František: charcoal incense cone producing scent of Czech Christmas

Czech Christmas František

One of the many Czech Christmas traditions is the burning of incense cones, known as Františeks, which originated in the Ore Mountains on the Czech-German border more than 300 years ago. A small workshop in Roztoky u Křivoklátu has been producing the scented charcoal cones for over twenty years.

Burning scented Františeks | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

For many Czechs, the scent associated with Christmas is that of burned scented charcoal cones, or Františeks. The tradition originated in the Ore-Mountains in the north-west of the country and dates back to the 1700s. Its roots, however, are much older, going back to the use of frankincense in Catholic liturgy.

While the Germans call it Räucherkegel, literally a smoking candle, the origin of the Czech name František or little Francis, is less clear. It is interpreted as a variation of the English frankincense, derived from the Latin incēnsum, but it could also refer to its shape reminiscent of a Franciscan monk’s hood.

Simona Matějková | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

Simona Matějková and her husband Pavel from the village of Roztoky u Křivoklátu, some 50 kilometres west of Prague, have been making Františeks for over twenty years. At first, they produced them just for themselves, but gradually they turned their hobby into a successful business:

“My husband would get them at work before Christmas as a gift from his employer and we liked the smell so much that we started making them for ourselves and our friends and eventually we started selling them. At first we sold them at Křivoklát Castle, but gradually we started looking for other places.”

Pavel and Simona Matějkovi | Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

Mrs. Matějková says the interest in their scented charcoal cones is so great today that they can hardly meet the demand. Their Františeks are made exclusively from linden wood and every single one of them passes through Pavel’s hands:

“After I harvest the trees, I take them home and leave them to rest for about three years, so that the wood dries out properly and contains as little water as possible. Then I let it burn into good quality charcoal. I have to grind that charcoal down to a fine powder, and then I add frankincense, which also needs to be ground.”

Photo: Magdalena Hrozínková,  Radio Prague International

Mr. Matějka then kneads the dough using an adhesive made according to his own recipe. Most of the Františeks are about five centimetres tall, but he also produces large ones that measure over 15 centimetres and contain a very rare frankincense from Oman, says Mrs. Matějková:

“It has a kind of noble balsamic scent, that’s why it is pricier. But there are customers who prefer these. I think the smell of incense is stored in our long term memory or maybe it’s even part of our DNA. Incense has always been a part of our civilisation, since ancient times, and it is actually one of the very first ingredients used in aromatherapy.”

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