Czech national revivalists fought against the Christmas tree, says historian

Photo: Martina Schneibergová

Lodged just before Christmas, December 22nd may at first seem a rather unremarkable day. However, it marks the anniversary of the first recorded Christmas tree being introduced on Czech soil. Today Christmas trees have not only established themselves in nearly every household but also dominate many town squares. This despite an initial struggle against Czech revivalists, who saw it as a German import.

Photo: Martina Schneibergová
Dr. Jana Poláková, the curator of the Moravian Museum and one of the biggest experts on Czech Christmas traditions, shed light on how the iconic Christmas tree was brought into the Czech household exactly 206 years ago.

“In 1812, Jan Karel Liebich, a Bavarian actor who was also the director of the Estates Theatre in Prague, held a Christmas gathering for his friends and colleagues. In his invitation, he promised they would witness something unique. Upon their arrival he opened the door into a room where there was a brightly lit and decorated Christmas tree. Based on the sources we have, it seems that that was the first ever Christmas tree in Prague.”

“Sources show that the use of Christmas trees started increasing quite considerably in the immediate decade following Mr. Liebich’s introduction. Twenty or thirty years later we also start seeing mentions in the media, which reported that Christmas trees are being lit.”

Despite the relatively rapid spread of Christmas trees in Czech cities it took a long time before the custom caught up in the country, where it started to appear only in the second half of the 19th century becoming an established presence only around the beginning of the 1900s.

Dr. Poláková says that it was not only wealth and geographic location that stood in the way of the Christmas tree establishing itself in the lands of the Bohemian crown. Czech national revivalists looked at its introduction with raised eyebrows as well.

“National revivalists fought hard to keep the Christmas tree from spreading among the native population, because they correctly pointed to the fact that it was a German custom and that it has no connection to Czech traditions.

What is interesting is that already at this time voices could be heard criticising their introduction for damaging local woodland.”

The struggle against the “German” Christmas tree was justified by the revivalists alerting to what was a similar, truly Czech alternative – the “Vrkoč“, a flower pot filled with earth into which various twigs and sticks hung with dried fruit and pastries, which would be placed on a table.

Ultimately however, the Christmas tree won the day, establishing itself in virtually every corner of the country by the mid-20th century.

The much treasured Czech tradition of Ježíšek, baby Jesus, delivering gifts is relatively young, establishing itself around the same time that the Christmas tree started being introduced.

“Baby Jesus, if I can say it that way, is also imported. Just as the Christmas tree from Germany. However, their introduction was not connected. He was the consequence of the growing custom of connecting Christmas with gifts and the need to give them secretly. So this tradition was mainly aimed at children and you could say it came at around the end of the 19th century.”

Finally, for those girls with time on their hands after the Christmas celebration, Dr. Poláková, has a tip from the past on how to predict who their future husband will be.

“Girls used to gather the crumbs left after Christmas dinner and throw them under the window. In the morning they would look out and see what birds ate them. If they were mere sparrows that meant that she would marry a poor man, but if it was a crow it boded a rich man, for example a trader.”