Photo: archive of Radio Prague

In Magazine: Balloon mail for Baby Jesus, the town of Sušice saves a precious mobile nativity scene, Czech bears wide-awake for their traditional Christmas brunch and, when it comes to Christmas Czechs love all things Czech.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
At this time of year children all over the world are writing letters to Santa. Some post them, others put them on the window sill. Many Czech children send their letter to Baby Jesus, the Czech equivalent of Santa, up into the skies with the help of a balloon. In 2007 someone in the town of Ceske Budejovice came up with the idea to get children together and have them send their Christmas wish to Baby Jesus in an untraditional manner. The local event was such a hit that other towns picked it up. In 2008 100,000 balloons were sent off in this manner from 270 places in the Czech Republic. And this year the 400 local groups and organizations taking part have ordered 110,000 balloons for the occasion. That’s certainly not something that Baby Jesus can overlook.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Nativity scenes are one of the staples of the Czech Christmas. Almost every family has one in the home and people go to view exhibitions of nativity scenes during the Christmas holidays. They range from tiny miniatures such as a nativity scene places in a nutshell to complex mobile structures such as that placed in the Šumava Muzeum in the town of Sušice. This nativity scene was made in 2004 in the space of ten months by woodcarvers Karel Svoboda Karel Tittl and an army of helpers. It boasts 30 big figures and 300 smaller ones – 150 of which are mobile. The nativity scene covers 16 square metres and is spread out on six floors. This year the museum had to deal with a crisis. The nativity scene was in need of maintenance and its maker Karel Svoboda was preparing to undertake it but in the summer of this year he died. We were completely at a loss, the head of the museum said later. He left no plans, no instructions and the nativity scene could not be put into motion. The system was intricately designed with several dozen motors linked to the mobile figures. The museum called in an electrician an expert on models and a woodcarver to work as a team to map the workings of the mechanism and is now proud to announce that the wood-carved masterpiece is back in working order for Christmas. The nativity scene is special in that it has miniatures of real places in the south Bohemian region.

Buchlov,  photo: Stanislav Doronenko,  CC BY 3.0
Most Czech castles and chateaus close down for the entire winter season but some have started opening their doors to visitors over the Christmas holidays. For instance Buchlov castle dresses up for the event and offers visitors a glimpse of how Christmas was celebrated in the castle in the olden days. There are theatre performances, carol singing, Christmas delicacies such as mulled wine and the so-called trdelník and a workshop where children can try their hand at making Christmas decorations from natural materials such as wool, wood, lace, string or ceramics. Many people now visit the castle during the Christmas holidays for the unique atmosphere it offers.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
Although bears are usually enjoying their winter slumber at this time of year the warm weather in central Europe has kept them awake –meaning that they too can take part in this year’s Christmas festivities. The eight bears that are one of the attractions of the castle in Český Krumlov will have a Christmas brunch on December 24th. Their keeper will put up several Christmas trees in their enclosure decorated with some of the things they like most – sweets, fruit and a ham cake in aspic among other things. The bears will be let out at 10am to enjoy the feast. Hundreds of people are expected to visit the castle on the occasion on the annual Bears Christmas Brunch. The tradition goes back to 1988.

Fried carp with potato salad | Photo: Barbora Němcová,  Radio Prague International
For the vast majority of Czechs Christmas is the best-loved holiday of the year and 93 percent of people spend it –or at least part of it – with family and friends. When it comes to Christmas surveys show Czechs to be conservative – they avoid travelling and spend Christmas in their homes with a real fir tree and the traditional Xmas meal of fried carp –or some other fish -and potato salad. They eat Czech Xmas cookies, listen to Czech carols and watch Czech fairy-tales. Despite pressure to accept the Russian Ded Moroz in the communist years and the overwhelming presence of Santa Claus Czechs cling to their own Christmas Baby Jesus. And although they are often described as the most atheist nation in Europe a surprising number of them attend midnight mass on Christmas eve – simply for the special feeling it gives them.