Christmas in the Czech Republic
Winter holiday usually starts on the 23rd of December for school children and university students but it might start a few days sooner based on a weekday Christmas Day falls on each year. Adults usually work even on the 23rd but most take a day off if they can. In Czech, Christmas is called “Vánoce.”
The last week of work or school is time for Christmas parties. Going to these events isn’t compulsory but most people attend as there is free food, mulled wine and they can meet in an informal situation. While it’s not obligatory to give presents to your colleagues or classmates, Czech companies often give their employees little gifts or vouchers as a form of appreciation. Some companies play a “secret Santa” which means that people buy small presents for their unsuspecting colleagues.
Probably the biggest difference between Czech Christmas and Western European or American Christmas is that presents are opened on Christmas Eve, not in the morning on the 25th. The whole day of the 24th is called “Štědrý den” which literally means Generous Day.
Some families fast from the morning till the evening. It used to be a liturgical tradition but in reality most people just like to be super hungry and stuff themselves with celebratory dinner afterwards. Parents tell their children that if they manage to fast, they’ll see a golden pig. If they actually see one, it might be a hallucination from starvation. If not, they probably broke their fast. Even if a family doesn’t go for a full fast, they still eat lighter meals like Czech sweet bread “Vánočka” with butter for breakfast and then skip lunch or have just soup.
Some families decorate their Christmas tree on the 24th, others prefer to do it a few days beforehand. Families with little kids usually buy a real tree; others just take an artificial one they re-use each use. Czechia is famous for its exquisite glass products and Christmas decorations are one of them. They’re quite expensive but original and totally worth the cost. You can buy them at outdoor Christmas fairs in every bigger Czech city.
Czechia probably produces the highest number of original fairy tale films made for each Christmas by Ceska televize (Czech national broadcasting company) compared to the rest of the world. While Czechs can be happy watching American Christmas comedies during the day, in the evening after dinner almost everybody watches a new fairy tale that premieres. The most famous and re-airing each year is a Czech version of Cinderella from 1973 called “Popelka,” in English Three Wishes for Cinderella (you can watch it on Netflix). If a Czech person tells you they’ve never seen it or they don’t like it, they’re definitely lying.
Traditional Czech Christmas dinner consists of soup and one main course; we’re not counting all those home-made baked sweets. As for Christmas soup, it can be either fish soup or pea variety. Fish soup may be more traditional but for those who don’t like the idea of boiling fish heads, pea works just fine.
For the main course, almost every family makes a potato salad. It’s made of cooked potatoes cut into little cubicle pieces, eggs, carrots, pickled cucumbers, onions and mayo. Some families might add other ingredients but the universal basis is this. Christmas potato salad is eaten cold and it’s much better when put into fridge for a few hours to rest.
As for meat, Czech Christmas is all about fish even though Czechia doesn’t have sea, being an inland country. The most traditional Christmas fish is carp that is bred in local ponds. You can buy your own carp at Christmas fairs or in front of supermarkets. Obviously, nothing for vegetarians as these poor fish are sold alive and sellers either kill them in front of you or you can bring it home and kill it yourself (not recommended if you’re an amateur). If you don’t fancy carp, you can go for cod fillets. In both cases, cod and carp are deep fried in breadcrumbs. Still, if you absolutely hate fish, fried chicken steaks in breadcrumbs (in Czech called “řízky,” also known as “schnitzels”) are a legit option.
After dinner comes the most exciting time—unwrapping presents. In Czech tradition, there’s no Santa Claus but “Ježíšek” which means “a little Jesus” in translation. I admit it, pretty strange for a predominantly atheistic country. Even though every Czech kid believes in “Ježíšek,” it seems every family has a little bit different explanation of this phenomenon. I remember my parents telling me that it’s a small cute hedgehog bringing me gifts on its spines. It’s actually a pun as a hedgehog is called “ježek” in Czech.
Christmas present-giving is probably the same just like everywhere. Parents buy presents for their children who had written a letter with their wishes to “Ježíšek” beforehand. It might be tricky to put presents under the tree since kids don’t go to sleep but parents have their clever ways. My mother always tried to distract us with Christmas sweets while my father had a secret switch to light our Christmas tree remotely.
“Štědrý den” is usually spent with the closest family while the 25th and the 26th are for visiting one’s extended family. It might even be time to visit your best friends but that depends on the person. For most people, it’s mainly a family thing as they usually give presents to their friends at some Christmas party of later before New Year.
December the 25th and the 26th are bank holidays so shops are closed. Public transport works but it’s limited to weekend timetables. As trains tend to be full, we recommend buying a ticket with a reserved seat in advance if you decide to travel. While Christmas Eve is generally a family thing, your classmates might be willing to spend time with you on these latter days but keep in mind that most students living in dormitories often have their families far away. It’s better to enjoy Advent season to the fullest with fairs, shopping, delicious food and parties and return to your own country for Christmas.
Enjoy Czech Christmas!
Štědrý den – Christmas Eve, literally “Generous Day”
Vánoce – Christmas
Vánočka – traditional Christmas sweet bread eaten with butter
Popelka – Cinderella
Ježíšek – a Czech version of Santa Claus but not based on Saint Nicholas at all, in translation literally means “little Jesus”
Dárek – a gift
Vánoční stromeček – Christmas tree
Cukroví – Christmas sweets
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