Ježíšek vs. Santa and carp vs. foie gras: how families with different backgrounds celebrate Czech Christmas

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague

On Christmas Eve, most Czech families will like every year sit down to special dinner before rushing to the Christmas tree. They will unwrap their presents and some might sing a few carols, and even engage in some traditional Christmas customs such as floating walnut shells, halving an apple or even pouring melted led. But most people are just likely to sit back and watch TV which each year features all the popular fairytales. But what happens in families with mixed backgrounds? How do they celebrate Christmas and explain the different traditions to their children?

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
The Wiedemanns are a Czech-German family of four. The father, Andreas, is from Düsseldorf. He came to Prague 12 years ago and met his future wife Zuzana here. They now have two sons, five-year-old Lukáš and three year-old Jonáš. I asked Andreas if he remembered his first Czech Christmas.

“I think the first Christmas here I spent with my wife. But I remember that in the years before that, I stayed here through the pre-Christmas time so from my first years, I remember how friends of mine or their mothers, rather, made all the Christmas cookies. But I remember that the first Christmas here I spent with my family.”

Inevitably, Andres was puzzled by the Czech present-bringer, Baby Jesus.

“I never thought about it before but I was surprised that here, the gifts come from Baby Jesus. In Germany, we have Weihnachtsmann, who is like Santa Claus, a man with a beard in a red coat. It was new for me and I had to talk to my wife about how we will do it here with the children. Now, we follow the Czech way so the kids think the gifts come from Baby Jesus, and they write this list of wishes every year.”

Traditionally, children leave wish lists outside their windows hoping that Baby Jesus will collect them and respect their choice of presents. Naturally, there comes a time when children realize the presents do not come from Baby Jesus. Andreas says in Germany, the disillusionment probably comes earlier than here.

“A lot of children come to realize very early that the gifts are from the parents. It was not a big thing to tell them, ‘Oh, this is from grandpa, or this is from grandma’. So for me, it was always connected with my grandfather and grandmother. In the Czech Republic, it’s connected with Baby Jesus which is interesting. But it’s not a problem.”

When it comes to the Christmas Eve dinner, most Czech families serve fish soup followed by fried carp and potato salad and Christmas cookies for dessert. According to Andreas Wiedemann, Germany is far less uniform.

“I have to say it’s not like the whole of Germany has a typical, traditional dish. In the Czech Republic it seems that all the people, or 99 percent of them, have carp. In Germany, there is more variety and differences between the regions – Bavaria is different from the north of Germany, and so on. One of the traditional foods is also potato salad but not with fish but with sausages, for example. At my parents’ home, we had different things – sometimes we had toast, sometimes fondue or sausages with potatoes salad, so there’s no typical dish in the whole country.”

So how do the Wiedemanns cope with the tenacious Czech Christmas diet? Quite easily.

“In our family, it wasn’t a big problem because my wife doesn’t like carp that much so we don’t have carp on Christmas Eve. We do have potato salad, sometimes we have some other fish or meat – meatballs, sausages, so we are closer to the German tradition.”

However, some confusion has arisen from the different present-givers. Andreas says he had a hard time explaining to his sons how come that in Germany, Ježíšek, or Baby Jesus, is replaced with the fatherly figure of the Weihnachstmann.

“On German TV, there are shows with Weihnachstmann, and my older son asked me, ‘who is this Weihnachstmann?’ And I didn’t know what to say. I think I said, ‘You know, in Germany, Weihnachstmann brings the gifts.’ And he was looking at me in disbelief, and said, ‘No, no, it’s Ježíšek.’ So we said ‘ok, ok’. He was quite nervous, because it was too much – there is only one Ježíšek.

“But this year, we will be in Germany with my parents, and we explained to our children that we would go to Germany but Ježíšek would be there too because he goes all over the world.”

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
The Czech-American Prucha family lives in a different part of Prague. Emily Prucha, who comes from Virginia, is the author of Half’n’Half, a popular blog about the experiences of a family with mixed background in the Czech Republic. She says that somewhat paradoxically her first Czech Christmas took place in her American home.

“I first arrived in the Czech Republic just after Christmas and the next Christmas, I dragged my then boyfriend back to America with me. But we did add some Czech traditions to the celebrations in the US. He looked for carp but couldn’t find any in the local grocery stores so in lieu of carp, he fried catfish for my family.

“He made a vat of potato salad they could have eaten for two weeks, and we made some perníčky, Czech gingerbread cookies, and Radek showed my family how he iced them, very painstakingly and carefully where we used to just put some sprinkles on our sugar cookies and consider them finished. So we kind of blended some traditions.”

Back in the Czech Republic, Emily says carp played a major role in their Christmas dinner as well.

“Radek brought it home live in a bag from one of the vendors in Old Town Square, and he put in the bathtub. He arrived early morning with it, and our daughter Anna Lee was one; I was nervous where she was going to bathe and where I was going to bathe, and what we were doing with the fish in the bathtub but she was delighted by the fish.

“I guess that was a true introduction to how my husband’s family always celebrated Christmas, with the carp in the bathtub which they later prepared for the Christmas meal. For lunch, we had a meal my husband’s mom prepared from mushrooms, I think it’s called kuba.”

Santa Claus is also at home in the United States, which the children in the Prucha family – Anna Lee and her younger brother Samuel – needed explaining as well.

Photo: CTK
“There was some discussion about who would bring the presents – would it be Santa or Ježíšek, and how would we do that. From the beginning, we made it a tradition to alternate. When we are here, the only thing that Santa Claus does… we leave a plate of cookies for him with some milk and a carrot for the reindeer, and if he happens to stop by, the children hang their stockings because we agreed years ago that Ježíšek would not know what to do with the traditional American stockings. So we leave those out to see if Santa perhaps fills them up.”

The Christmas meal in the Prucha is also half and half, says Emily who contributes her American favourites – and some vegetables as well.

“On December 24, we have carp and potato salad, and I usually add a few casseroles I know from childhood. My mother always made a sweet potato casserole with a nut topping, and a broccoli dish. So I add some vegetables to the meal. Our Christmas sweets are about half and half – I do the American ones and Radek, or his mother, fills in with the Czech specialities.”

Christmas is of course a Christian holiday, commemorating the birth of Jesus. The Czechs have a reputation of being one of the world’s most atheist nations – but Emily says that in the United States, some references to the religious meaning of the holiday would not be allowed, although they are seen as natural in the Czech Republic.

“This past week, my children had a Christmas market at their school, and there was a theatre production. I was surprised that it was the traditional Christmas story that you would know from the Bible, with Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. I perceive that even thought the Czech Republic is known as an atheist nation, there are a lot of influences maybe in the schools that in America would not even be allowed without the permission of the authorities or without it being a specifically Christian school. You would not be allowed to introduce these types of ideas to the children.”

It’s difficult to believe but several countries cancelled, or at least tried to cancel Christmas altogether. For example, the Soviet Union for many decades ignored Jesus’ birthday, and banned people from observing the holiday. Some Christmas traditions were instead tied to the New Year’s Day celebrations.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Fiodor Dovgych moved to the Czech Republic from the Ukrainian capital Kiev seven years ago. He and his family and settled just outside Prague where he runs a veterinarian clinic. He says Christmas was a new thing for him.

“It was very different from my country. Normally, it’s not a very popular holiday. It was prohibited for quite a long time in my country, and New Year celebrations were held instead. So Christmas celebrations were new for us. Christmas markets everywhere, the trees, and lights, it was just different.

“Another interesting thing for us was the silence everywhere during the holidays. Everything was closed, all the shops, and there were only tourists on the streets.”

Fiodor Dovgych says his family picked up the Czech customs after they learned about them from the Czech school their daughter attended. That includes the traditional carp-and-potato-salad fare, although as a vet, Fiodor has some serious reservation about the way carps are sold.

“In Ukraine, we would have goose on New Year’s day. But here, we have carp – we’re used to it and we like it. But I don’t like the tradition of selling the fish alive in the street. I just hope they kill them in a humane way and not let they suffer too much before they die.”

For Christmas Eve dinner, the Dovgych family also serves a traditional Ukrainian meal to accompany the Czech menu.

“We always have something every Russian and Ukrainian will know – Olivier Salad. It looks like the Czech bramborový salát but there are some differences but it’s always served on New Year’s Eve so on my mind, I associate it with these celebrations.”

One feature of the Czech Christmas is very Russian. For decades now, television stations have been showing a Russian fairytale called Mrazík, in English known as Jack Frost. Made in 1964, it’s an epic saga about the selfish Ivan and the beautiful Nastenka, the wise Father Frost and the scary Baba Yaga. It has developed quite a following in the Czech Republic – something that surprised Fiodor when he moved here.

“It was interesting to find that it’s also popular here and people know about this film. I like it from my childhood. But it’s not like I watch TV just to see it although I know it’s always on a day before New Year’s Eve, or around that time.”

The Hes family is half Swedish, half Czech. They have twins – a boy and a girl – who are now in their teens. Brigita comes from the south of Sweden, where traditions are an important part of the Christmas celebrations.

“I grew up in the countryside, so I grew up with very traditional Swedish Christmas a bit like that which appears in Astrid Lindgren’s Children of Bullerby. So it’s the typical Swedish countryside, very idyllic, and we would have very traditional Christmas. It entails Santa Claus coming in person on the evening of December 24 which is what all children look forward to since the beginning of the month.”

Like other families with different backgrounds, Brigita and her husband Patrik had to provide a satisfactory explanation to their children about Ježíšek and Santa Claus. But unlike some of our previous guests, they chose a conciliatory strategy.

“When the children were small, it took some effort to explain that when we celebrate every second Christmas in Sweden, how come Santa Claus comes in person and how come that Ježíšek rings the bell in the Czech Republic. So we said that it was logical; Baby Jesus being the main person as it’s his birthday after all, he delegated it to the Swedish Santa Claus.”

After Santa Claus makes a personal appearance, the families sit down to the Christmas feast in the form of the Swedish Smörgåsbord, or buffet. Brigita says that traditionally, it takes a whole pig to fill it.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“People would kill a pig for Christmas, and they would be very good at processing every part of it. That means there’s everything from Swedish meatballs, the ribs, to the whole ham, and many other pork dishes. Also, you would have dried fish, like cod, with mustard sauce, you will have several kinds of herrings – with mustard sauce, with onions, with carrots and onions, and so on.”

Brigita says her family has retained the Swedish style of dinner but incorporated some modernized Czech features into it.

“Nowadays we have a mix. We have the Swedish Smörgåsbord, and we add traditional Czech food to it. What you do in Sweden is that you cook for several days before Christmas, you have a feast on the 24, and then you eat leftovers for three days. So that’s what we do. But we now have salmon instead of carp, so we perhaps modernized the tradition a bit – it’s a mix between carp and cod, I guess.”

Some of the families we heard from combine the different Christmas traditions, others alternate between them, depending where they’re spending the holidays. But to others, Czech Christmas – at least the culinary part of it – has no appeal at all. Parisian Marion Humel, who met her Czech-Polish husband in France, says her first experience with Czech Christmas was awful, and she even lost weight. She spent the first Christmas in the Czech Republic with her then boyfriend’s family in the northeast of the country.

“It was about the food, and it was also about the customs, like the fact that we did not spent a lot of time at the dinner table. It was just too much for me. I remember eating potato salad which was a culinary shock for me. It was in a huge basin on the window, must have been 10 kilos of it. I had heard of it – my boyfriend was talking about it with tears in his eyes but I didn’t like it at all.”

Marion’s family of four lives in the cosmopolitan Vinohrady neighbourhood in Prague where there is no shortage of foreign foods, including French. That makes it easier for Marion to hold a true French Christmas dinner at home.

Photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
“It’s not that I incorporate French features to it. I just force everyone to eat only French food. This year, for example, on the 24th, we’ll have only French food. I just bought some foi gras, and some cheese, and we going to have a proper 10-course meal. Then on the 25th, my husband’s family will come and we’ll have bramaborový salát and řízek, and the Czech things.”

In France, the presents are placed under the Christmas tree and unwrapped on the morning of the December 25. But Marion Humel says that given the international background of her family, the present giving varies a lot.

“Every year we do something new. Some of my family lives in London, my brother in law is Australian, so it’s not just that I’m a French girl living with a Czech guy but we also have a lot of foreigners in our family and we have to accommodate everyone. Last year, we had the presents in the evening and my husband dressed as Santa Claus.

“This year, we agreed that we’ll have the presents under the tree in the morning. For the moment, our kids are so young that they don’t ask questions but at one point, they will probably start asking why the tradition changes every year. So I don’t know what we’re going to do.”