Czech Christmas traditions explained, from Ježíšek to the Golden Pig

Photo: John Nyberg / freeimages

Veselé Vánoce! A very Merry Christmas to you all from Radio Prague! In today’s special programme we explore how the holiday is traditionally celebrated here in the Czech lands.

Photo: John Nyberg / freeimages
As in neighbouring Slovakia and elsewhere in central Europe, the 24th of December, Christmas Eve is in fact the main event – the most important day in the season of glad tidings, and indeed of the whole church year – rather than Christmas Day itself.

Here in the Czech lands, presents are also exchanged and opened on Christmas Eve rather than on the Christmas Day or Boxing Day. And children are told that the gifts themselves are brought by the Baby Jesus – Ježíšek – rather than jolly old St. Nick, Father Christmas or Santa Claus.

Presents are opened after the holiday meal, which traditionally comes after a day of fasting and consists of carp and potato salad. In the days before radio, families would sing Christmas Carols together after all the presents had been unwrapped. Small children would be put to bed, and many adults would go to a midnight mass.

With the help of my Radio Prague colleagues – the “Hosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future”, if you will – I’ll be delving into the history behind these and other traditions, not least the food, sweets and music. We’ll also be learning about superstitions long associated with the holiday in Bohemia and Moravia and some more modern customs, such as watching televised fairy tales together as a family.

Jakub Jan Ryba’s “Christmas Mass”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
But first, you’d be hard pressed to find a Czech who doesn’t associate the season with composer Jakub Jan Ryba’s pastoral classic “Christmas Mass”. Written in 1796, it is the most popular piece of Czech Christmas music ever written.

At this time of the year, it resounds in churches and concert halls around the country, and I’d like to play a passage of it for you now, from a 1998 recording that has been hailed as the best recording of it ever made. What makes it so special in part was that it was recorded with period musical instruments.

That first part of Jakub Jan Ryba’s pastoral classic “Christmas Mass”, called the “Kyrie” – Hej mistře”, describes a village scene where a young shepherd wakes up his master to tell him about a strange heavenly light and wondrous music coming from afar.

There are nine parts in all of the work, often described as a Christmas cantata, all based on pastoral motifs. Although it has the structure of a classical Latin mass, instead of taking place in Bethlehem, the scenes unfold somewhere in snow-covered Central Bohemia. Because of its folk character and simplicity, it was excluded from the traditional Catholic liturgy.

Ježíšek vs Grandfather Frost and Santa Claus

Santa Claus, photo: 3194556 / Pixabay CC0
At this point, we should note that the Czech Republic is today considered to be the most secular nation in all of Europe. During more than four decades of communism in Czechoslovakia, the religious aspect of Christmas was downplayed and attempts made to fully supplant it. For example televised fairy tales became an integral part of the holiday – and remain so to this day.

But even under Communism, Christmas was still a holiday, and as noted earlier, it was still the Baby Jesus – Ježíšek – who brought children presents placed under the tree. This despite the communists’ efforts to replace him with Děda Mráz (Grandfather Frost), a mythical Russian import akin to Santa Claus but more grounded in winter, which proved unsuccessful. For that matter, Ježíšek has also held his own against Old St. Nick, though the jolly fat man in red has made inroads in commercial advertising.

Daniel Špička, an architect by profession and walking encyclopaedia on the history of Czech Christmas music and related traditions, as it happens, explained to Radio Prague’s own David Vaughan the enduring appeal of Ježíšek.

“The symbol of the so-called communist Christmas was “Děda Mraz” – Grandfather Frost – from Russia. In fact he looked very similar to Santa Claus. No offence to Santa Claus, but he is the same sort of figure, while the Little Jesus [Ježíšek] who traditionally brings the presents to Czech children is above them, because you can’t see him. He is magic, mythical, and that I think is a great thing and great difference.”

But where did the tradition of Ježíšek come from? I asked a number of foreign and Czech university students if they could explain. Robert, who hails from Belarus and will celebrate an Orthodox Christmas, nicely sums up the confusion.

Robert: “I know that they [the Czechs] have Little Jesus, who gives presents. And it is strange to know that he is a child that never grows up and still gives presents. They also have Jesus as we know him, which strikes me as weird. And I still haven’t understood how it’s possible. Czech people have explained to me that those are two different characters, so to say, even though they are supposed to be one.”

So, a bit like the Holy Trinity, in that sense.

Robert: “No. The Holy Trinity is quite explainable to me. Yeah.”

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity holds that God is one God, but three coeternal, consubstantial persons or hypostases—the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit—as “one God in three Divine Persons”.

When it comes to the tradition of Baby Jesus bringing presents, it actually derives from a term coined in the 16th century by the German reformer Martin Luther, that of the Christkindl or Christ Child.

Grandfather Frost, photo: Public Domain
Many Protestants adopted the baby Jesus as the gift bringer, who appeared on Christmas Eve rather than on St. Nicholas Day, the 6th of December. Known as Mikuláš in the Czech Republic, on that day, Czech children give an accounting of how naughty or nice they have been to St. Nicholas himself, who is in the company of angels – and a devil.

But I digress – let’s get back to Ježíšek.

I asked Czech university student Ana to share her understand of the Baby Jesus and his role in Czech Christmas tradition.

Ana: “He’s the one giving you presents, but he doesn’t have any sort of visual representations – he’s not really Jesus; he’s just something that goes along with it, because Czechs are kind of far from the religious side of things. But some people do have tiny Betlémy at home -- nativity scenes.”

I asked another student, Lucie, how she describes Ježíšek to non-Czechs who don’t have this tradition.

I imagine you have foreign friends?

Lucie: “Yes.”

How do you explain Ježíšek to them? Because in many countries, it’s St. Nicholas or Santa Claus who is bringing presents…

Lucie: “Yes, but I have a lot of German friends, and I think they know this concept. So I don’t have to explain to them what Ježíšek is! [laughs].”

Půjdem spolu do Betléma [Let us all go to Bethlehem]
Dujdaj, dujdaj, dujdaj dá!
Ježíšku, panáčku! [Baby Jesus, little lord]
Já tě budu kolíbati [I will rock you in the cradle]

Carp and the Golden Pig

Photo: archive of Czech Radio
For new arrivals to the Czech Republic, the emphasis on Christmas Eve, the traditional fare served on that day – chiefly carp and potato salad – and the role of the Baby Jesus are typically the most surprising elements of how the holiday is observed locally.

But now that the concept of Ježíšek is clear, let’s turn to the traditional Czech Christmas menu, the legend of the Golden Pig and some other traditions. For a quick recap and to help us get our bearings for the festive road ahead, here’s one of the ‘Hosts of Christmas Past’ I promised at the start of the programme, Pavla Horáková.

“The most important festive day in Czech tradition is Christmas Eve – Štědrý den, or “generous day”. Despite its name, one is supposed to be very modest when it comes to food. Legend has it that if you fast all day on Christmas Eve, you will be able to see a golden pig in the evening – zlaté prasátko.”

“Only a few people respect that tradition these days, but many eat meatless dishes for lunch, such as houbový kuba – a traditional meal made from barley and mushrooms. In the past, people ate for example apple strudel – jablečný závin or štrúdl or a typical Czech Christmas sweetbread – vánočka.”

“By the evening, everyone has worked up an appetite for the festive dinner of fried carp – smažený kapr with potato salad – bramborový salát. Some families also have fish soup – rybí polévka. Czechs are not great fish-eaters, so some people prefer Wiener schnitzel – vepřový řízek on their Christmas Eve table.”

“In the Czech Republic, too, Christmas has become a feast of consumption to some extent and the main cause of those extra pounds one has to lose in January are Christmas cookies – vánoční cukroví, which you can’t escape because even if you don’t bake your own, your colleagues and friends will bring you their samples.”

“There are dozens of varieties and every family has slightly different recipes. Many women start baking the Christmas cookies as early as the beginning of December. By Christmas they have to bake a new batch because the first one will have mysteriously disappeared. There is no fixed tradition as to meals on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, but roast duck pečená kachna is a favourite feature.”

Well, Pavla certainly has given us a lot to digest, if you’ll pardon the pun, but then over indulgence is what Christmas is all about – that and celebrating the birth of Jesus, Christianity itself, and goodwill towards humankind, of course.

It’s okay to eat fish, but why carp?

Fried carp with potato salad, photo: Barbora Němcová
I hope listeners are well-fed but hungry for more knowledge, as we’ll now dig a little deeper into what’s behind some of some Christmas dishes and related customs, many unique to the Czechs (and their kissing cousins, the Slovaks), others known in central Europe and other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

We begin with the humble carp – as noted earlier, traditionally fried in bread crumbs and served with potato salad. Carp have been bred in the Czech lands on a grand scale since at least the 15th century. Fish farms took root especially in South Bohemia – dubbed the country’s “lake district”. And as Daniela Lazarová, herself a ‘Host of Christmas Present’ explains, when it comes to Christmas, this fish is more than just a dish.

“The home-bred carp, raised in fishponds in South Bohemia, has an important role in weaving the magic of Czech Christmas. In the run-up to Christmas, it appears in large vats in Czech towns and cities from which it is sold live, to be killed and skinned on request – or taken home to occupy the bathtub until Christmas night to the delight of many children.”

“Some families have their own Christmas tradition of going to the river and setting it free on Christmas day, which is not highly recommended since the fish rarely survive, but some families like the idea of ‘saving’ a carp and setting it free.”

“Every family has its own favourite recipe for carp and carp soup. Should you decide to try this traditional Czech Christmas dish, one last piece of advice – they say that if you put a fish scale under your plate for the Christmas meal, it will bring you money and luck in the coming year.”

To get a sense of what Christmas traditions young Czechs today are still following, I again turned to those university students you heard from earlier as well a few of their schoolmates.

Jakub: “My family makes potato salad and eats fish.”

What do you prepare for Christmas Eve dinner?

Tereza Z: “It changes a lot because basically no one in my family eats meat. So we don’t eat carp or snitzel.”

Do you know why Czechs traditionally eat carp on Christmas Eve?

Tereza Z: “Actually, no.”

I found out only recently – it’s because fish was not considered to be meat.

“Okay, yeah. So, you could keep the fast.”

Kuba, photo: archive of Radio Prague
Credit where credit is due. I learnt this by listening to a previous Radio Prague special by yet another Host of Christmas Past, Dominik Jůn. He got it from none other than the director of the Gastronomy Museum in Prague, Ladislav Provaan, an expert in all things culinary.

“Because it wasn’t considered to be meat. Christmas Eve in our country is still considered to be part of a fasting period. So carp is one of the dishes that are allowed… It was cheap; it was available to the poorer parts of society. Noble folk used to consume poultry, wild game and so on. Carp was eaten by monks and nuns in monasteries and also by peasants. That was the whole point.”

So, there you have it – to eat fish was not to break the fast, and virtually every Czech family could afford to serve carp. In fact, there have always been variations among regions, and between individual families. In the north of the country, for example, in place of fish, often you’ll find a risotto style dish made from pearl barley and mushrooms – kuba.

Do you make the traditional carp and potato salad?

Tereza L: “I don’t eat carp. So, we eat chicken steak – and the salad, yeah.”

When you were a child, did your family ever bring a carp home and keep it in the bathtub?

Tereza L: “No, no. We didn’t do that.”

Have you ever seen the Golden Pig?

Tereza L: “Oh, well, we try to. We usually don’t eat meat during the day, but I haven’t seen it.”

Do you eat carp at Christmas?

Lukáš: “Yeah, we eat carp every year.”

Do you know why?

Lukáš: “I’m not sure. I think it’s connected with Christian traditions because the fish is a symbol of Christ. But I’m not sure.”

Ana: “My mom can’t make carp – but my sister in law does, though I don’t know if they keep it in the tub. We were fasting, not my dad because of some health issues, but my mom and I do. And we’ve seen the Golden Pig, of course!”

Lucie: “No, I’ve never seen it!”

Lukáš: “Yes, one time, when I was very little. But it’s because my father did some trick.”

Jakub: “We don’t eat for the whole day on the 24th of December. But I have never seen the Golden Pig – that’s a pity!”

Golden Pigs and fending off the Grim Reaper

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
So, as you’ve gathered, Christmas Eve in the Czech lands was traditionally marked by fasting before the big feast. Those who go went without meat during the day were considered to have kept the fast, and still today people do so in hopes of catching a glimpse of “the Golden Pig” – a decidedly good omen – before sitting down to dinner.

Fasting, of course, is quite a common practice in Christian and other faiths worldwide ahead of religious holidays. It’s also tradition more honoured in the breach these days in the secular Czech Republic. But quite a few traditions customs endure, most centred around the dinner table itself and having to do with ensuring good fortune in the New Year. That includes avoiding a visit from the Grim Reaper.

So, let’s get to them!

Jakub: “In my family, we always have one extra plate for some unwanted guest – (I mean) a guest who you are not expecting! And the woman is the only person who can get up from the table and make the meal or get more food.”

Tereza Z: “We don’t set an extra plate, but we don’t get up from the table alone – it’s said that the first person to get up will die first. And it’s always me!”

So, for starters, the Christmas table itself should be set for an even number of guests. An odd number brings bad luck – or even death. It’s also best to set an extra plate out in case an unexpected guest or person in need drops by at dinner time.

Once you do sit down, no one should have their back to the door. After the meal, everyone should rise from the table at the same time – stuffed to the gills, as you should leave nothing on your plate. And any leftovers should be buried in an orchard to ensure the trees bear fruit.

Apples, molten lead, and walnut boats

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
One sure-fire way to predict the future is to make boats from empty walnut shells for everyone, into which a lit candle is placed before they set sail in a bowl of water. If the shell makes it across the bowl, a long and healthy life lies ahead of its captain. Any shell that sinks signals is a bad omen.

Jakub: “We don’t do that because my grandma believes it brings some sort of bad luck because she once did this little boat and hers sank almost immediately. But she lived for another twenty years. Anyway, we just forbid this.”

After Christmas dinner, everyone who was present at the meal should cut an apple in half crosswise, from the stem down. If the core is shaped like a star, you all will meet again next year in happiness and health. A four-pointed cross is a bad omen which means – no prizes for guessing! – that someone at the table will fall ill or even die within a year.

Tereza L: “When I was little, we did this with the candle in the water. And this year, we want to do the lití olova –I don’t know how to say it in English.”

Molten lead.

Tereza L: “Molten lead, yes. So we want to predict the future from the lead.”

I’m curious. How do you predict the future – how do you know which shape is good and which shape is bad?

Tereza L: “It’s up to your imagination! [laughs] If you want to see a bright future, you will see it.”

And also maybe you could help me understand the apples, what you do with those?

Tereza L: “We cut them. But I’m not sure what it means when there is a star – it means something, but I don’t know what! Maybe luck? I don’t know. [laughs]”

So, it seems that final shape of molten lead that has been poured into a bowl of water may give an idea rather of the pourer’s outlook than their destiny. It’s perhaps not quite as exact a science as the candle-laden walnut shells, much more open to interpretation.

Christmas Day – when anything goes

Duck with dumplings and cabbage, photo: archive of Radio Prague
Assuming all the key customs and rules have been followed up to, during and after the meal on the 24th of December, Ježíšek will reliably turn up with presents for the children immediately after dinner. The arrival of the Baby Jesus is signalled by the tinkling of a bell, which triggers a disorderly retreat from the dinner table by children of all ages.

Many families, whether religious or not, will at some point go to a church service, whether a midnight mass on the 24th of December, or on Christmas Day itself.

Speaking of Christmas Day, virtually anything goes when it comes to the family meal. Those with means can happily have a roast duck or goose, whatever they like, really. The 25th of December transpires much as it does in the West, minus Santa Claus. A large roast bird usually takes centre stage, as it were.

Quite often, it’s turkey, which was introduced to England in the 16th century from the New World – America – and soon spread across Europe.

It’s the side dishes where the greatest differences are found. To enlighten us, here’s culinary expert Ladislav Provaan again, talking to Radio Prague’s Dominik Jůn, on the subject of a Czech Christmas Day lunch.

“Basically there are several options. Either we have turkey, which is much leaner, or goose or duck. Duck in particular we consume with dumplings and sauerkraut. But even cabbage can be eaten.”

Because there are several types of this cabbage, right? The fermented sauerkraut. But also the white or red cooked, chopped cabbage. And the last two aren’t technically sauerkraut.

“I think with this particular dish we can sometimes use cooked cabbage – sweet, nicely prepared, very tasty. And dumplings”

And is there stuffing as well?

“Stuffing is used, particularly for goose.”

And what is put in the stuffing?

“That differs. Sometimes chefs or housewives even put apples in instead of stuffing, so it is much lighter. Turkey is usually accompanied by a good quality stuffing. You can use liver and kidneys and so on as ingredients.”

What you’re saying about Christmas Day lunch, I’m getting the impression that it is a lot less rigid in terms of options compared to Christmas Eve, which is really: carp soup, carp and potato salad. Whereas Christmas Day people can make different choices…

“That is correct. And from the point-of-view of children Christmas Eve is the highlight of the whole celebration, because presents are given out. So next morning, the children are up early playing with the toys they received and so on. And everyone is enjoying themselves, relaxing a little, and then preparing Christmas lunch. After which everyone has had enough for the rest of the day!”

Christmas from fruits to sweets

Cukroví, photo: archive of Radio Prague
In the days and even weeks leading up to Christmas, another constant are sweets of all kinds, variations of which will be familiar to most listeners. There’s an immense variety of gingerbreads – perníky – of course, which are partly for show and sold mainly at Christmas markets. But the more typical homemade cookies – cukroví – have a special place in most Czechs’ hearts.

In centuries past, Czechs used to eat more fruit at Christmas to symbolise that God gave humankind his most noble fruit, Jesus Christ. Cookies were used more to decorate the Christmas tree, especially in more modest families, and children allowed to eat them from the branches after the holy day itself.

Today, there are essentially two archetypes of Christmas cookies: vanilla walnut crescent biscuits known as rohlíčky and layered shortbread and butter cookie varieties filled or topped with jam or chocolate, with too many names to mention. This is one Czech tradition that seems in no danger of fading away.

Does your mother make any cukroví?

Lucie: “Yes, yes. Of course. We make gingerbread, and the grandmas make the others. Of course the rohlíček but also ones from marzipan.”

Jakub: “We eat chocolate every day from the 1st of December to the 24th of December.”

Ana: “Everyone makes sweet things, cookies and stuff – cukroví. We only have one kind. My mom is too lazy to make anything else. And a regular part of the Christmas dinner was my mom being upset because we’ve eaten them all before Christmas Eve.”