When Hubs and I were working in a lab in California, he got an invitation from NSF to spend a year in what was then Czechoslovakia. He accepted and I got to go along with him. What a culture shock! The country was at that point ruled by the Communist party and the capitol city was dull and gray, although we found pockets of beauty during our all-day walks every weekend. We became idiot savants when it came to knowing the tram system and the direction of each numbered tram. When I had learned enough Czech to converse, I even gave directions to out-of-towners!
We spent Christmas in Prague and were introduced to its customs by the Czech couple, Vladimir and Milada Reznick, who shared their apartment with us. The first tradition we encountered was a visit from Svaty Mikuláš. Svaty Mikuláš (Czech for Saint Nicholas) descends from heaven on a golden cord held by angels, as he returns to earth for his gift-giving rounds each year. In the European advent calendar, St. Nicholas pays a visit to children during the first week of December, bearing gifts of sweets to the well behaved. He is traditionally accompanied by a devil (Čert) and angel (Anděl ). Some friends of mine arranged for me to be visited, and luckily St. Nick gave me a present. The devil is sometimes portrayed as Krampas in a scary costume, usually in the public square along with St. Nick and the angel.
Vladimir and Milada purchased a Christmas tree – it appeared one evening – and it was lit with real candles! We lived in fear that it would catch fire. but Milada assured us it rarely happened. Right. Good that I couldn’t read the Prague newspaper!
The traditional Christmas Eve meal is carp soup. The Czechs love polévka, or soup, and Milada was a wonderful soup maker – especially gulašova polévka (gulash soup) and dršťková polévka (tripe soup). Every family would buy a huge carp from enormous tanks found on the streets around the city. They were filled with icy water (it was December after all) and huge carp slowly swimming around in them. The men who sold the fish were in their shirt sleeves with the sleeves rolled up and their forearms were blue from fishing in the tanks and pulling out a fish for you!
Once purchased, the carp was taken home and placed in water in the bathtub and kept until Christmas Eve. (Caveat: Never let your children name the carp) At that point, it would be dispatched, some of the meat saved for the next day, and the rest made into carp soup. Which is, by the way, delicious.
The traditional Christmas dinner was carp (kapr) schnitzel, made with the fresh carp fillets, along with potato salad. This might seem strange – potato salad at Christmas – but I swear the Czechs make the absolutely best potato salad in the world. And of course the fish was yummy and delightfully fresh (no wonder there).
And the sweets. Each Czech is born with a sweet tooth. There is a Christmas bread called Vánočka, which gets its name from the Czech word for Christmas, Vánoce. It’s a braided cake made with raisins and almonds. There are also cookies, lots and lots of cookies, Vánoční cukroví / Christmas cookies. We ended our Christmas meal with a variety of those, along with fruit dumplings that Milada made to perfection. These are usually made with plums (if available) and sprinkled with sugar and poppy seeds.
In the Czech tradition, I wish you Veselé Vánoce a Šťastný Nový Rok
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!