How To Survive Your First Czech Christmas
With its gorgeously lit markets and jovial atmosphere, December in Prague is the most festive time of the year. But if it’s your first Christmas away from home, the seasonal holiday period also comes with plenty of cultural curiosities you might be unfamiliar with.
Here’s a handy starting guide to local Christmas traditions and month-long celebrations to help you navigate the city as it launches into holiday cheer.
St. Mikulas Day rings in the holidays
Source: Wikimedia Commons
On 5th December, mysterious trios in costume take to the streets to mark the official start of the Christmas season, known as St. Mikulas Day. As the tradition goes, St. Mikulas, the Devil, and the Christmas Angel travel around town in groups in late afternoon. Children await their passage with nervous looks of anticipation on their faces, and with good reason. If the child has been good in the past year, St. Mikulas and the Christmas Angel offer them a small present; if not, the child gets a lump of coal or, worst of all, kidnapped by the Devil. The trio usually stops by Christmas markets on their walks around town, so be sure to head to one on the 5th to catch a glimpse.
Christmas markets galore
Speaking of Christmas markets, you probably already know to expect those as a staple of wintertime in Prague. The smaller ones, as in Náměstí Míru and Tylovo Námesti, start to pop up weeks before Christmas Day and often stay open long after. As many locals will tell you, a lot of the central markets have become over-commercialised with higher rates of holiday tourists, particularly in the old town. Thankfully, there are still plenty of traditional markets beyond the touristic centre for unique and authentic gifts to send back home. With many of the markets within walking distance of each other, a cup of mulled wine and some freshly-roasted chestnuts will help you make your way through the various kiosk wonderlands.
Carps on the street and scales in your pocket
Source: Wikimedia Commons
In mid-December, you might be a little stunned when large pools filled with live carp (a type of oily river fish) suddenly pop up along Prague’s streets. A bigger shock to overcome is when the carp-seller pulls one out of the water and smashes its head on ice in before handing a bloody bag to a customer. That carp will soon turn into Christmas dinner, usually breaded and fried, served with a side of classic potato salad. As an alternative for those averse to the bony fish, many Czechs also prepare chicken or pork řizky as part of the meal. Even if you decide to skip eating carp, tradition dictates you keep dried scales from Christmas dinner in your wallet throughout the next year, as superstition claims it will make you wealthy.
Golden pigs in the sky and other wonders
Carp scales in wallets is just one example in a long list of fascinating Czech Christmas superstitions. While some are similar to those in western and nordic countries, such as kissing under the hanging mistletoe, other traditions are more unique and elaborate. One Christmas Day ritual involves single women of the household throwing a shoe behind their back. If the shoe lands pointing outwards of the home, the woman is said to be destined for marriage in the upcoming year; if the shoe points into the home, she is doomed to remain single. A more imaginative saying promises that if you abstain from eating meat on Christmas Day, you will see a golden pig in the sky. There are dozens of other such myths. Just ask the next Czech person you meet –they’ll be sure to add the list.
Christmas Eve and Day in Prague
Even if you are not planning to spend Christmas with a local family, you don’t have to miss out on the feast. While the large majority of local businesses are closed on 24th and 25th December, some restaurants do offer set menus on Christmas Eve and Day. Many restaurants and pubs in town also offer special seasonal menus in the weeks leading up to the big day, like carp soup and a traditional sweet cake-bread typically associated with Christmas.
There’s enough going on in Prague to keep your calendar full of festivity as the year winds down. Now that you’re equipped on the basics, it’s time to get out there and explore the walls beyond the office Christmas party.
Author: Salwa Benaissa
My name is Salwa and I’m a copywriter and communication strategist. I have Moroccan roots, an American accent and a British sense of humour. I moved to Prague from London in 2015 and have been based here ever since. I work mainly in advertising and content marketing while freelancing as a journalist. My passions include acting, surrealist literature and complaining that the coffee I’m drinking is not strong enough.
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