How trees and carp became essential elements of Czech Christmas

On Saturday, December 24, many Czechs will be putting up and decorating Christmas trees – and enjoying the common seasonal dinner of carp and potato salad. But while Czech seasonal traditions are much loved, some are relatively new – and have fascinating regional variations.

As the director of Czechia’s National Institute of Folk Culture in Strážnice, Martin Šimša is an expert on customs of all kinds, including Christmas ones.

Photo: Ragy Sabry,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

Virtually every Czech home will be adorned with a Christmas tree on Saturday, with a lot of families erecting and decorating their tree on Christmas Eve itself.

But, Mr. Šimša told Czech Radio, the festive tree is a relatively new phenomenon in this part of the world.

“As we all know, the tree is not exactly a domestic symbol of Christmas. It arrived here from Germany.

Source: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“During the 19th century trees became popular, first in Bohemian and Moravian cities and towns, and later in the countryside.

“They spread from west to east and came up against far older traditions, especially cribs and Nativity scenes.

“Christmas cribs date from the late Middle Ages, while constructing Nativity scenes comes from the Baroque period.”

There were regional variations in how Christmas trees were put up – including a remarkable-sounding approach in one particular part of the country.

“We have records that show that in eastern Moravia trees were not erected on a table. Instead they were frequently hung from the ceiling, with the crown of the tree facing downwards, not upwards.”

Photo: Michal Trnka,  Czech Radio

This was also done in pubs and was connected to a custom under which village elders oversaw celebrations during the festive period.

Most Czechs today eat fried carp with potato salad as Christmas dinner, in the late afternoon of December 24.

But in the past things were a bit different – and there was an urban-rural divide, says Martin Šimša.

“In cities and towns the Třeboň carp started to rule. It was necessary to support domestic agriculture, including fisheries.

Christmas fish market | Source: Archives of the city of Pilsen

“With the foundation of Czechoslovakia, the latter lost much of its market and it was necessary to consume the fish, so there was a reason to farm them.

“But in the countryside, especially in southeastern Moravia, carp wasn’t eaten at Christmas until the 1960s.”

The historian says that people in that part of the world typically ate a soup made from sour cabbage and various types of kasha, such as buckwheat kasha in Wallachia.

Photo: Michal Trnka,  Czech Radio

The food on offer was quite varied and reflected local traditions and customs, says Martin Šimša.

But regardless of regional variations, in the past Czechs also pulled out all the stops for the most important meal of the year.

“There were a lot of sweet foods. People believed that if dinner on Christmas Eve was rich and sweet then the following year would be one of abundance.

“So even if the harvest had not been so great, they still didn’t cut any corners when it came to dinner on Christmas Eve.”

Author: Ian Willoughby
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