There’s a lot of things I love about Czech culture, but there’s nothing quite as amazing as the annual Christmas tradition of Mikuláš. The event kicks off the Christmas season and gives kids nightmares for weeks.
Who is Mikuláš?
Mikuláš is Czech for St. Nicholas, and Old St. Nick’s day is celebrated on December 6 every year, though the festivities are held on the eve of St. Nicholas Day. On that night, Mikuláš, represented as a bearded bishop, visits the children of the Czech Republic with two friends in tow, an angel and a devil. Mikuláš is visually the closest thing the Czechs have to Santa Claus, because baby Jesus (Ježíšek) is the one who delivers gifts to homes on Christmas Eve. But weeks before, Mikuláš comes around to judge children for how they behaved each year.
The three characters: Mikuláš, the angel, and the devil traditionally visit the homes of families. If the children are good, the angel gives them sweets or candy. But if they’re bad, the devil threatens to put them in their sack and take them to hell. In order to escape this cruel fate, the kids have to recite a poem or sing a song. Instead of candy, these bad kids get coal or potatoes.
How the tradition is celebrated
You might be wondering, who are these people going from house to house? Well, in a lot of small towns where families know each other, three or four people volunteer and the parents give them lists of which kids are good and which are bad. The friendly visitors are repaid with either food or booze. So Mikuláš, the angel, and devil can be quite sloshed by the time they get to the last house. Some families arrange this visit with strangers for a fee. It’s like visiting Santa Claus at the mall except Santa Claus comes to you. Also Santa Claus is terrifying.
In big cities like Prague, parents bring their kids out to the Christmas markets just after sundown, around 5 to 8 pm on December 5, where they can meet Mikuláš. And some people dress up just to hang out at the Christmas markets. You’ll know they’re coming when you hear chains dragging along the floor and children start crying. It’s important to note that if you do want to get a costume for the event, you should start looking early November. Even though I miraculously convinced my friends to dress up with me, costume rentals were all booked by mid-November. And as dedicated as I am to dressing up, I’m not willing to spend upwards of $150 to buy any costume.
But if you do, you’ll get to spook local children and force them to own up to their misbehavior. I can’t overstate the terror these kids feel when they think the devil is going to take them to hell. My Czech friends recall hiding in fear and shudder at the memory of it. The parents get a kick out of it, as do I. And I imagine this is part of the reason why Czech people are so great as adults. They were threatened with the fear of the devil every year into becoming better people.
If you’re in Prague, it’s a great night to enjoy the Christmas markets, many of which have just opened at the beginning of December.