Czech Christmas Traditions
By Lauretha Burks and Sherry Knight
Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918, when the Czechs and Slovaks united to form a single nation. In 1992, Czechoslovakia’s legislature adopted a constitutional amendment that provided for the formation of two separate countries out of Czechoslovakia. On December 31, 1992, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, and the independent countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia were created. The new government within these countries began a reform program to give more freedom to their people. These people adapted their own customs and beliefs. The people of the Czech Republic lost their bondage to Slovakia, gained their independence, and kept ancient traditions from their previous association.
An ancient tradition kept by the Czech Republic is the celebration of Christmas. Their celebration of Christmas is different from many countries around the world. The celebration is based on the legends and tales of a bishop by the name of Nicholas whom lived in the country of Turkey. There are stories that he often helped children who were in need. Many years after his death, he was made a saint, and in later time, he was named Saint Nicholas and became the patron saint of children.
Saint Nicholas is also known as Savty Mikulas or Mikulas. Saint Nicholas visits towns and cities, leads parades, talks to children, and often hands out small gifts. When participating in these events, he is dressed as a bishop by wearing a red or white robe and a tall, pointed hat. Saint Nicholas always has a helper.
The children love Saint Nicholas, but they are afraid of his helper. The helper is the one who keeps track of who was good and who was naughty. The date of his death, December 6, is the day of celebration for Christmas in the Czech Republic.
The belief is that St. Nicholas climbs down from heaven on a golden rope along with his companions: an angel and a whip-carrying devil. In order to receive a visit from St. Nicholas, the children have to promise to be good for the whole year. They put their shoes and boots on the window sill before going to bed. If they were good, they get gifts from St. Nicholas. If they were bad, the shoes and boots are filled with real coal. The gifts included candles, chocolates, nuts, and fruits. All of the gifts appeared on the Christmas table.
The dinner begins with the appearance of the first star. Only the man and his family can sit at the table. The floor under the table is painted with clean white limestone. The legs of the tables are tied by iron chains as a symbol of family ties and togetherness.
Bread and candles are placed in the center of the table. They are symbols for Christ child who would be the light of the world and the staff of life. The Christmas Eve dinner is a sacred event. During the meal, no one is permitted to leave the table. It is thought to mean someone would not be present there during the coming year. They would eat Christmas sauerkraut soup, potato salad with only potatoes, and breaded carps in black sauce or dumplings. The carps or fish symbolize the last supper. Fish scales are placed under each plate for dinner. This is for wealth and abundance.
Honey is also a big part of the Czech Republic Christmas celebration. Mother makes a cross with honey on the forehead of each member of the family as protection against evil. Everyone dip a Christmas Eve waffle into honey and eat it along with garlic. The honey is for goodness and health. The garlic is to scare the bad evils of sickness.
Many of the Czech Republicans traditions are based on life and death. The father slices an apple to the number of people at the table. The person whose seed is cut out will die in the coming year. The candle is also a part of the traditions. They maintain and practice these traditions each year. They have faith in the beliefs of each tradition practiced.
A candle is selected and passed to the oldest person to blow out. If the smoke goes up, the person will have good fortune and be around for next year’s dinner. If the smoke goes down, bad luck will follow. The person will not be at the table next year. The candle is relit and passed to the next oldest person to blow out. This continues until all persons have blown out the candle.
The most interesting tradition is the Christmas tree which hangs from the ceiling beam. The decorations are all homemade. Paper and straw ornaments or chains and wax candles are used for decoration. They also use food. Honey pastries, walnuts, apples, and pine cones are often used. The people go to midnight mass preceded by some Christmas carols at the end of the day.
The people of the Czech Republic treasure their traditions, and they continue celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in the old, unique, and traditional way. Christmas time is filled with feast, love, and togetherness, a moment not taken for granted. The celebration of Christmas in the Czech Republic will be one of the traditions which is celebrated for many generations to come.
About the Authors and their Mentor
When Lauretha Burks and Sherry Knight wrote this paper, they were students at Brandon High School in Brandon, Mississippi. Their teacher was Ms. June Hollis. Ms. Hollis received a Fulbright Grant to study in the Czech and Slovak Republics during the summer of 1998. There were 16 teachers in the group. The first month, they studied at Charles University in Prague. It was then celebrating its 650th birthday. Ms. Hollis related that when they returned to the campus of “Ole Miss,” they laughed at the big banners proclaiming 150 years!
As a result of this trip, Ms. Hollis decided to try to create a web page. She explained that she knew absolutely nothing about building web pages but that through trial and error she managed to figure it out.
Ms. Hollis teaches Advanced Geography at Brandon High School and for the unit on Eastern Europe, she had her students select topics to research. Their papers, if they were good, were posted to the web site.
About the Czech Republic, Ms. Hollis related: “I might add how much I loved the Czech Republic. I've said many times that I would retire there if it wasn't so far from family! Prague is the most incredible city I've ever been in. The Ossuary at Kutna Hora is the most amazing church I've ever been in. I could go on and on.”