Like many European nations, the Czech Republic is known for celebrating Christmas at the Christmas markets scattered around the city. But this is only part of how Christmas is celebrated in the country, and the Czech Christmas traditions at home might seem a little weird to people from other countries.
Christmas Eve dinner
Christmas (or Vánoce in Czech) is primarily celebrated on Christmas Eve. That’s when the big dinner feast is held and surprisingly, when the Christmas tree is put up. Fasting throughout the day is common on Christmas Eve until dinnertime. According to legend, you fast all day in the hopes of seeing the “golden pig” in the evening. It’s unclear if this is supposed to be starvation-fueled hallucination, but you certainly won’t see a golden pig on the dinner table, because carp is what’s for dinner in the Czech Republic on Christmas Eve.
In the days leading up to Christmas, carp that have been raised in the lakes of the country are brought to town squares in large vats full of water. Traditionally, families pick out a carp and take it home to live in the bathtub until the 24th when the carp is killed and cooked for dinner. I can’t begin to comprehend how one would take a giant carp home alive in the first place, much less go about killing it in your home without accidentally decorating for Halloween in your bathroom. If you want to celebrate Christmas without all the gore, you can buy fresh carp from the markets or the grocery store.
Christmas Eve dinner consists of carp, served fried, along with carp soup and potato salad. Like all traditions, everyone has their own way of preparing the carp, and some families skip the carp altogether. If you want to try it yourself, here is a good recipe guide for carp and other traditional Czech Christmas favorites.
The Ježíšek tradition
Unlike jolly Saint Nick coming to visit on Christmas Eve like in many other countries, the Christmas visitor who brings the goods in the Czech Republic is baby Jesus, or Ježíšek. It’s kind of ridiculous for children to believe that a baby can deliver presents to your house, but I suppose no more so than a heavy elderly man. Children all around the country who are sitting for Christmas Eve dinner will hear the sound of a bell to signify that Ježíšek has stopped by. Presents are opened right after dinner and not the next morning.
Not only does Ježíšek bring the presents, Czech Christmas tradition dictates he bring the tree, too! Instead of putting up the tree weeks before Christmas, a lot of families will decorate the tree on Christmas Eve. This is perhaps my favorite Czech Christmas tradition, because when you think about it, it’s the most festive activity of the Christmas season. It makes perfect sense to enjoy that with family on Christmas Eve. If you put your tree up on December 1, it’s probably going to be dead and browning by Christmas. Instead, the Czechs get to enjoy Christmas out in the public squares for the entire month of December, buying mistletoe and ornaments before celebrating privately at home.
Traditionally, the tree is supposed to stay up until the 6th of Christmas, but I’ve seen the remains of a Christmas tree being taken downstairs as late as March, so people really push it with the festivities.
Having fasted and feasted and enjoyed the presents under the tree, Christmas Day in the Czech Republic is a lot more relaxed. Another family meal is in order but there are no hard or fast rules about what’s on the menu. Many opt for turkey, goose, or duck. Like all traditional Czech dishes, it’s typically served with cabbage and dumplings – making this similar to other big festive dinners like the Feast of St. Martin. For religious families, a mass is a popular way to celebrate the day – with some masses held at midnight on Christmas Eve. Most people just hang around at home since everything is closed (though the outdoor Christmas markets are still open).
More on the Christmas markets in Prague here.
Along with the 25th of December, the 26th which is St. Stephen’s Day, is also a commonly celebrated Czech Christmas tradition. It used to be that people celebrated the day by going caroling, a tradition that’s still maintained in some areas. Known as Second Christmas, it’s a day everyone has off and is celebrated mostly at home or with relatives. After the heavy dinner(s) of Christmas, it’s a good time to enjoy the sweets of the season before they’re gone – no Christmas cookies or gingerbread until next Vánoce!