Josef Lada’s paintings – an enduring part of Czech Christmas

Nativity Scene

For readers around the world, Josef Lada's illustrations of the Good Soldier Švejk are inextricably linked to the famous character created by Jaroslav Hašek. But Lada did far more than illustrate Hašek's novel, and his idealised paintings of carol singers and family gatherings are an enduring symbol of Christmas for many in Czechia.

Bust of Josef Lada on the monument from 1998 in the park in the middle of the village. The bust was modeled by Zdeněk Šejnost in 1951,  the bronze cast was made by Karel Mráz. | Photo: Miaow Miaow,  Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Josef Lada was born in the village of Hrusice, just outside Prague, in 1887. His father was a cobbler and the family were poor, and little Josef lost an eye when he fell out of his cradle and landed on one of his father's knives.

However, Lada seems to have had a happy childhood – and loved Christmas. Years later he recalled with relish the traditional foods his family prepared, and said he loved their small and modestly decorated Christmas trees more than wealthier boys whose trees reached the ceiling.

Josef Lada was sent to Prague to be an apprentice, but art was his passion, and he was paid the princely sum of 20 crowns when, at just 17, his first illustrations were published by a magazine called Maj.

The Good Soldier Švejk | Photo: Wolfgang Zauber,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Two years later he had his fateful first meeting with Jaroslav Hašek. Decades later, Hašek's The Good Soldier Svejk and his Fortunes in the World War would be most people's first introduction to Lada's distinctive art, at least outside Czechoslovakia.

In this part of the world, however, many people associate Lada with his wonderful Christmas paintings, many of which have been appearing on Czech Christmas cards for generations. Typical images include large families in simple but cozy rooms; the men smoke pipes, while rosy-faced children marvel at Nativity scenes.

Josef Lada,  'Koleda / Carol' | Photo: Galerie Národní 25

Other typical Lada Christmas figures include carol singers, and children building snowmen or sledging. Invariably there is snow all around, and while it may be dark the village looks calm and pretty and the wooden houses warm and welcoming.

Lada's Christmas paintings remained popular during the Communist era, but sometimes the authorities censored their Christian imagery.

His grandson, also called Josef, has said that in the 1970s there were Lada calendars in which religious figures were removed and replaced by, for instance, a bowl of apples.

Josef Lada,  the grandson  (right) with his son | Photo: Michal Böhm,  Galerie Vyšehrad

Now, however, all of his wonderful Christmas illustrations are exactly as he painted them. And chances are that if you receive a Christmas card from Czechia it may well feature one of Josef Lada's timeless images.

Incidentally the Czech Radio archives contain a recording of the artist that says a lot about his attitude to the festive season. These are his words:

“The sparkling brightness of the white snow and the whistles of children on sleighs, as the warm rosy glow of the dying day gives way to the blue of the night, which for me always ended with the trumpet call of the night watchman, and the dogs barking in the neighbouring villages. It may be children who expect their dreams to come true on Christmas Eve. But Christmas affects everybody one way or another. The smell of different foods being prepared for the Christmas table, mixed with the characteristic smell of the Christmas tree – that pure bit of nature brought into the home.”