Mikuláš, Ježíšek or Štědroň? Prague museum traces history of Czech Christmas gift-giving traditions

Nativity scene

As the name would imply, the Charles Bridge Museum in Prague focuses on the history of the iconic 14th century landmark spanning the Vltava River. But the museum has also long held special exhibitions in connection with Advent and Christmas. This year, the focus is on gift-giving traditions from mediaeval Bohemia to modern times.

Alongside its traditional annual pre-Christmas exhibition of historic nativity scenes, the Charles Bridge Museum this year opened a special exhibition on the first Sunday of Advent, entitled “Traditions of Gifting”.

Already in the era of Emperor Charles IV, it was customary in the Czech lands to give loved ones present on Christmas Day – but also on New Year’s Day. While that tradition has not endured many others, some quite unique to Bohemia, have survived the centuries, says exhibition curator Michal Cihla.

Charles Bridge Museum | Photo: ŠJů,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“This time we concentrated on the story of giving Christmas presents. Even in the Middle Ages, people gave each other little things, things they made or bought or from nature.

“In the past, people in the countryside were more closely connected with nature than they are today. There was also a custom of preparing something special on Christmas Eve for pets.

“Farmers often took special care of the well on that day in order to have enough clean water in the New Year. Originally, gifts were only associated with Saint Nicholas.”

Saint Nicholas – not to be confused with his rather more secular Anglo-Saxon derivative, Santa Claus – visits Czech children every year on December 5, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, simply known here as Mikuláš.

St. Nicholas arrives in bishop’s garb, carrying a staff and a book chronicling the children’s deeds, good and bad, over the past year. He’s accompanied by an angel and a devil – the latter threatens to carry off especially naughty children in his sack while the others give out gifts.

Saint Nicholas | Photo: Martina Schneibergová,  Radio Prague International

While this custom has been widely observed for centuries, many Czechs today are unaware of the backstory. “Traditions of Gifting” exhibition curator Michal Cihla again:

“St. Nicholas is a helper of those in need. He was known for buying the freedom of slaves. He was said to secretly toss money through windows or put it into the socks hung in the window of those in need.

“The custom of putting gifts in socks, or stockings, is still maintained in some countries to this day. But there was a significant change in Christmas gift traditions in the 16th century along with the Reformation and work of Martin Luther.

“The Protestant Church rejected the veneration of saints. Rather, the focus was on the birth of Jesus Christ. In many countries, giving presents shifted from St. Nicholas Day to Christmas Eve. The gift-bringer was no longer St. Nicholas, but Ježíšek – the Christ Child.”

In Moravia, up until a century ago there was also an elderly man named Štědroň, who helped the Baby Jesus with the distribution of gifts. In Bohemia, the tradition of giving presents on Christmas Eve originated in the Biedermeier period, that is, the early 19th century.

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