“Ahoj cestovatelko!” Hey, traveler!
This is how my Czech family greeted me upon my return 10 days ahead of Christmas 2019.
Admission: I had never celebrated Christmas before moving to CZ – yes, really! Christmas in the U.S.? Well, I know what anyone would know from the outside – firstly, it’s merry and bright (so the songs that you hear on repeat everywhere you go say), we love to richly decorate our houses and shops (which I assumes adds up to quite a big post-holiday bill), and the season is highly commercial. In New York, the Rockefeller Center tree and the many holiday specials are an unmissable event.
Still, my main experience of Christmas has been in CZ – where the major event is on the 24th in the evening instead of the 25th in the morning – but has been different every year as I celebrated in different households and as my language skills grew.
After just spending Christmas in South Moravia after two years away, I was reminded with gratitude how much I love this holiday – and more than the holiday, the holiday atmosphere in Czech Republic. The Christmas markets, the cookies, the family visits… it’s a shame it only comes once a year, but that’s also what makes it so special.
5. You Never Have to Buy Your Own Socks or Shower Gel Again
Socks and shower gel are classic gifts that you’ll get from close family members and (far) relatives alike.
The first year, the many toiletries in particular had me thinking, “Do I really smell this bad?”
But after all, who doesn’t need to renew their stock of cute socks and yummy scents after a year? This year I got 6 new pairs of socks – a reindeer on every single one of them – and 3+ sets of shower toiletries. Too bad I can’t fly them to Denmark or I’d be rolling in bubbles all year.
True story – one year I got a shower gel that smelled so good I made it last for 3 years. I just finished it last month.
4. You Get Gifts That You Actually Want & Need
The first thing you need to know is that Czech Republic doesn’t have Santa, but rather Ježíšek (Baby Jesus). He does not come down the chimney. Usually, a family member secretly rings a bell after the traditional dinner of carp and potato salad, and the gifts appear under the tree.
As I learned the hard way, no one really knows how he gets in and delivers the presents, but as my students let me know, “It’s just magic and it’s better not to ask questions.”
But what I really like is that, at least in my Czech family, it’s a custom to “write Ježíšek” a clever letter (publicized to all family members) asking him nicely for a short list of things you’d like. Okay, so American children write Santa, too. But although overenthusiastic consumerism is beginning to make its way here too (nothing like Black Friday, but lots of online sales), I find that most people stay practical and unextravagant.
You are not getting a Tiffany necklace every Christmas, but Baby Jesus generally makes it happen, whether it’s clothes, kitchen supplies, or – for me this year – a hand-coffee grinder and ear plugs. There are fewer instances of “Oh… thanks” and classic American re-gifting (which, for the record, I grew up with and support in many circumstances), and you don’t even have to prove you’ve been good!
3. A Fairytale Christmas in Every Home
Christmas always has some elements of magic.
First of all, if you fast / don’t eat until Christmas dinner on the 24th, you will apparently see a golden pig. Yup, just smile and nod. Actually, most people I know have seen him – surprising, I know – but on television commercials.
If you do eat, it’s lucky foods like lentil soup, which symbolizes money. So do the carp scales that some families place under their place-mats at the official dinner (carp and potato salad are the classic Christmas dinner foods for most families).
After dinner, everyone gathers around the TV to watch the year’s new fairytale. It always involves some new combination of kings and princesses and dragons and broken promises and cross-dressing and banquets and all those good things.
The first one we saw, “Princezna a půl království,” was about what happens when a normal village nobody “Honza” (the Czech version of Joe Schmo) coincidentally rescues the princess from a dragon instead of a rich, powerful, devilishly handsome prince or nobleman. It was surprisingly clever!
The whole month of December is full of classics on TV – including Home Alone, but that’s another story. I’m particularly proud of the fact that this year I actually understood most fairytales in full – I get better and more immersed every year, and subtitles help a lot, but honestly it’s easy to be confused when you walk in on a scene like this from Tri Veterani (which I did in 2014):
Other than that, you can go to the awesome Christmas markets to drink and make your own magic on the many impressive squares of this country.
2. “I Didn’t Have Time to Bake This Year”
It wouldn’t be Christmas without Christmas cookies. But the Czech version, cukroví, is not exclusive to cookies (and many Czech people are not even sure what “cookies” would look like). The majority are certainly not round.
It starts with gingerbread or perníčky. From there, there can be linecké, trubičky, pusinky, medovníček, vanilkové rohličky, and the list goes on…
Every year, loving moms and overzealous grandmas (mainly) bake up a storm and share their creations and classics alike with friends and family.
And sometimes…it can become a little bit of a competition.
You’ll hear from every one of them that they “barely had time to bake this year,” but the result of this is generally between 10-30 different. types. of. cookies. and I’ve even heard of upwards of 36 for the most outrageous Olympians.
1. It’s All About Family
Czech Christmas is personal. People slow down and spend time with loved ones. Christmas day is always spent with family, and the days following are for visiting family and close friends. It’s truly a warm and merry time.
What I also love is that Czech Christmas is still not very commercial. People put effort into gift-giving, and after the bell rings to signify the big unwrapping, the youngest (in our house) gives them out. However, you don’t write who it’s from- only who it’s for. All of the gifts are from Baby Jesus, after all.
This, I think, takes a lot of the “status” out of the equation, and is just about giving the people you love joy.
Not to mention the homemade food, the carp tradition, the family-wide tree-decorating (which also happens in the U.S.), the tradition of visiting Betlém (manger) exhibitions, and the endless flow of svařák (mulled wine), and more.
There is truly so much in this world to be thankful for.
What do you love about Christmas in Czech Republic? What about the traditions where you live, celebrate, or travel?
And by the way… Happy 2020!