The Christmas Market: a time-honoured tradition on Prague’s Old Town Square
Every year the start of Advent in late November sees the opening of traditional Christmas markets in the Czech capital, among the most popular the market on the city’s historic Old Town Square. Surrounded by famous medieval architecture, red-roofed stands, decorated with sprigs of evergreen, sell everything from hand-painted baubles to traditional nativity scenes. Open for more than a month, the market features daily programmes such as children’s workshops and concerts in the run-up to Christmas. It also offers a variety of refreshments - a draw not only for Czechs but also of course for visiting tourists.
After missing out last year, I was curious to have a look at the market. But before I did, I caught up with Petr Benáčan, the business director for Taiko - the company in charge of the market since 2004. He told me a bit about the market this year.
One Old Town Square tradition is of course the giant Christmas tree. Petr Benáčan told me more about where this year’s tree came from:
“It’s from Vrchlabí, in the mountains in the north, around 130 kilometres outside of Prague. I don’t know the exact name in English but it is an evergreen typical in the Czech Republic. It’s 17 years old and 22 metres tall.”
After talking to Petr, I head down to the market myself.
Not surprisingly, the atmosphere is similar to years before: assorted stands built around a main stage, and of course the tree. It does feel, well, Chistmasy and a number of visitors I was able to speak to, both young and old, agreed.
“Yes, we’re very excited. Natty, tell the man what you saw… yes the donkey. What did he say? Ee-Aw. Ee-Aw!”
Well, if kids visit for the animals, others such as Brits Bill and Carol, visiting from Croydon, near London, have other reasons. They tell me they know this market well from years past.
“We come here very often because my son works here and he married a Czech girl! So we’re over for another visit, for another week!”
And just ten days or so away from Christmas Eve, what are your impressions of the market?
“Well that’s why we come. If we don’t come for Christmas itself, we come for the market.”
Do either of you have a favourite food or drink for example?
“The mulled wine and the ham. Also, I really like the way they decorate the stalls up. The gingerbread is beautiful.”
Some younger Brits – in their twenties - are less enthusiastic about the wine and complain about the weather. But they also have a solution.
“We are going to drinking in about an hour. So that’ll be quite fun. It’s definitely drinking time.”
Well, the cold has finally settled in just weeks before Christmas, and it’s true that’s little comfort for the sellers. But it hasn’t dampened their spirits. Jan is a blacksmith who operates a small forge on the square, who loves what he does, having worked with metal, he tells me, since 1983. For him, without a market on the Old Town Square Christmas would not be complete:
“Always when the market is coming, people are happy they can pick up goods or just watch a demonstration of the craft.”
Today is rather a quiet day, but I imagine at the weekends it must get very busy.
What would you say is the most complicated item you can produce here?
“Metal flowers are probably the most complicated. But we enjoy it.”
Customers ringing bells from Jan’s stand remind me that it’s almost time to go, but not before a quick stop at one more stand selling Czech nativity scenes. The seller’s name is Magdalena:
“I am selling traditional items: everything is handmade and almost all of it is from southern Moravia. They are nativity scenes made mostly from corn leaves or straw. On the other hand, here is one made which features inside of a coconut.”
What’s your best-selling item?
“I would say it’s the coconut.”
A ‘coconut’ nativity scene is definitely not typical and well frankly more than little tacky, so oddly enough I decide to pass on that. Some other lucky buyer will no doubt be thrilled they picked up what was maybe the last one. Still, as Magdalena said, there were plenty of more traditional items to choose from.
“During the weekends. And also on Christmas Day the mayor of Prague will hand out a special mayoral soup – a traditional fish soup, which he hands out. And, also on Christmas Eve the Czech Philharmonic will play the traditional Czech Christmas mass by Jakub Jan Ryba. It’s a great thing to see and that’s an excellent time to visit.”
Photo: Kristýna Maková, Barbora Kmentová