Christmas in Czechland Part II: A Beginner’s Guide

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So I’ve survived my first Czech Christmas. I didn’t fall out with Czechman or choke to death on a stray carp bone.  In fact, I actually quite enjoyed myself. 

Anyway, I have decided to compile a handy beginner’s guide to Christmas here in Czechland for other foreigners who may decide to follow in my footsteps in 2011.

1. Erm, when is Christmas again?  The first important point to remember is that like many other European nations, Czechs celebrate Christmas on the 24th December.  This means that you will get your presents a day early (hooray!) but it won’t feel like it. Why? Because unlike back in England you won’t get to open your gifts straight after breakfast but will be forced to wait until the evening.  This anomaly may lead to you experiencing a weird sense of ‘giftlag’.

2. What’s for dinner?  For those of you who weren’t paying attention to my last post, the centrepiece of the Czech table on Christmas day is a fish, not a bird.  The tradition Czech Christmas spread is fried carp in breadcrumbs accompanied by potato salad. 

It was tasty enough.  The main issue in my view was that there was no dessert.  No Christmas pudding!  Not that I actually like Christmas pudding all that much – it’s true what the French say, that the lardy combination of dried fruit and brandy sits in your stomach like a lump of concrete – but hey, Christmas comes but once a year and I want to feel like I’ve overindulged. Still, it’s another excuse to put another handful of those delicious homemade Christmas biscuits (cukroví) in your mouth.  My personal favourite is the one with the rum in.  Or perhaps one of those chocolate hearts.  Mmm…

3. The Czech are crackers about crackers. When you’re foreign, you do your best to suck up to the in-laws at all times.  At least I do anyway.  My contribution to Czechmanovi’s Christmas dinner was not edible and really went off with a bang. Literally.  None of Czechman’s family had ever seen a cracker before. They loved them. 

Although the paper crowns were only worn for five minutes and I’m not sure exactly what they made of the prizes – a small plastic Christmas tree anyone? No? What about a fortune-telling cellophane fish? – there was plenty of laughing and smiling. Any humour which may have been present in the jokes, however, was well and truly lost in translation.

4. There’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to deliberately ruin the magic of Christmas for you.  The thing is, while the Russian Děda Mráz and American Santa Claus may have tried to take his place, the great honour of delivering festive gifts in Czechland remains the task of Ježíšek. 

Who exactly is Ježíšek? It’s hard to say exactly as he’s invisible but it is reported that he’s the baby Jesus himself.  After Christmas dinner, the grown ups go into the living room, open the window and in he flies, leaving presents for all the family under the Christmas tree. Only if you’ve been good though.

5. The present opening part.  Once Ježíšek has made his delivery, the present opening part of the day can begin. It takes place around the Christmas tree: so far, so similar.  However, instead of taking it in turns to open their gifts, the Czechs just hand out everything in one go.  This means that it’s almost impossible to watch the expression on the face of the recipient of your present.  As (at least hopefully) a big part of the pleasure of Christmas comes from the giving as well as receiving, this did take away a little bit of the magic for me. 

There were other differences too.  No Queen’s speech of course but I’d rather watch a Czech fairytale in any case.  It was also a sober affair: I mean literally.  In our family at least, Christmas is yet another excuse to get exceedingly drunk. Everyone is the wrong side of tipsy by 3pm; in Czechman’s family not a drop of alcohol was consumed all day.

What were the highlights of Ježišek’s offerings?  Wooly knitted socks and a leopard print wearable blanket. Can you guess which is the practical Czech gift and which is the tongue-in-cheek English one?

21 Comments

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21 Responses to Christmas in Czechland Part II: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. Camelia

    And how about “hunting the golden pig”? Did you not experience that?

    • girlinczechland

      Hello Camelia,
      No, I didn’t experience that but it sounds intriguing… Do tell more…
      GIC

      • Camelia

        It involves just not eating at all during the 24th until dinner – then you are able to see the golden pig (zlaté prasátko).
        I am not aware of logic of this act though, but I know that in past parents at the end of the day created the pig by simply playing with a mirror and light. Maybe it was just an action of not letting children fed themselves up by cookies so they would eat the whole dinner.
        Anyway, while I’m explaining this, I might as well tell you that I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and I like what I read here. Good luck.

  2. The fifth point is not true. Not in our family at least.

  3. There are some differences among different families. We used to “go at it” with the presents opening all at once when we were kids (no time to wait!), but now when we are grownups we take turns to enjoy the giving as well as receiving. And Christmas is not definitely a sober holiday, its a feast of great wines being served throughout the day. You need to update your Czechman’s family traditions a bit! 😉

  4. Veronika

    We take turns in opening presents in my family – we did even when we were children. And we drink alcohol, although we don’t get drunk (only a little perhaps 🙂
    I’m happy you enjoyed your first Czech Christmas!

  5. Katka

    Like Honza, I was also thinking the sober holiday isn’t the tradition of most Czechs. 😀 Afterall, Czech Republic has the most beer consumption of any country in the world per capita!

  6. Hi GIC,
    I was most surprised, as were a couple of other of your commenters, about how sober Czechman’s family were on Christmas Eve. I don’t think that is typical. But you comment that the main celebration, like many other continental European nations, is on Christmas Eve is very true. I’m married to a German & it is a point she makes to me each Christmas. So we have a continental Christmas Eve dinner & then go to the Midnight Eucharist & have a British Christmas Dinner the next day after Church in the morning. As my wife says – I get two Christmas dinners!

  7. You didn’t see the golden piglet which means the next year won’t bring you any wealth. Sorry 🙂 But I know why. Because you didn’t fast that day eating only lentils (representing coins) for lunch. Plus you didn’t find a fish-scale under your plate, did you? Fish-scale represents money too. Czechs like money :-))) And don’t tell me you guys weren’t drinking “vaječný koňak”! Btw. my most favorite cukroví are vosí hnízda.

  8. paranoiq

    most people think, that there is no Santa in czech traditions, but they are wrong. american Santa Claus, or in other name Saint Nicholas or Nicolas Claus is the same character as middle-euroean Mikuláš. he just comes a few weeks earlier and takes with him devils and angels instead of reindeer powerd sledge 😛

  9. I’m glad you enjoyed your first Czech Christmas 🙂 Btw, which is your favourite Czech fairy tale?

  10. In my experiences, gifts are distributed by the youngest person in the family and in turns are opened, with comments like: ‘co to je?’…’krasne’…’pikne’…
    I couldn’t immagine a czech xmas without alcool.

    Merry Thusday!

  11. Lida

    Hi, point 5. seems unusual.
    We always took turn in our family, even as a small kids. We were guessing what sort of present we’re getting. Is it soft, or any sharp edges, is something rattling inside the package? We also thanked to Jezisek for every single present. Presents’ opening took a long time, sometimes nearly to midnight. To keep awake, we drunk a bit of wine, and other spirits. Even as a small children we were allowed to have a drinks too, within a reason, and whole family had a wonderful time.
    I have very fond memories of those nice Christmas times, now living in Australia, not having carp and snow…and no Jezisek

  12. grympy

    Yep, as far as I know ussualy the youngest member of family is in charge of gift delivery and it’s done in turns. As for a “cukrovi” I’m a fan of “vanilkové rohlíčky” and alcohol is definitely consumed at least in a way of “dveřová”, which is basicaly a welcome drink for newcomers, consisting ussualy of some spirits, like slivovice or koňak (cognague) in wealthier families.

  13. Richardinprague

    Ježíšek?

    In our Czech family we all write to Ježíšek in exactly the same way as British children write to Father Christmas. We have a standard format – we have to start off with saying sorry for having been naughty (yes – even the adults!), then we write a little list of what we’d like from Ježíšek, along with a helpful hint as to colour, size and where it can be found (very helpful folk in our family!)

    When the letter is written we fold it up, wind some ribbon around it, and hang it on a tree, or outside the window so that the angels, or even Ježíšek himself can find it easily.

    Maybe you need to have little ones around you to do this … but our “little one” left home this year to go to university …. however we still did the Ježíšek ourselves sometime in November. Daft, isn’t it?

    Happy new year, GIC!

  14. Ira

    Ah, Czechland… 🙂 Good memories.

  15. Martin P.

    Quite often, people eat fruit salad as a desert (banana, kiwi fruit, raisins, tangerines, apples).

    • girlinczechland

      Hmm, fruit salad is tasty enough but it’s not very decadent is it? I think Christmas should be about (over) indulgence…
      GIC

  16. Lida

    Hi Martin P., fruit salad is a post-communist invention, isn’t it?
    Kiwi fruit and tangerines did not exist in communist shops.

    In the ‘workers’paradise’, that’s how Ceskoslovenska Socialisticka Republika called itself, we were lucky to get 1kg oranges, mandarines and/or bananas per family. Those once a year gooddies were carefully divided between us, three children, so it lasted whole Christmas holidays.

  17. Lenka

    In my family we actually are distributin one present at a time and then we all watch the opening :-)). It´s great.

  18. honza

    In my family, we distribute the presents, each persons has it’s own pile of gifts and then we take turns to open them. In my wife’s family, the gifts are distributed one after another and opened directly. I don’t know any family, that would open all the gifts at the same time.

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