Czech carols from Christmas past and present

Photo: Julia Freeman-Woolpert / Stock.XCHNG

Christmas is not Christmas without music, and on this occasion we will be sharing with you some of the rich spirit and history of Czech carols, some from Christmas past and some from Christmas present.

Photo: Julia Freeman-Woolpert / Stock.XCHNG
Today’s programme is primarily musical – you can listen by clicking the arrow on the gray player on this page.

The Czech word for carol, “koleda”, is shared in Polish and Slovak, and apparently it comes from the Latin word for the first day of the month, Calendae, probably because for ancient Slavs, and many others, the day following the winter solstice at the end of December was the first day not only of a new month but of the new year, and it was an occasion for celebration and, thereby, singing. As Christianity absorbed these traditions, carols, or “firsts” were sung not only at Christmas but also on St. Stephan’s Day, New Year’s Day, on the Epiphany on January 6 (“Three Kings” day in Czech) and on until the largely forgotten holiday of Candlemas on February 2. Just as the pagan priests had walked among the houses of their communities and offered prayers on that first day of the new year, so Christian priests toured their parishes offering blessings in song and accepting gifts in return.

Some of the oldest surviving Czech Christmas comes from the Hussite era in the 15th and 16th centuries, and that was also when Czech became more widely used for such music as it came to be heard in the markets, taverns, the palaces of noblemen and of course monasteries of the Late Middle Ages.

Speaking in English about Czech carols, we could hardly overlook a famous connection – one of the best known Christmas carols in the English speaking world, which tells the story of the Czech Patron St. Václav, or Wenceslas. The “Good King Wenceslas” carol that we know today is not of Czech origin – the tune in fact comes from a 16th century book of Latin songs discovered in Finland. The 19th century English text however repeats a tale of the Czech patron saint Václav, who was said to have risen in the night in his bare feet and visited the poor and even the prisoners to give them alms. That story that goes back to before the 11th century, but it was known the English clergyman John Mason Neale in 1853, thanks to his knowledge of Czech literature.

Another Christmas hallmark known in the English speaking world does come from the Czech carolling tradition. The tune in English is called Come All Ye Shepherds, in Czech Nesem Vám noviny, “We bring you news”, in both cases a celebration of the announcement of the birth of Christ.

They have not stopped making Christmas music nowadays, either. This programme will take you through some of the newest manifestations of Czech Christmas music, beginning with Jaromír Nohavica.

We wish you a merry Christmas and the happiest of new years.