Christmas in the Czech Republic blends universal Christian traditions with unique local customs and pagan superstitions.
Some Czech Christmas traditions may seem odd to foreigners, but that’s what makes the festive atmosphere in the Czech Republic extraordinary.
Like most Christians, Czechs consider Christmas a family holiday and celebrate it by decorating their homes, indulging in delicious foods, exchanging gifts, and attending church services.
However, they also embrace local cultural heritage by observing the golden pig tradition, foretelling the future, and watching old Czech cartoons.
Major Czech cities, including Prague, Brno, Liberec, and Pilsen, are a must-visit for anyone wishing to enjoy European architecture, shop at Christmas markets, and feel the festive spirit.
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Christmas in the Czech Republic isn’t Christmas without traditional holiday cookies, cukrovi. Sure, some Czechs bake gingerbread cookies like the rest of Europeans, but cukrovi is a tradition deeply rooted in Czech culture, and every family has its unique recipes.
It isn’t unusual to find a dozen varieties of biscuits on a Czech Christmas table. One of the oldest recipes is known as podvodnice.
Back in the day, this type of cukrovi was prepared in poor families because it contains no eggs, sugar, and only a tiny amount of milk but is delicious regardless. This type of cookie is yeast-based, unlike other cukrovi that are biscuit-like.
Podvodnice yeast raises under the water rather than in the open air. For this reason, the biscuit names translates as “under the water.”
Other Czech Christmas cookies are made with jam, nuts, jelly, condensed milk, and different fillings. The shapes are diverse, with the most popular being double cookies with star-shaped cut-outs.
Most importantly, cukrovi are always generously sprinkled with sugar powder. For Czech kids, baking biscuits is one of their favorite holiday activities.
Czech Christmas Dinner
The traditional Czech Christmas dinner begins with fish soup thickened with roux and served with croutons, followed by the main course, usually schnitzel or fried breaded carp. Not many Czechs eat stuffed turkey or glazed ham for Christmas.
Interestingly, some locals buy live carp before Christmas and keep it in the bathtub until it’s time to cook the festive dinner.
The carp swimming in the bathtub serves as great entertainment for kids, and carp scales put in one’s wallet are believed to bring prosperity and luck. On the side, Czechs typically have potato salad with boiled and refrigerated vegetables and mayo.
The Czech festive dinner involves many fish dishes because most Czechs fast before Christmas and aren’t supposed to eat meat until Christmas Day. However, some families don’t observe the Nativity Fast as strictly.
Another must-have on the Czech Christmas table is vanochka, braided cake bread with almonds and raisins. Many families eat it for breakfast on Christmas Day.
Apart from biscuits, Czechs eat apple strudel with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream for dessert. Czechs borrowed the strudel recipe from Austrians when the Czech Republic was a part of the former Austria-Hungary.
Classic mulled wine with spices and citrus zest is a popular holiday drink, but Czechs also have a unique take on mulled wine called medovina, translated as “honey wine.”
Another warming Czech Christmas drink is becherovka – locally manufactured liquor with a blend of herbs, cinnamon, and pine, often added in coffee. Kids usually enjoy hot chocolate.
Czech Christmas Ornaments
Like in the rest of the world, people in the Czech Republic decorate their homes for Christmas. Czechs put up a Christmas trees, hang garlands, and set up elaborate festive displays in public places.
Czech Christmas tree ornaments are somewhat unique. They are typically made from glass, metal, and beads, blown and decorated by hand. Cheap plastic Christmas tree ornaments and tinsel are rare in Czech homes.
Glass ornaments have been popular in the Czech Republic since World War l. At that time, they were primarily made in the Krkonose Mountains of North Bohemia. The production runs to this day and still uses traditional methods.
Most families decorate the Christmas tree on Christmas eve, but some do it on one of the Advent Sundays. Czechs place greater importance on interior decoration than the exterior, often focusing only on one room.
While Americans watch popular Christmas movies such as Home Alone and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Czechs prefer to watch classic cartoons on Christmas Eve.
Czechs aren’t alone in their love for animation – for example, Scandinavians traditionally watch Walt Disney’s Christmas special called From All of Us to All of You. But Czech Christmas cartoons are locally produced.
One of the Czech must-see cartoons is Tři oříšky pro Popelku, translated as Three Wishes for Cinderella. Many families watch all-time Czech animation staples like The Mole, Two Little Frosts, and Moon Fairy Tale.
Czechs typically watch cartoons after the traditional dinner while enjoying biscuits with tea, coffee, or mulled wine.
Czech Santa Claus is different from American, although his image also stems from Saint Nicholas. Svatý Mikuláš wears a white robe and is accompanied by an angel and a demon. Saint Nicholas brings gifts to Czech kids on December 5.
If you visit Prague on Christmas Eve, you may come across Saint Nicholas with his helpers on the city streets. The demon is usually walking around with a pitchfork or is clanking chains, scaring children and motivating them to behave well.
Gifts from Saint Nicholas are typically small and inexpensive, like chocolates and tangerines.
On Christmas Eve, Czech children receive gifts from Baby Jesus rather than Santa. Parents ring a bell to signal the children that Baby Jesus has left the presents under the Christmas tree.
Local kids can send a letter to Baby Jesus, but he doesn’t live on the North Pole – Czechs believe his residence is high in the Czech mountains.
Christmas Eve Fasting and Golden Pig
The golden pig is among the oldest Czech Christmas customs, dating back to pagan times when people celebrated the winter solstice festival by eating roasted pork. Czechs say, “dozlatova opečené” – roasted till its golden, thus the tradition’s name.
At that time, the pig symbolized wealth and prosperity. Over time, the tradition morphed, and modern-day Czechs believe that one who fasts the entire Christmas Eve will see a golden pig in the evening, which will bring them luck and abundance.
The custom was popularized by an old Czech soda commercial where a father tells his daughter the story of a golden pig, and the pig appears in the sky.
According to some Czechs, when they were kids, they used to be genuinely disappointed when they hadn’t seen a golden pig in the sky after a day of fasting. Many Czech families refrain from fasting but hang golden pig ornaments on their Christmas trees.
Christmas markets are integral to Christmas celebrations in the Czech Republic. They take place all over the country, with the largest and oldest market situated in the capital city of Prague.
Like December markets in other European countries, Czech Christmas markets feature cozy wooden chalets decorated with garlands and twinkling lights, selling mulled wine, biscuits, grilled sausages, handmade ornaments, ceramics, jewelry, toys, candles, and other goods.
Prague traditionally hosts five markets – on Wenceslas Square, near Prague Castle, near Saint George’s Basilica, at Havel Square, and in the Old Town.
Each of Prague’s Christmas markets is different, and since the town is relatively small, one can walk from one to another. The Christmas market in Brno’s Freedom Square is a must-see for all locals and town visitors.
Other towns in the Czech Republic also host Christmas markets – although smaller and less crowded, Náměstí Republiky, Jiřího z Poděbrad, and Kampa Island markets embrace the festive spirit and offer a variety of activities for the entire family.
Like many Christians worldwide, Czechs attend the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve before indulging in the traditional feast.
Some of the largest Christmas church services take place in Church of Our Lady Victorious, St. Wenceslas Church, and Church of Our Lady Before Týn in Prague.
Czechs believe that Christmas Eve is the perfect time to foretell the future and have numerous Christmas superstitions. For example, one should never wash clothes on Christmas Eve, or someone of their loved ones might die.
Another Czech Christmas superstition states that nobody should get up from their chair during the feast, or the family won’t get together the following year.
Single Czech men and women throw a shoe over their shoulder. If the shoe lands with a toe pointing towards the door, the person will soon get married. Another way of foretelling the future is cutting an apple in half.
If there are five seeds, the person will be healthy, and if there are four, they might die. Some Czechs also put small candles inside a nutshell and let them float in a large basin.
If the nutshell stays at the basin’s edge, the person will stay home; if it floats far, the person will travel far; and if it turns over, the person will die (yes, Czechs have plenty of superstitions related to death).
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