Christmas in the Capital

It's that time of year again: when the streets are full of happy little shoppers trying to stay warm with the local svarák, while sidestepping the bloodstained butchers selling live carp from barrels. The decorations are up, the number of sad faces is down, and the shops are full to the point of bursting. Welcome to Prague, where bells jingle jangle all the way leaving the nights anything but silent.

Christmas in the Czech Republic generally begins four weeks before Christmas Day with Advent. For the uninitiated, Advent is a Latin word meaning he who comes or arrives. It recalls the four thousand long years humanity endured awaiting the arrival of the Redeemer and is typically a time for fasting and religious reflection. The lighting of the fourth advent candle on the final Sunday signals the start of the abundance and feasting of the Christmas holidays.

On December 6th the festivities kick off all around the country with Mikuláš, a sort of D-day for kids. St. Nicholas (Svatý Mikuláš) asks children everywhere whether they've been naughty or nice and hands out fruit and other goodies, or potatoes and coal, according to the answers he receives. Mikuláš is not a one-man show, however. He is always accompanied by a horned devil with a long, red tongue who is equipped with a chain and staff which he uses to punish all bad children, as well as a sack in which he can carry them off to Hell. Balancing out the Prince of Darkness, and offering the little darlings protection from him to boot, is an angel dressed in white with paper wings and a star on his forehead. Don't forget to carry your camera on this festive day, for it truly is a sight to see all these costumed creatures bewitching children across the entire city.

It is said that the first Prague Christmas tree was put up in 1812 by J.K. Liebech (then the director of Stavovské divadlo) for his guests. Not wanting to be outdone, Czech nobility soon began to follow suit and by the 1840's, Christmas trees had become a natural part of the high holidays. They were originally decorated with sweets, handicrafts, gingerbread or various pastries. Today, they are mostly covered in glowing ornaments made of blown glass as well as colorful chains winding up and down the tree. The largest of these festive trees can be found in Old Town Square and at Prague Castle, where it is not unusual to find both amateur and professional singers belting out carols and folk songs throughout the holiday season. Piggy banks can be found under the trees, inviting people to give up some of that hard earned holiday cash and help support various charities around the country.

Shopping for presents during the holiday season is a trying experience to say the least, as the jostling crowd tirelessly positions itself in front of deals offering cheap prices on everything from turtlenecks to toolboxes. If you're looking to buy something a little more traditional than a brand new microwave or mobile phone, avoid the shopping malls and try the Christmas markets found in Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, Námestí Míru and Námestí Republiky. There you will find an assortment of goods and handcrafts that include: decorations, candles, fireworks, Nativity scenes, wreaths, ceramics, Christmas cards, toys and sweets. Blacksmiths, glassmakers and engravers also flaunt their trades here and the spectacle is a great deal more interesting than looking around shopping centers and wondering which tight-lipped shopper is finally going to lose it by repeatedly yelling the Czech equivalent of "There's a blue light special in aisle two!"

Christmas in Prague just wouldn't be the same without the multitude of cultural events offered to both tourists and residents alike. Exhibitions, concerts, Advent music festivals and various special programs for the kiddies allow for even the most hardened of tastes to be satiated. For an honest to goodness experience of the holiday season here, be sure to take in Jakub Jan Ryba's Christmas Mass "Hej, Mistre" which is played often in churches and is a staple of Czech custom and tradition.

For most Czechs, December 24th (Štedrý den) is the most notable and enjoyable day of the holiday season. When translated, its name literally means "generous day" which reflects the longstanding tradition of an abundance of food being served for Christmas dinner. Back in the old days, even poor families would take care to have their plates full on this particular day of the year. The Adams and Evas of the republic celebrate their name days and, according to an old Czech custom, people are supposed to fast all day in order to see the zlaté prasátko (golden piglet) after the sun's gone down.

Piglet or no piglet, dinner is served after sunset and, for those who truly want to follow tradition, it should not be served until the first star has come out. You won't find any stuffed turkey here, by the way. Christmas dinner consists of carp and potato salad, oftentimes preceded by fish soup. Interestingly enough, it is said that carp can be prepared a hundred different ways. How many bottom feeders can say that?! Topping off the fishy fare is dessert that usually comes in the form of apple strudel. Vánocka, a traditional sweet Czech Christmas bread may also accompany the meal. After dinner in many households, all those present at the dinner table cut an apple in half (crosswise, from the stem down). Both halves are revealed to everyone around the table. If the core is star-shaped, everyone will enjoy happiness and health. Should the core be in the shape of a four-pointed cross, however, look out, as it is a bad omen signifying the illness or death of somebody at the table within a year.

Although many customs and traditions have faded away over the years, most families still gather around a beautifully decorated tree after dinner and try their hand (and lungs) at a few Christmas carols. Some of the more popular songs include Tíchá noc ("Silent Night" - originally an Austrian carol written in 1818), Narodil se Kristus Pan ("Christ the Lord was Born", 15th century), Chtic aby spál ("Wanting Him to Sleep", 17th century) and others. Then finally, the moment children of all ages have been waiting for! Presents that have made their way under the tree thanks to the helping hand of Ježíšek (Baby Jesus) are opened and everyone gets to see and remark on all the wonderful and not so wonderful gifts. Many families also go to Midnight Mass for a nightcap of beautiful music and year-end contemplation. Amen.

The next two days continue on with festive flair and are marked by visits to family complete with large lunches and delicious dinners. Setting aside the carp, families dig into a typical Czech meal which might include baked goose, duck or turkey, accompanied by the dynamic duo of cabbage and dumplings. Although not a particularly religious part of the world, it is still customary for families in Prague to visit church. This is mainly done in order to see the wide array of unorthodox Nativity scenes around town. The Church of St. Matthew has a gingerbread Nativity every year while the Church of Mary the Virgin Angel in Hradcany sports one that is larger than life. Churches around the historical parts of town should be visited as well including St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle and the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Vyšehrad.

Christmas in the capital is always a special time of year. Bars are full of drunken revelers, restaurants are packed with hungry shoppers in need of a rest and the streets are lined with tourists, couples and well-wishers. Although the holiday season here is admittedly becoming more and more commercial as the years roll on, there are still a multitude of wonderful traditions that you can enjoy. Go for a walk and visit the Christmas markets around the beautifully decorated squares, have a look at the Nativity scenes around town, or even go to church and hear some soothing holiday hymns. And don't be alarmed if you actually do see a golden piglet on the wall: just say Hi and dig in. Ho ho ho!

Christmas Vocabulary
Merry Christmas! - Veselé Vánoce!
Happy Holidays! - Príjemné svátky!
Happy New Year! - Štastný nový rok!
Mulled wine - svarák