(Drawings of Josef Lada from late 1800) (see more of this work here)  

The season of Advent lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas. At that time, the new Christian year begins with the twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, which lasts from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6. In the olden days, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus.

Advent Calendars

Advent Calendars are made of paper or card with 24 or 25 little windows. A window is opened on every day in December and a Christmas picture is displayed underneath, in modern days they contain a little chocolates or gifts inside. Advent Calendar can be a home craft project or they can be purchased in a grocery stores. There are many creative ways to do a modern Advent calendar.

Advent Candles

Advent Candles (click on the link to see examples) are elaborate wreaths with multiple candles lit on specific days, are used to count down to Christmas Day. There are many rituals within different religious denominations. Nowadays, many of the candle wreaths are used for secular decorative purposes only.  

Saint Barbara Day

St. Barbara’s Day is celebrated on December 4th. According to an old folk tradition, a branch of a cherry tree has to be cut with the first ray of sun and taken to a house where an unmarried girl lives. If the branch blossoms on Christmas Eve, it means that the girl would find a groom in the coming year. To this day “barborky” are a typical pre-Christmas household decoration.

Josef Lada painting from 1944 (see more of this work here

Saint Nicholas Day

The most popular of the Advent holidays is St. Nicholas Day. It is the only one of the old Czech Advent holidays still celebrated today. It is a special time when children receive sweets and small gifts. These gifts were often apples, oranges (in the past exotic fruits and foods were hard to get), nuts and sweets, while the bad children found old potatoes or coal in their stockings. Traditionally, St. Nicholas quizzed children on the prayer-book and the Bible. Today, however, the questions are mostly about the previous year’s behavior. The angel writes a record for each child in a large book and the children sing or say a poem to the saint. The devil (not an exact word, but a better translation is not available) rattles his chains, threatening to carry bad children off, but the angel, with a gold star on her forehead and dressed in a white gown, always protects the children.

Winter Solstice Celebration

The day of winter solstice in the northern hemisphere (December 21) is significant as being the longest night and the shortest day of the year. From that day on, the days are slowly getting longer and nights shorter. (With the festival of February 2nd, the Christian celebration of Candlemas or Hromnice, having gained a whole hour of daylight). The celebration of winter solstice started with the Kelts, the Egyptians, Romans and Old German tribes. They celebrated the return or rebirth of the Sun, which brings light, warmth and new life. Celebration of the winter solstice was one of the most important pagan celebrations.  Winter solstice is said to be a magical night full of miracles, when the earth was said to open up, the rocks were cracking and revealing treasures, under the snow meadows and treats were blooming, bearing fruit, wild animals woke up from their hibernation just for this one night, domestic animals could talk and wells were filled with mead wine instead of water, and rivers were said to be full of silver and gold.  That night of the year one could even see the future, so fortune telling was also done on that night. Single girls could see the face of the future love in an the water reflection in a well and cracked nut or an apple cut in half could tell if one’s future was full of wealth, fortune and health or sickness, poverty or even death.  Current Christmas celebration have their roots in these old pagan and pre-Christian traditions. Modern Christmas celebrations are a continuation of old pagan holidays.  

Caroling  

Caroling is an oral tradition, passed down from generation to generation for maybe thousands of years. It belongs to one of the oldest pagan rituals. Young men dressed up in animal skins and face masks made out of bark, skin or furs visited from house to house, singing and playing short plays and wishing good fortunes and plentiful harvest to all the members of the households. The purpose was to shun away bad demons and protect people. In exchange they received food and drinks, gifts or small change from the housewife. There are many Christmas carols sung to this day in many Czech homes, after the big dinner on Christmas Eve. The most famous is Jan Ryba’s Christmas Carol, composed in 1796. It is beautiful and worth listening to here. It is also sung in churches many times over during the Advents season.  

 The Upside-Down Christmas Tree

In pre-Christian pagan days, people carried trees from the forest to protect them from evil spirits of the dark woods and from cold and frost, and decorated them with edible items to appease the spirits. The five pointed star on top of the Christmas tree originally was not the star of Bethlehem, but pagan pentagon, symbol of the five elements: earth, water, air, fire and energy of life.

The tradition of hanging fir trees goes back to the European Middle Ages. Historians believe that the upside-down tree dates back to the 1500s in Eastern Europe. In their inverted position, they looked like a cross and they were once considered a symbol of Christianity and decorated with fruit, nuts, and sweets wrapped in paper and edible things, such as gingerbread and gold foil covered apples. Then glass makers started to make special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today.

The Czech Republic glass makers were one of the first to make glass Christmas tree decorations.  The tradition of glass making in the Czech Republic dates back as early as the 13th century. The glass produced in the Czech Republic is known as Bohemian glass or Bohemian crystal and is internationally recognized for its beauty and high quality. Czechs have long used their fine Bohemian glass to create their famous glass Christmas ornaments, which are highly valued to this day all around the world.   

Christmas trees in the Czech Republic used to be decorated early on Christmas Eve, the main Czech holiday. The adults decorated the tree in secret as children’s attention was kept by trying to find the “golden pig”. One could see a golden pig if one was especially good, stayed out of trouble, fasted all day and kept away from the cooking festivities. Over the last 20 years some Czechs adopted the American way of decorating their trees early, but they are still keeping them on display till January the Three Kings day, or February 2nd, the Christian celebration of Candlemas (Hromnice). 

Families sit down to eat with the first star appearing on an evening sky. After dinner children are shown the Christmas tree for the first time and presents are opened. Many families, even non-religious ones, attend a Midnight Mass to hear the beautiful music and see elaborate Nativity Scenes displayed in all churches and many public squares. 

The Christmas festivities stretch over to December 25 and 26, which are also referred to as the First and Second Christmas Holidays, or the Christmas Feast (Boží hod vánoční) and St. Stephen’s Day (Sv. Štěpán). On St. Stephen’s Day, children, students, teachers, and the poor used to go around people’s homes singing Christmas carols. Nowadays, families stay at home and relax or visit relatives and friends to share the special time. Almost every Czech household is feasting on a duck or a goose on St. Stephen’s day (December 26). December 25th popular meal is Sauebraten (Svickova).

Mistletoe (Jmelí)

Prior to Christmas green, gold or silver bundles of mistletoe are sold as an important decoration. It also has pagan and early Christian roots. Mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality). According to an old Christmas custom, a man and a woman who meet under a hanging of mistletoe were obliged to kiss. As far back as in antiquities it has been used in herbal medicine. Mistletoe is believed to bring good luck if it is received as a gift, brings good fortune and even wards off evil spirits.  The mistletoe is supposed to be the last Christmas decoration to be taken on, on February 2nd or the Christian holiday of Candlemas (Hromnice).  In Christianity mistletoe is said to be the tree from which Joseph made a crib for baby Jesus and later a cross for crucifixion was also made out of Mistletoe wood. It is a mystical and blessed plant. Some households keep hanging the golden tipped Christmas mistletoe over their dining room table all year round for good luck.

Other Customs and Superstitions

Czech folklore is rich in customs and superstitions and there are hundreds of those related to Christmas. The purpose of many of them is to find out what the coming year has in store for the family. Some of them are still observed today, others would be quite a challenge to get through without a mistake. Here are some of them:

No lights should be lit in the house before the first star comes out. After it does, dinner is served.

An extra plate can be used to even out the number of guests. An extra plate should also be prepared in case an unexpected guest or a person in need comes by the house at dinner time.

The legs of the table can be tied with a rope to protect the house from thieves and burglars in the coming year.

He who fasts all day until dinner will see the golden piglet on the wall.

No one should sit with their back to the door.

No laundry would be done on Christmas.

The first person to leave the table after dinner will be the first one to die in the coming year – that is why everyone should get up from the table at the same time.

Fish Scales
Fish scales should be placed under Christmas dinner plates or under the tablecloth to bring wealth to the house. Carrying a fish scale in a wallet all year will ensure that money will not run out.

Foretelling the Future Foretelling of the future and predicting the well-being of the family in the coming year is connected with many popular Christmas customs, some of which are still practiced today.

The Floating of Walnut Shells
Little boats are made out of empty walnut shells and each family member places a little burning candle into a shell. Everyone’s shells are then floated on a bowl of water. If the shell makes it across the bowl, its owner will live a long and healthy life. A shell that sinks brings bad luck to its owner.

The Cutting of the Apple
After Christmas dinner, every person present at the table cuts an apple in half (crosswise, from the stem down). Both halves are shown to everyone around the table. If the core is shaped as a star, it means that everyone will get together next year in happiness and health. A four-pointed cross is a bad omen and means that someone at the table will fall ill or die within a year.

The Pouring of Lead
A piece of lead is melted over fire and then poured into a container of water. The resulting shape will tell the pourer’s destiny.

The Carp in the bathtub

The main course at the Christmas table is a fresh water carp. (This is a specific breed of carp, out of very large group of fish native to Europe and Asia, gold Koi being one of the carp group). It is said that the Czech Christmas carp can be cooked “hundreds different ways”. Christmas carp is specially raised in manmade ponds and then sold from large tubs placed on the streets and town squares a few days before Christmas. You will not see this sight of people standing in line with special netted bags for carp, at any other time of the year. Some families keep their carp in the bathtub for several days as a temporary pet for their children. The most delicious meal of the Christmas feast is carp soup, a very elaborate recipe using carp’s head, fish eggs, fish broth and root vegetables. Every family guards their secret recipe.             

Czech Christmas cookies  

Czech Christmas cookies are delicious and very elaborate. It is customary to make 12 different kinds and baking is starting several weeks prior to Christmas. Ginger cookies and ginger bread houses are also made.

A traditional Christmas bread called vánočka(similar to the Jewish challa) used to be a part of the Christmas dinner in the past but today it has largely lost its Christmas connotation and is available year-round. It is still eaten for breakfast on Dec 25 and 26 with butter, honey and hot cocoa.  Sweet Christmas bread evolved as more festive version of simple daily bread. The raising of the dough also represented the symbol of growing fortune and wealth in the next year.  It was shared with all members of the household, all servants and even domestic animals to ward of illness and bad spirits in upcoming year.

Frankincense Scented Incense Cones and Sparklers

Frankincense Scented Incense Cones, are the true smell of Christmas is every Czech household. Charcoal based myrrh and frankincense filled cones have been used since around 1750 to hinder the presence of demons and as a Christian blessing. Sparklers are type of hand-held firework that burns slowly while emitting colored flames and sparks. They have been beautifully illuminating Christmas trees since before electric light.

The dough of Vizovice (Vizovicke Pecivo)

For the small country the Czech Republic is, there are still many regional traditions and customs, one of them, Vizovicke Pecivo. It is made out of non-edible hard dough and is delicately designed into elaborate tree or table decorations. An example of how it is made can be seen here.

Three Kings Day Procession

 Three Kings Day (Tři králové), traditionally celebrated on the twelfth day of Christmas, signifies the end of the holiday season in the Czech lands while offering an opportunity to extend charitable giving by making donations to these traveling wise men. It is celebrated elsewhere in the world as Epiphany since, in the biblical timeline, it’s when the three wise men were said to have arrived in Bethlehem bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the Czech Republic children dress up as the three kings and go from home to home caroling. Following the visit, the letters K + M + B are chalked onto the doors of visited homes – the initials stand for the names of the wise men Kašpar, Melichar, and Baltazar or the Latin saying Christus mansionem benedicat (“May Jesus Christ bless this house”)

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

If you have any questions about other customs or traditions of the Czech Republic, please contact me at

Magda Born

mborn@kckpl.org

Community Services Librarian

Kansas City, Kansas Public Library

625 Minnesota Ave.

Kansas City, KS 66101

913-295-8250 ext 1103