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Czech Christmas through the Eyes of an Expat:

A Practical Guide


a tour guide explaining Czech Christmas traditions to a group of tourists at the Christmas Markets in Prague


Christmas in Prague is picturesque, charming and …well…different than what I grew up with in the US. Back home in the States we have Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole crooning about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire”folks “dashing through the snow” and an occasional reference to the Czech Republic’s own ‘Good King Wenceslas”. Santa Claus is seen everywhere complete with sled, reindeer and a bag of gifts. Elves sitting on shelves and more candy canes then any school of kids could eat in a year populate the holiday.

My first Christmas in the Czech Republic was full of surprises, confusion and even a bit of tension at work. Let me tell you about it. I have lived with Santa Claus visiting on Christmas Eve night since I could understand what a holiday was. No such fat jolly person visits here. Instead the gifts are brought by Ježíšek, or baby Jesus. I just want to stop right there and point out that this is one of the most atheist countries in the world, yet no contradiction is felt here. Even if you are religious and believe in Jesus (the grown up one) there seems to be no issue. Ježíšek is magic. He is the bringer of toys and fun though I suspect he also brings new underwear, something parents claim you need, and no one wants for Christmas. Under the Communist regime there was an attempt to replace Ježíšek with a Santa like figure known as Děda Mráz (Grandfather Frost) but he never had as big of a following as baby Jesus.


a tour guide showing a traditional Czech Nativity scene to a group of tourists on a Prague Christmas Markets tour


The other strange thing about this is he pops by around dinner to leave the gifts while everyone is at the dinner table. After he drops off the gifts, he rings a bell signaling he is done. I imagine this creates a stampede of children running to the Christmas tree in hopes of a glimpse of the baby. At this point the scene is about the same throughout the world; paper being torn, boxes being ripped open, and toys everywhere. If you are looking for “Ol’ Saint Nick” then you will need to be here on the 5th/6th of December. Saint Nicholas was a real dude who brought gifts to those in the church a good long time ago. As we have Santa Claus making visits to homes and parties in America as well as many other countries, St. Nicholas can visit as well. He will bring along an angel and a devil and ask the children if they have been good or bad. Usually the child will claim the status of “good”, sing a song or recite poetry then get a gift. Bad children are given coal and very bad children are loaded into a bag the devil has to take them away. A friend shared with me that once her brother realized he would only be in the bag until the front porch he was “bad all the time”. I imagine my sister may say the same thing.

Christmas traditions and meals are different as well. As a rule, Christmas Eve was a fasting day for some Christians, since you could not eat meat, fish was the alternative for supper. In the Czech Republic that fish is carp. I know what some of you are thinking, “Carp! Why not something like salmon or trout??” This is simple, it is plentiful here. The southern areas of this country have many ponds and small lakes that are stocked with carp and carp farming has been going on here for centuries.

It gets better! Traditionally you didn’t just buy a carp prepared at the market, but you buy a live carp and it will live for a couple of days in the bathtub. The idea was it would make the carp cleaner, meanwhile the children get dirtier. Often the fish will gain a name and the status of “pet” during its stay in the tub. I can see where this may cause a bit of a problem when it comes time to cook the meal.

Commonly the fish is fried and served with potato salad. Why potato salad? Because everything in this country is served with potato salad! I doubt you could visit for two days and not have potato salad or some other potato side with the meal. Seriously, welcome to Prague, now eat your potato salad.


a close up of the traditional Czech potato salad


Another big deal food at Christmas is cookies. This is something I think everyone is familiar with and happy about. But, whereas in America there will certainly be some cookies, maybe lots of cookies, the Czechs take cookie baking to a whole other level. The cookie making may start as early as late November and continue until a day or two before the 24th. Not only do the Czechs make tons of cookies there is seemingly a competition of sorts when it comes to varieties. As a friend described; she had made about 9 varieties when she found out her mother-in- law had made 12 kinds. She immediately returned to the kitchen to surpass her in-law. She then lamented how she would be left with piles of cookies after the holidays.

So, let’s sit down to have the meal. Even that has some rules. First, since Christmas Eve is day of fasting the tradition is, if you fast before your dinner, you may see the Flying Golden Pig, a sign of good luck. Truthfully, I have asked a number of people and read as many books and articles as I can on the subject but I can’t find out why a pig and how does it fly. I guess you just don’t question the Golden Pig. Since we are now at the dinner table tradition dictates that you must remain seated until the meal is over. According to tradition, the first person to stand up and leave the table will die within the year. Everyone must finish their meal and rise together. That is certainly quite the punishment for having to go to the toilet or if you forgot the salt! Some folks I know have a work around where, if someone needs to leave the table, someone else will stand up with them. I guess this is a simple way to keep death at bay. Another custom is to set an even number of plates at the table, even if there are an odd number of people. If there is an odd number of place settings, there could be death or very bad luck in the coming year. Don’t forget to take an apple and cut it in half from the stem. If you see a star shape all is well but if it is a 4 point cross, you guessed it, death. Who would have thought Christmas dinner with the family could be so lethal?


a tour guide on a Christmas tour in Prague showing the tourists one of the most popular Czech Christmas traditions - cutting the apple

Now that we have eaten the “pet”, staved off death and opened gifts you would think we could just eat cookies and play with toys. No such luck. There are all sorts of fortunes and prophecies that need to be uncovered.

First, don’t throw those fish scales away! A fish scale carried in your wallet or coin purse will insure prosperity for the coming year. Others say you must put the scale under the plate to bring the house good fortune. I suggest both just to cover all bases. For the single ladies, throwing a shoe over your shoulder towards the door will predict if you are to be married soon. If the front of the shoe points to the doorway then there will be wedding bells that year. 

Walnut shells are made into little boats with a tiny candle in them. Put them in water and what they do will predict the year. As you may guess, death can be one of the outcomes. You would think the Grim Reaper would mellow out around Christmas. Obviously, he is just filling the calendar for the coming year. There are so many more traditions I will not endeavor to try to cover. This is a blog, not a book. What I can is give you a bit more information about Christmas here.

a tour guide holding a nutshell candlestick during a Prague Christmas Markets Tour


The most important bit of information is that everything about the holiday focuses more on Christmas Eve then Christmas day. A big surprise for yours truly. This became a bit of an issue for me at work. In my planning for my tour guide job I was thinking like an American. For me, Christmas Eve is the final push for gift shopping, and I don’t recall a Christmas Eve that the family had lunch together. Not so in Prague! People will have reservations weeks in advance for that day. I know you are thinking that I just mentioned this is a time of fasting. I don’t have an answer for you. I guess they don’t care about the Pig. Back to my story. I went to get reservations for my tour group for Christmas Eve thinking there would be no problem and ran into a brick wall. I couldn’t understand why everyplace was full. One of the owners couldn’t understand why I waited so long. It became a bit tense trying to find a place that took reservations before my boss threw me out of a window but in the end, reservations were made, windows stayed closed and I learned a lesson. Make those reservations early! Expect many places to be closed that day. 


a group of people sitting a table full of traditional Czech dishes with a glass of delicious Czech beer in hand


October 30, 2019