Christmas in the Czech Republic: A Month of Traditions

Are you thinking of celebrating Christmas in the Czech Republic? Or maybe you have Czech heritage and would like to incorporate the country’s customs into your own holiday celebrations?

Whatever the case, Christmas in Czechia is a culturally rich time of year with plenty of traditions that can be enjoyed whether you’re visiting Prague or other city or simply enjoying Christmas the Czech way at home.

Let’s discover how people celebrate Christmas in the Czech Republic.

Prague Christmas Market with decorative lighting
Photo 106070223 © Emicristea | Dreamstime.com

Contents

Advent in Czechia

Czechs begin the holiday season with advent. The season of Advent is celebrated during the four weeks preceding Christmas. It provides a sense of anticipation throughout the month of December and breaks it up with rituals.

The Advent wreath, purchased at a flower shop, made at home, or ordered, has four candles symbolizing hope, peace, friendship, and love. Each of the Sundays before Christmas, another candle is burned. Traditionally, three candles were purple and the last pink, though modern wreaths may have only white candles or candles of a color to suit the tastes of the family.

Advent wreath with candles for Christmas in the Czech Republic
Photo 238830060 / Advent Wreath © Elena Alyabieva | Dreamstime.com

Each Advent Sunday has a name in the Czech language:

  • The first Sunday is Iron Sunday, or Železná neděle
  • The second is Bronze Sunday, or Bronzová neděle
  • The third is Silver Sunday/Stříbrná neděle or Pastoral Sunday/Pastýřská neděle
  • The last Sunday before Christmas is called Golden Sunday or Angelic Sunday

Of course, Advent calendars are also fun – they count down the days till Christmas with tiny doors that are open to reveal a surprise.

St. Barbora’s Day

Den Svaté Barbory, or St. Barbora’s Day, occurs December 4. On this day, single women put cherry tree branches in a vase of water. If the branch blossoms before Christmas Eve, they’re supposed to meet their life partner in the next year.

Many superstitions and rituals surround St. Barbora’s Day. While they may have been observed in the past, Czech families these days use the cherry tree branches as a means of decoration with a nod to tradition.

St. Nicholas’ Day

Mikuláš is the name for what precedes St. Nicholas Day (December 5).

On this night, a person costumed as St. Nicholas, accompanied by a devil and an angel, pass out treats for good behavior and potatoes or coal for bad behavior.

Prague’s Night of St. Nicholas is one to remember – it takes place on Old Town Square and sees crowds of families getting in on the fun. Sometimes children are asked to sing a song or recite a poem before getting a treat.

On this night, children may also hang stockings for St. Nicholas to fill. Parents leave small gifts or candy (or maybe even a potato or two) for their kids to look forward to in the morning.

The Czech Christmas Carp

The Czech Republic is famously known for its Christmas carp.

In fact, Czechia is so big on carp that it’s one of Europe’s biggest exporters of this fish! But this isn’t a new development. Carp have been bred in the Czech lands since medieval times, so they’ve a part of Czech tradition for centuries.  

The story of the Czech’s Christmas carp often involves families buying live fish and keeping them in their bathtub in the days before Christmas. However, in addition to the inconvenience this may cause families, it also means that children who “adopt” the carps as pets get a big disappointment when it comes to cooking the Christmas dinner.

The popularity of buying dead carp is increasing. This saves time, frees up the bathtub, and avoids children’s heartbreak.

The Czech Christmas carp is most often tastily breaded and fried and served with other dishes.

Carp in Santa hat for Christmas in the Czech Republic
Photo 133424249 © Kaprik | Dreamstime.com

Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic

Štědrý den/Štědrý večer, or Christmas Eve, in the Czech Republic is the most important day of the Christmas season to Czechs.

Like in many other countries, Christmas Eve dinner is not served until after the first star can be seen in the sky. And it may be the Czech Christmas dinner for which this day is named – Štědrý den means “Generous Day” or “Generous Evening.” On this day, the table is laden with food, including special dishes traditional to this holiday.

Of course, the Christmas carp takes center stage. It is first typically preceded by a fish soup or pea soup as the first course.

Other dishes for the Czech Christmas dinner include potato salad, pork schnitzel, and sausage with mashed potatoes.

Christmas bread, called vánočka, is also an essential aspect to Christmas in the Czech Republic. This bread, braided to look like a swaddled baby Jesus, is given texture through the addition of raisins and almonds. Sometimes it has a shiny glaze, and other times it’s sprinkled with powdered sugar.

Braided Czech Christmas Bread
Photo 133424051 © Kaprik | Dreamstime.com

For dessert, strudel is a popular dish for the Czech Christmas meal. Of course, Czech Christmas cookies are also a favorite.

This version of the Czech traditional Christmas dinner is fairly modern; in the past, people used what they had in their larders stored for the winter, which meant dried mushrooms, honey, garlic, and dried fruits.

December 25 and 26 in the Czech Republic

Lunchtime feasts are typical for the two days following Christmas. Often, roast goose or duck, accompanied by dumplings and cabbage are served as a way to continue the celebrations.

In addition to Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and December 26 (St. Stephan’s Day), are official public holidays.

The Czech Santa Claus

What would Christmas in the Czech Republic be without a Santa Claus figure? However, the Czechs don’t have Santa Claus per se. Yes, they have St. Nicholas, but more commonly, instead of an old man, it’s a young one that leaves presents on Christmas Eve.

Who is this young man? Baby Jesus, or Jezisek, of course.

After the Christmas Eve dinner, Jezisek quietly and mysteriously leaves presents under the Christmas tree. The sound of a bell (rung by parents) signifies that Baby Jesus has come and done his work. Then, children are permitted to come into the room and open their presents.

Czech Christmas Beliefs

Christmas in the Czech Republic is surrounded by superstitions and beliefs, most of which are typically fun to follow. Many surrounded the local foods that people of the Czech lands would have had available stored in their cellars during the winter. Others involved telling the future for the year to come.

For example:

  • Honey was symbolic in warding away evil
  • Garlic provided strength (and today we know garlic has plenty healthful properties!)
  • Mushrooms were health-giving
  • The Christmas bread helped cows to produce milk, bees to produce honey, and the water to remain clean

Animals might have been fed a portion of the Christmas dinner in order to keep them healthy and honor their presence in the manger when Baby Jesus was born.

Fasting the entire day until the Christmas Eve dinner is served is supposed to give you good luck – you’ll see a golden pig and have good fortune the coming year.

Another popular belief is in shoe throwing. Young women of marriageable age throw their shoes. If the toe points in the direction of the door, she’ll soon be married. If it points the other way, she’ll – fortunately or unfortunately – have to wait a little longer.

Nativity Scenes

Czechia loves a good Nativity scene (betlém) come Christmastime – they’ve been setting up these representations of the Manger in Bethlehem since the 16th century. They’ve become an integral part of Christmas in the Czech Republic.

A ban on them in the 18th century only increased their popularity, and the industry for handmade, unique Nativity scenes was born. Czech Nativity scenes have been made from every material imaginable and sometimes contain quirky additions, such as picket fences.

The Prague Municipal Museum displays a selection of handmade Nativity scenes during the Advent season. You can also see Nativity scenes set up in city centers and churches.

If you’re really dedicated, you can visit a museum of Nativity scenes. The Karlstejn Nativity Scene Museum, where both antique Nativity scenes and those freshly baked from gingerbread are on display, is one option. The Třebechovice Museum of Nativity Scenes is another option: glass and mechanical Nativity scenes are some of this museum’s most prized items.

Czech Nativity Scene made of straw
Photo 80824669 © Bradley Hay | Dreamstime.com

Christmas Markets

Czech Christmas markets, whether in Prague or other cities in the Czech Republic, are a fun way to experience Christmas in Czechia.

They begin during the Advent season, often running the month of December. Live entertainment, Christmas food and drink such as mulled wine, and stalls selling Christmas decorations and gifts are integral to these markets.

Though the most popular Christmas markets are in Prague, many cities throughout the country host stellar Christmas markets – some even have carnival rides!

Three Kings Day

Marked by a procession in Prague, elsewhere Three Kings Day, January 6, is a day when children go caroling dressed as the Three Kings.

Afterwards, the letters K + M + B, representing the names of the Three Kings (Kašpar, Melichar, and Baltazar) are written in chalk on the door as a blessing.

K + M + B 2019 chalked on a green door
Photo 145784812 © Krajinar | Dreamstime.com

Christmas in the Czech Republic for Visitors

If you’re visiting the Czech Republic, in addition to visiting Christmas markets and viewing Nativity scenes, you’ll be able to celebrate Christmas in various ways.

Christmas Mass

Some Czechs attend Christmas Mass or a midnight Mass. If you’re in the Czech Republic during this time, you can do so too. Check out the services in Prague at:

  • Prague Castle’s St. Vitus Cathedral
  • The Mirror Chapel at the Klementium
  • The Tyn Church on Old Town Square
  • Strahov Monastery
  • Old Town Square (open-air Mass)

Concerts

Be sure to consult events calendars before your trip to the Czech Republic for the Christmas season. Venues throughout the country present Christmas-themed concerts and performances. Book in advance for the best seating.

Open-Air Museums

Open-air museums are excellent ways to see Czech Christmas traditions preserved and in action.

Two options are the Přerov nad Labem Open-Air Museum and the open-air museum at Veselý kopec.

Interior with Christmas decorations at Czech open-air museum
Photo 208084427 / Advent © Anna Rudnitskaya | Dreamstime.com

Tips for Enjoying Christmas in the Czech Republic

  • Pack for outdoor temperatures so that you can visit markets and sightsee in comfort.
  • Consider how you will get purchases back home: plan for an extra suitcase on the way back or ship purchases before you leave.
  • Make sure Christmas markets are working during the time you plan to visit – some smaller markets may have a shorter season of operation.
  • Check events calendars to see what’s on during your time of stay. Book tickets in advance to guarantee your place.
  • Book accommodation well in advance for the best selection.
  • Stay near the city center, if possible, for the most convenient access to Christmas-related activities.

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