic Church:
“We have been conducting continuing research into the folk customs during the time of Advent and Christmas. We found out that especially in the past, people in this region kept alive many traditions that were not very compatible with the official Christian Church line, that Advent should be a time of quiet contemplation, spiritual preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ. For example, there were Saint Nicholas processions that again included masks of animals or some human caricatures. These characters enacted short humourous scenes. So it was not just about the Saint Nicholas tradition of giving gifts to well-behaved children. There were masks and activities that had little to do with Christianity and were connected to the old Slavic carnivals.
Ilona Vojancová points out that this pagan element is present in nearly all Christian holidays. But here in the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, its presence was more visible:
“Christmas itself has roots in the pre-Christian celebration of the return of the light. It was always a turning point in the dark winter season. So, our ancestors eagerly anticipated the Christmas Eve dinner long before they accepted Christianity as their faith. The Catholic Church just added the celebration of the birth of our Saviour, reformulated the original celebration of the return of the light into the symbolic birth of new hope for humankind. But what remained the same was the strong belief of ordinary people, that what happened especially on Christmas Eve could potentially positively influence their lives in the coming year.”
While the habit of Christmas gift-giving appeared in the first half of the 19th century in the wealthier parts of Western Europe, it took decades for it to come to the Highlands of Czechia:
“Based on our research, we can say with certainty that the Christmas dinner was the main gift for our ancestors in the 19th century and even the beginning of the 20th century. It was a common habit to invite a traveller to the dinner table if he happened to pass through the village. There were special gifts not just for the domestic animals, but also for trees in people’s orchards, streams or springs. Leftovers from the dinner table were left near them. All this was a part of a broader ritual of giving presents, being generous.”
“It was only at the end of the 19th century that small gifts started appearing in households on Christmas Eve. But at first, they were for children only, and the tradition of gift-giving spread only very slowly before World War I. Children were at first given just some sweets or delicacies, gradually they started getting practical gifts such as gloves, writing tablets for school and so on. And only during the first decades of the 20th century, gifts for adults appeared as well.”
The tradition of decorated Christmas trees also came later to the villages of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands:
“The custom of decorating a Christmas tree came to this region gradually and it took longer. In the village cottages in the Highlands Christmas trees started appearing rather randomly at the end of the 19th century and the tradition only took hold in the first part of the 20th century. It was first embraced by aristocratic and wealthy urban families and only later did it spread among the common folk. However, bringing green plants and even small trees inside homes was not new to the local people. They had been doing so in celebration of new life. The most common Christmas tree was a spruce, usually just a small tree that would not be missed in the forest.”
Some of the peculiar Christmas customs remained deeply rooted well into the 20th century and are still observed by some families today:
“The head of the family would cut an apple into as many pieces as there were people around the table and handed them out to each and every one of them. They would then eat their part of the apple. They believed that if they lost their way somewhere away from home in the next year, all they needed to do was to remember all the other people who were sharing the Christmas Eve dinner with them and they would find the way home. It was also believed that this ceremony would help the family to stay together.”