5 Surprising Czech Christmas Celebrations

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Dec 25, 2018 / 0 comments

Cookies. Carp. More cookies. A side of potato salad.

While many Christmas festivities in Czechia are similar to those in other parts of Europe, this nation of just under 11 million has some unusual – and noteworthy – holiday traditions all their own.

A little Czech history

Admittedly, Czechia, a country circled by Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria, is known more for its culture and history, than cuisine.

Created in the aftermath of World War I, Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918. Yet the collage of people and nationalities that made up the country’s borders was never cohesive – and those tensions rose as the country became pulled in all directions leading up to, and then during, World War II. The Nazi’s occupation of Czechoslovakia during the war was followed by communist leadership that came into power in 1948.

As communist leadership dissolved throughout Eastern Europe in 1989, it was the Czechs who went to the streets, ringing their keys, signaling to the leadership it was time to go. And Czechs who decided to elect Václav Havel, a dissident playwright and poet, to be the country’s first noncommunist leader. The non-violent transfer of power became known as the “Velvet Revolution.”

The country underwent another transition in 1993, separating from Slovakia to become the Czech Republic. Then in 2016, the Czech Republic created a shortened geographical name, Czechia.

Holidays in Czechia’s capital, Prague

When it comes to the holidays, Czechia’s traditions may come as a surprise to outsiders. Robert Avakian, an Operations Managers at Eating Prague, which offers food and cultural tours, explains some of these traditions and how they came to be.

5 Surprising Czech Christmas Celebrations

#5 Czechs’ Christmas celebrations are on December 24th, not 25th

Across Czechia, communities and families have their holiday festivities on December 24. Explains Avakian, “When you say ‘Christmas’ to a Czech there is only a vague understanding that some people celebrate on the 25th. For many people here ‘Christmas’ just means December 24th. It is, of course, Christmas Eve. But it's also the day where almost all the festivities are happening.”

So if you happen to be visiting Czechia for the Christmas holiday, make your plans for the 24th.

#4 Czechs start making their Christmas cookies early...like October!

Home bakers in Czechia may just have the rest of the world beat when it comes in the battle to make the best holiday cookies.

“It takes a long time because some of the cookies require that they're made as a sourdough,” notes Avakian, who’s been a tour guide for the past four years. “It takes several weeks for them to rise in the fridge. And then you have a day of baking in mid-late November, which requires the use of many cookie cutters and an oven. There are many different kinds of cookies!”

The general name for holiday cookies is vánocní cukroví, literally Christmas sweets. This name encompasses a variety of cookies from sourdough Gingerbread cookies, to almond and butter vanilla crescents, to egg-white based cookies. “But the ones which take the longest time and work (up to two months total) are the gingerbreads,” says Avakian. “These date back a millennium when they came to Europe via some Armenian monks, and wound up becoming a staple here. They are called pernícky. The reason they take so long is that they are sourdough and need to rise in the fridge. Then they get cut into shapes and baked (usually by mid November), and they aren't decorated right away because the icing could crack as it dries. So we wait for it to dry before we put the decoration on.”

One final step before Christmas? Softening the cookies. “Of course, we don't have dry cookies for Christmas. Instead, we'll put the dried and decorated cookies into big plastic containers along with some fruit sliced open and facing up – usually apples.”

#3 For Czech’s traditional holiday meal – it’s all about carp. Yes, the main dish during Christmas celebrations is carp.

In the days leading up to Christmas, street vendors have large containers full of live carp to sell to passersby.

Avakian admits carp may not seem like the best choice for a special celebration. “It's a bottom feeder, like catfish,” he says, adding, “And has a similar flavor if you don't prepare it properly.”

The tradition goes back generations, says Avakian. “The south of Bohemia is filled with Renaissance fish ponds, meant for providing a cheap source of food for fasting days (Catholics, of course, were not allowed to eat meat over 100 days out of the year for religious reasons... and we all know fish are a vegetable). They'll be brought up from the region around Trebon, and served by fish mongers on nearly every street corner in large pools.”

Czechs either have the fish mongers fillet the fish, or they keep it at home until December 24th so it’s as fresh as possible.

And where do you keep a live carp until Christmas? In the bathtub.

“The hope is that you'll have it there for a few days, and it will get rid of the muddy flavor,” explains Avakian. “It never quite works.”

In the past, the carp was used in a soup and served for the holidays, but Avakian sees many families now choosing to bread and fry the fish instead, called smažený kapr.

He adds, “But I must admit that most families have a close connection to the source of their food, and even if you see a lady with perfect makeup on the main shopping streets of Prague wearing high heels in the snow -- God, help her. it is very likely she has killed her own food at some point in her life (chicken, rabbits, or fish).”

#2 Czechs traditional holiday side? Potato salad

To go along the the carp, a holiday meal is likely to include potato salad, bramborový salát.

The recipe is not unlike those you might find elsewhere in the world, especially the United States. Yet Avakian notes that the Czech version has a distinct difference as far as he’s concerned, “Depending on the family, it could be 80% mayonnaise.”

#1 Carp scales are considered good luck

Carp figures into the Christmas tradition beyond mealtime, notes Avakian. “We store the scales under our plates while we eat for good luck, and after the meal we will put the scales in our wallets for the hope of it making us rich the next year.”

These are just a few of the Czech traditions that make up their holiday celebrations. Avakian notes that putting carp in the bathtub may seem unusual at first, but he’s quick to point out, “There's usually no other place to put it, because of the size of the carp.”

He adds, “This is just part of Czech Christmas, of course! We have no Santa Claus, we have an odd habit of watching various fairytales on Christmas, and we often go on long hikes the next days – especially on Saint Steven's day (to work off the carp).”

So if you’re visiting Prague over the holidays, don’t be surprised to see the street corners brimming with buckets of carp – and then to have it served for dinner come Christmas, on December 24.

5 Surprising Czech Christmas Celebrations



Kristen J. Gough is the Global Cuisines & Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. She shares her family's adventurous food experiences--and recipes--at MyKidsEatSquid.com.