Czech Christmas at home and abroad


The highlight of the Christmas celebrations for Czechs is Christmas Eve, when families and friends gather for the traditional Christmas dinner of fried carp and potato salad, listen to Jakub Jan Ryba’s Christmas mass and open their presents. Vit Pohanka reports on the food and customs linked to the Czech Christmas, traditions that are observed not only in this country but by thousands of people with Czech roots abroad. 

On the main square of Žďár, a town of some 20,000 inhabitants, loudspeakers are playing the Czech Christmas Mass by composer Jakub Jan Ryba –an 18th century masterpiece that has survived to this day. The square is crowded with people enjoying the festive atmosphere at the local Christmas market.

You would think that the economic difficulties brought about first by the Covid pandemic and then the war in nearby Ukraine would make people think twice about spending on Christmas presents and other non-essential things. But, from what I see around me, Czechs are refusing to be deprived of the traditional Christmas festivities and good cheer.

Business is good at the wooden stalls where artisans are selling the traditional Christmas fare, and people are socializing and enjoying fresh pancakes, grilled sausages, hot chestnuts and mulled wine. In this town, surrounded by the picturesque hilly and forested landscape of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands, Christmas in 2022 looks to be as festive as any other in less troubled times.

Czechs enjoying Christmas cheer, but financially cautious

Photo: Malene Thyssen,  CC BY-SA 3.0

A poll by the Czech Banking Association shows that the typical Czech household plans to spend on average 13,000 crowns on Christmas presents this year. Although that sum is one thousand crowns more than a year ago, with inflation at close to 18 percent, in real terms it will buy them less. Czechs are also less willing to ask for credit, says the association’s spokesman Radek Šalša:

“Only 3 percent of people are planning to buy on credit. Last year it was 10 percent. It shows that Czech consumers are careful in this unstable economic situation.”

But that doesn't mean that Czechs are willing to give up their most cherished holiday of the year:

“They still want to enjoy Christmas. It is good that people are careful about their Christmas spending and do not want to get into debt. It is in line with our recommendations for caution.”

“Vanočka” – a Czech Christmas staple

One thing that no self-respecting Czech household will give up is the traditional Christmas sweet bread called “vanocka” . Magdalena Dobromila Rettigová was a Czech writer and socialite in the early 19th century. She wrote poetry, but only became truly famous when she published a legendary Czech cookbook, that has been reprinted dozens of times and forms the basis of modern Czech cuisine. Her Christmas bread or “vánočka” was, of course, included among the hundreds of other recipes:

“Knead some 160 grams of butter in about 2 liters of flour, add 100 grams of ground sugar, finely grated peel from one lemon, 30 grams of yeast, a little bit of salt, pour just enough milk to make tough dough and let it rise well. Meanwhile, prepare about 125 grams of raisins, cut 125 grams of sweet, steamed, and peeled almonds. Then put the dough on your working board well sprinkled with flour, add the raisins and almonds, mold them well and evenly into the dough. Cut the dough into nine pieces and roll them. Take the 4 largest, roll them into braids of the same length and braid them together laying them on baking paper into the cake base. Do the same with the three other pieces and place them on the lower braid, then repeat the procedure with the last two pieces. Tuck the ends nicely together, spread the whole cake with egg wash and let rise for at least an hour and a half. The cake must bake slowly and well throughout. Therefore, it might be a good idea to make two smaller cakes from the amount of dough mentioned above.”

Czech Christmas traditions thriving far from home

Iowa is one of the American states where many Czech and Slovak immigrants settled back in the 19th century. Their ancestors are eager to keep the customs of their home country alive even now in the third decade of the 21st century. Tom Slepička is the official Chef of the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids in the United States. He explains that “vánočka” is a kind of culinary center piece of Christmas in the old country:

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

“Vánočka is a braided bread. Czechs and Slovaks eat it for Christmas breakfast and on the following days. Other countries in Central Europe have a variety of this special pastry.”

And that includes Slovakia. Three decades have passed since the Velvet Divorce when Czechs and Slovaks decided to part and go their own ways. Although Czechoslovakia broke up into two independent states, Tom and his students show that the two nations are still very close and interested each other’s cuisine. Christmas recipes show that we have more common heritage than we realize.

On Christmas Eve, the vast majority of Czechs will sit down to the traditional main dish of fried fish, traditionally carp, and potato salad. In our family I am generally tasked with making the salad. When I did it for the first time, I realized that there are as many different recipes as there are cooks. Some people add eggs and salami, others use just cooked vegetables such as celery and carrots. So, what is Tom’s favorite?

“I must confess that in my potato salad I always use some mayonnaise. I like it to include a little bit of everything. But I do not use eggs or meat. Just various kinds of vegetables, including peas. Which is kind of funny: when I first presented my potato salad in the United States they said: ‘Aha, is this a pea salad?’ And I had to explain that it is essentially a potato salad and peas are just one of the ingredients. I can assure you, though, that my potato salad is pretty popular.”

Bethlehem in Pennsylvania brought the Christmas tree to America

“Leťs go together to Bethlehem” is one of the most popular Czech carols. It naturally refers to the town in the Holy Land where Christ was born. But let me take you now to another Bethlehem. You can find it in an industrial corner of Pennsylvania, and it was founded in 18th century by the Moravian Church, one of the oldest Protestant denominations established in Moravia, the eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. To escape counter-reformation they fled first to Germany and then set out for missionary work in Africa and America. LorriAnn Wukitsch is the President and CEO of Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites:

“They came to Bethlehem for two reasons. First, they were missionaries. Second, they wanted to spread the word of the Lord. Pennsylvania was not the first place where they settled. They first went to Georgia and they also founded Winston-Salem in North Carolina.”

Nevertheless, among the institutions that they established in Pennsylvania is a Moravian College with a big statue of the famous Czech philosopher and educator John Amos Comenius. They officially named the town Bethlehem on Christmas Eve 1741.

The city of Bethlehem later became an important industrial center, home to the Bethlehem Steel company, the second largest producer in the United States. The local population experienced hard times during the Great Depression of the 1930s and later in the 1990s, when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. Christmas celebrations have always been a kind of social glue that helped the community to overcome all its difficulties.

Bethlehem also has a valid claim as the first city in America where people started using trees as a symbol of Christmas. Although this claim is contested by Easton, another city in Pennsylvania where there was a significant German community, Wintherethur Museum, which specializes in decorations of American homes confirmed that the first Christmas tree appeared in Bethlehem, even though we might not recognize it as such today:

“It was a wooden skeleton with apples, evergreens and pine-cones attached. We still have this very modest ‘pyramid” Christmas Tree of 1747 with us. The argument of who had the first Christmas Tree is ongoing: was it Easton or was it Bethlehem? We can assure you: it was Bethlehem.”

Christmas spirit of goodwill and generosity strong despite economic woes

So, to sum it up, the economic situation this Christmas is not rosy. But Czechs still have plenty to be grateful for. The war in Ukraine and the wave of refugees who were forced to flee their homes and fear for their loved ones is ample proof of that. Czechia welcomed close to half a million Ukrainian refugees in the past year, mostly women with children. Even more of them came to Poland and Germany, but given the country’s population, the Czechs granted asylum to more Ukrainians than any other nation. In a way, this is a very real and concrete example of the fact that goodwill and generosity are still thriving among the Czech people. And, at the end of the day, it is the Christmas spirit that makes the holiday truly special.