Advent season in the Czech Republic
If you’re spending your first winter in the Czech Republic, you might be interested in how Czech people celebrate winter holidays. Even though Czechia is known to be one of the most atheistic countries in the world, Czech people still follow many traditions and like their Christmas to be very festive.
Advent season is four weeks long just like everywhere else to commemorate the liturgical calendar but unless you’re Christian, most families only practice lighting candles on a Christmas wreath each Sunday. For the vast majority of Czech people, advent is time to finally get serious about preparing for Christmas like buying presents for your family and friends, cleaning and baking Christmas sweets.
The first Advent Sunday, called “iron Sunday,” usually marks the start of Christmas street fairs that are held in every bigger Czech city. We highly recommend visiting a traditional Christmas fair; especially in Prague and Olomouc. There are outdoor concerts, a big Christmas tree, a bell you can ring to make a wish, a beautiful Bethlehem replica made by local artists and other attractions like merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, ponies and horse carriages.
Even as an adult you don’t have to be ashamed to try out everything. Outdoor concerts are held each day in the evening and are totally free, ringing the bell is for everyone and even childish-looking merry-go-rounds often let adults on provided you don’t weight a ton. Ponies are obviously just for children so adults can ride a historical carriage pulled by horses. Depending on the particular city, you can also listen to street artists singing carols and playing various musical instruments.
And, of course, they are countless stalls. You can buy delicious sweets that are usually not available in shops like huge decorated gingerbreads (in Czech “perník”), a traditional Moravian cake “frgál” and other unusual candy. Buy a little bit of everything, you won’t regret it. It’s probably useful if you know how these sweets are called in Czech as stall sellers in smaller cities often don’t speak English well or at all.
Probably one of the most famous Czech street sweets is “trdelník.” It used to be a Christmas fair exclusive treat but now you can buy it during any season in Prague city centre or sometimes outside shopping malls. It’s delicious but also quite expensive (price starting at 60 CZK) and not actually traditionally Czech even though its sellers clam it is. Still, if it’s your first time here, you might as well as go for it so that you know what all that fuss is about.
If you’d prefer to have some proper food, going for “langoš” is always a good choice provided it’s prepared freshly out of dough in front of you. “Langoš” is basically wheat deep fried flatbread with garlic, cheese and ketchup/mayo on top. It’s super delicious but also very greasy and not exactly traditionally Czech either even though most Czechs think it is.
If you’re not a fan of greasy food, there are certainly many other food options like sausages with bread, baked meat, crepes (both sweet and salty ones), Slovak dumplings “halušky” and a great variety of cheese products from local producers. Potato pancakes are also very tasty but possibly even greasier than “langoš” and price is based on their weight so a huge potato pancake can cost well over 100 CZK.
As far as drinks go, mulled wine is always a good idea; in Czech we call it “svařák.” Just be careful when drinking too many cups as Czech people tend to add a shot of strong alcohol to make this drink more interesting. Mead, in Czech “medovina,” will also warm you up and is very tasty. You can buy the whole bottle if grow fond of it, definitely a great consumable Czech souvenir. A piece of smoked cheese and bread with greaves spread go well with it and you will get that medieval vibe Prague is so famous for.
If you’re looking for presents that don’t come from shopping malls, ignore generic items and go for original products by local artists. There are beautiful Christmas glass decorations (Czechia is world-renowned for them), artsy jewellery, lavender and honey soaps and other bio cosmetics. It’s possible to buy clothes as well like knitted ponchos, gloves, scarves and woolly socks. Just be careful and go for hand-made products you won’t find in regular shops.
On the 5th of December, Czech people celebrate “Mikuláš.” This person is not to be confused with Santa Claus, even though both originated from a real historical Greek Christian bishop Saint Nicholas. He also has a white beard but he wears a long traditional bishop robe, not a red suit with white fur.
In the evening on the 5th of December, Mikuláš visits households and brings his two helpers—a devil and an angel. The visiting isn’t symbolic at all; people dress up as Mikuláš, a devil and an angel and visit homes with small children. It’s usually locals who dress up or teenagers who hope to earn some pocket money.
Mikuláš asks children if they’ve been good while the devil and the angel basically play a good cop and a bad cop. If a child’s been good, it gets sweets as a reward. If it’s been bad, it gets only coal and is warned that the devil will take it to Hell with him. Some psychologists argue that it’s not a good practice to scare little children with devils but the tradition still lives on. I remember that as a child I was once really scared because the person who played the devil took his role too far and put a huge baby doll inside his bag and it looked totally legit. Thankfully, no lasting trauma.
The second Advent Sunday is called “bronze,” the third is “silver” and the fourth and final one is “golden.” As most Czechs aren’t religious, nothing particularly special is going on during following weeks and people just continue with their preparations—buying presents, baking Christmas sweets, going to Christmas fairs, cleaning apartments and planning their visits.
Vánoční trhy – Christmas fair
Perník – gingerbread
Frgál – a traditional Moravian cake
Trdelník – a kind of spit cake made of rolled dough, grilled and topped with sugar, cinnamon, coconut or walnut mix, optionally and for extra price filled with ice-cream or Nutella
Langoš – a deep fried flatbread with garlic, ketchup/mayo and cheese on top
Svařák – mulled wine
Medovina – mead
Halušky – Slovak potato dumplings with sheep cheese curds and fried bacon
Mikuláš – a Czech version of Saint Nicholas (NOT Santa Claus)
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