Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Czech Christmas Traditions (updated)

Well, this is not too much of a genealogy post, anyway I decided to put together those traditions which we are used to keep. There were less of these traditions when I was a child because we were not too "traditional" family, but as I'm growing older, I'm trying to incorporate more old traditions to our family life - just because I like them. And I like them mainly thanks to my own interest in genealogy. 

Some of these traditions are old and our own ancestors century or two ago kept them, some of them are newer, our own traditions (but often kept by many other families as well). Some of these traditions come from religion, some from the pagan times of Bohemia almost fifteen centuries ago.

Advent starts 4 Sundays before Christmas - and we lit a candle each Advent Sunday. There is an Advent wreath with candles made each year (this one I made this year - 2014 - together with our daughters). 

The most important day for us is 24th December, Christmas Eve - it's the day before Jesus's birth and end of the year in old church tradition. We are gathering together and giving presents on that day instead of morning of 25th Dec. 

We are not fasting on the Christmas Eve - or at least not too much, so we are not lucky to see a golden piglet (which is said to be seen if person fasts whole Christmas Eve). First of all we decorate the tree during the morning with decorations made out of Vizovice dough (1 lb of smooth flour, 6 oz of water, one spoon of vinegar) and dried oranges or apples. Then we wrap gifts - there are four types of gift everyone should receive: something hard (a book), something soft (clothes), something person wants and something person needs.

We take a walk in the afternoon to prepare for the dinner which is served at about 6 PM. Traditional dinner should include carp slice and potato salad. Well, we don't eat carp (it has too many bones) so we replaced it with salmon - anyway, we eat fish because it's was not considered as a "meat", so eating fish didn't mean breaking the fast. Potato salad is very young tradition which was created during the 2nd World War - but it has it's place in almost every home today.

Our potato salad consists of potatoes, eggs, sausage (soft salami), onion, carrots, pickled gherkins and mayonnaise. Every family has a bit different salad, someone puts there salami, someone doesn't, someone adds celery or peas, it often depends on what the person is used from his/her home. 

Our potato salad

We lay the cloth for another person - accidental visitor who can come to our table. This custom origins in the Christian hospitality when people were prepared to host a visitor (pauper or beggar) during the Christmas holidays.

There is time for load of customs after the dinner - singing Christmas carrols, cutting an apple in two parts to see if the core shapes a star (if so, we all will gather again next year; if not, it is said that the person who misses the star will die during the year), pouring the lead (to see our future). We read a Christmas story (version for children) and explain who Jesus was and why are we celebrating Christmas.

One of the most popular Czech carrols - Narodil se Kristus Pán.

Very popular (not only among children) are Christmas sweets - there are tens of kinds, shortbread, vanilla rolls, wasp's nests... I found some of the recipes here: Czech Christmas Cookies. And of course vánočka (Christmas bread)! Here is a recipe for it (it's almost the same as I do): http://czechmatediary.com/2008/12/11/vanocka-recipe/

My vánočka :o)

And then - of course - gifts... So - what you get for Christmas this year? Any genealogy-connected gifts? :o)


  1. There are also other traditions, that Blanka haven't mentioned: it is advisable to put a carp scale under each plate to have money next year, people very often keep the scale in their wallet for the same reason.
    The number of dining persons should be even, if it is not, you have to add a spare plate. (I think this comes from the "unluckiness" of 13 dining people during the Last Supper, but I am too lazy to prove it :D).
    Noone is supposed to rise from table, once the dinner starts because there is a superstition that otherwise he will leave the family following year (move out or die). Of course you can rise from table after the dinner ends :)
    Quite common is a tradition with a Christmas wafer (from the same kind of dought as holy-bread) with honey, some tell to have a sweet life :)
    As I observe, fish soup is common in Bohemia, but at least in South Moravia, we have more often a sauerkraut soup.
    The Christmas mistletoe is put on chandelier or above door to bring luck.
    Interesting is a tradition of "Barborka", that means a twig from cherry-tree cut off on 4th December morning(St. Barbara Day) and then put into water. It is practiced mostly by single women, because when it come into flower before 24th December, they can expect a wedding next year :)
    Also there are special scents of Christmas, one is called František (that is Francis, yes) - a burned pastille of mixed wood-coal and olibanum; and purpura - mixture of saw-dust of pitch-wood, spices and herbs dry roasted on hotplate.
    And what Blanka completely concealed is a tradion of Ježíšek (deminuitive of Jesus) who is supposed to give presents in Czech republic. It is interesting how many children connect this word to ježek (hedgehog) instead of Jesus.

  2. Tak ta tradice bramborového salátu určitě nevznikla za 2. sv. války, ten musí být výrazně starší, když to používají i v sousedních zemích.

  3. Bramborový salát jako takový je starší, ale tradiční přílohou k vánočnímu kaprovi se stal až ve 40. letech.

  4. It is interesting that you call the bread vanocka. My grandmother made this bread and called it hoska (not sure of the spelling). I checked the ingredients and they are almost identical. The braided portions are the same as well. Perhaps it was a name that got changed in translations somewhere along the years. Thank you for sharing these traditions!

    1. You are right, the old Czech term was hoska, because a shape of vánočka resabled a goose (husa).

      But I have to admit, I heard it from you for the first time :)

    2. Yes, that's what I thought. I kept looking for a recipe for Houska (at least I think that's how it's spelled) and couldn't find one - but I had never heard of Vanocka. I read the recipe, and thought all the ingredients sounded like my gramma's Houska....I''v been looking for a recipe for Houska for years... My gramma never wrote anything down. She came to the US at the end of the 1800's.

    3. Vicki Sadilek-DunlapOctober 20, 2015 at 6:26 PM

      Houska has been a Christmas tradition in my family for as long as I remember. Although my parents and grandparents are now all passed away so this past year we bought the Houska from a bakery in Berwyn, IL. I really need to learn to make it as I love it!!!
      Another meal my grandmother used to make a lot is what we called chicken sour cream gravy. I am not sure what the proper name would be, as it is chicken torn off bones in a white creamy gravy which you pour over homemade biscuits. YUM

  5. My husbands family came from Bohemia in 1869. When we met his father and mother put up the tree on Christmas Eve after the children went to bed. My husband said it was magical to wake up and everything was in place, "Santa Claus" was the one who did the decorations.

    He did not know of any other traditions of his great grandparents. What I like to make was nut and poppy seed rolls. I got the recipe from our neighbor who family was Czech. They are the best, not at all like the ones you find in the store in the US.

    Have a Happy New Year.

  6. My ancestry is mostly German, and this year I described our Christmas customs on my blog and those that I believed had come from my ancestors' Christmas celebrations. Many were similar to the ones you described. One of the most interesting turned out to be the pepper nuts, (Pfeffernusse) which I thought came from the Rhineland area. Then a friend of mine told me that a woman in their far Northern Wisconsin village made these hard, long-lasting little cookies too. I am curious to know if you ate them or if they are a part of the Czech tradition. But whether you know or not, I'm glad you wrote this heart-warming post and also glad that people added other interesting customs when they commented.

  7. Would anyone happen to know the tradition or the story behind Houska? My Great grandmother passed the tradition down through the generations after coming over in 1910. We still enjoy this 'christmas bread' every year. But I'm curious as to the story...

    Thank you for Sharing.

    1. Read the response from Gehenna - Dec 28, 2012. Apparently what we know as Houska is now known as vánočka. I've been looking for a recipe for Houska for years and couldn't find one.. My gramma always made Houska for Christmas morning. Because we all loved it so much, she used to make it on other holidays or when she wanted to treat us kids. I had read the recipe for vánočka, and the ingredients sounded a lot like what she put in her Houska. I am so glad this is finally resolved for me!!! Gramma came to the US in the 1899. Her recipes were a pinch of this and a handful of that, so it never got written down. This makes me so happy....

    2. Harriette, I'm happy you found the recipe! :)

  8. My grandmother would make something called lebkuchen (spelling?) and Pfeffernusse too! Thanks to everyone for sharing their memories and traditions! Makes me long for Christmas Past!

  9. Now that my grandmother and my dad are gone I really miss the Vonacka. I really need to learn to make it.

  10. Thank you so much for sharing! My non-cooking dad is the Czech one, and so he didn't pass along any food traditions (even though my grandmother's family were all professional bakers!) Also, I love the tradition of giving something hard, something soft, something needed and something wanted. It's something that is often in my head at Christmas--perhaps a bit of Czech tradition hangs on in my DNA. :)

    For our genealogical Christmas gift, a distant relative (in America) who we'd never heard of just contacted us. We know we have to be related, because there are not many people named C(z)ubr whose family came from Kasejovice. So now we have the fun of figuring out how. :)

    Happy Christmas!