Christmas Eve in the Czech lands: fasting, feasting and fairytales

'Tři oříšky pro Popelku'

Veselé Vánoce! It’s Christmas Eve, traditionally the most important day for Czechs in this holiday season of good cheer. It is on this day that Christmas presents are exchanged – left under the tree by Ježíšek (the Baby Jesus) – following a meal of fried carp and potato salad. Known as Štědrý den, or “generous day”, December 24 is traditionally a day for fasting before feasting (in that no meat is served). And for generations of Czechs, it is also a time for enjoying televised fairytales about princes and paupers, damsels and devils.

Over the past half century, fairytales on film have become even more of an essential part of a Czech Christmas than is, say, The Nutcracker ballet for much of the English-speaking world. While all peoples have their folk tales and legends, from the Arabian Nights to the Brothers Grimm and Walt Disney, in few cultures have fairytales such an honoured and beloved a place as they in the hearts of Czechs, certainly at Christmas time.

Jiří Chalupa,  photo: Czech Television

Why Czechs love their fairytales so much is not an easy question to answer, says dramaturg Jiří Chalupa, who has written a dozen fairytales for Czech Television over the past few decades.

“I guess we’re just that kind of nation! There is a strong storytelling tradition here and fairytales, of course, are a part of that. They represent a certain idealism and ‘ageless’ wisdom which people continue to enjoy. Simply put, fairy tales are about finding ‘Good’. They represent the belief that everything will work out in the end.”

In today’s Christmas Eve programme, we give listeners a taste of the fairytales Czechs love best — classics in which the human comedy, along with elaborate set designs and fanciful songs, take centre stage.

Many are adaptations of traditional folk tales and made during the 1950s, a troublesome time for Czechoslovakia, and perhaps not by coincidence, the undisputed golden age of the fairytale film genre, as people yearned for a bit of escapism.

Among them are two based on works by the early 19th century writer Božena Nemcová, known as the “mother of Czech literature”: Pyšná princezna (The Proud Princess), about a young royal sorely in need of a dash of humility, the most visited domestic film ever to screen in Czech cinemas, and Tři oříšky pro Popelku, a musical take on Cinderella from the 1970s. The third is the 1959 classic Princezna se zlatou hvezdou (The Princess with a Gold Star), the third-most popular in history.

'The Proud Princess',  photo: Czech Television

Jiří Chalupa says successful fairytales have a timeless quality and a strong moral sense and Czech fairytales remain rooted in that tradition. So, while new productions have undeniably been modernised – featuring contemporary language, more dynamic shooting styles and faster editing – the traditional story elements remain largely unchanged.

“I’m a big fan of humour in fairytales, especially those made today for TV. In the 1980s and early 1990s, some new productions introduced certain darker philosophical elements. And I can tell you, it didn’t work!

“Nobody wants that in their fairytales: adult viewers want something that reminds them of films they saw in their childhood, and their kids want something fun which they can understand. Humour and wisdom are what make any good fairytale successful.”

Czech Television debuts a new fairytale every Christmas Eve, as do the commercial stations. This year, the public broadcaster is premiering O vánoční hvězdě (A Christmas Star), the story of a celestial being named Denička knocked out of the sky by her jealous rival Proxima.

Director Karel Janák, a seasoned hand at the genre, says in his latest film, he was inspired by a Czech illustrator perhaps best known abroad through the classic novel The Good Soldier Švejk.

“We wanted to evoke an old Czech holiday season of the type found in the pictures of Josef Lada, so that it looks like the most ‘Christmas-y’ Christmas possible. That would not be possible without snow! So, we risked it and went to the foothills of the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. And it snowed!”