I really love Czech Christmas as it has always been, for me, so wholly different from my own experience—cultural and not religious, despite the appearance, or rather non-appearance, of Invisible Baby Jesus (who is actually more of a toddler). Another thing that distinguishes this holiday are its many rituals and rules, so many that it can be difficult to keep them all straight. If you have Czech friends, relatives, or in-laws and plan to spend December 24 in their company, here are some things to keep in mind:
There will be bones
One of the essential items on the Czech holiday table is not just a truckload of potato salad and a half-ton of řizky—slices of bread are also kept handy and with good reason: in case someone should choke on that bony specimen of the season, the Christmas carp. I’ve been told that aside from tree fires, it’s another major cause of holiday hospitalizations. You’ve been warned!
‘Tis the season for warm mayo
Every year I brace myself against the queasiness that derives from the trough of potato salad (always more of a summertime picnic food for me) which shows up at the December 24th meal and then again atop the chlebíčky sandwiches and perhaps again the next day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Plus the inevitable “take-away” bucket which ends up in our refrigerator with my husband and I silently willing one another to throw it away until it reaches bio-hazard status.
Unwrap with care
Ripping open your gift with the wild and reckless abandon of a child is not recommended. The proper way to open a gift in a Czech household is to carefully peel off the tape as the whole family patiently watches you, remove the paper, pretending not to notice the “Pro Honza od Ježíšek” that has been crossed out to make room for your name, then neatly fold it and hand it to your mother-in-law who will save it for next year.
Make sure to try on
Don’t be surprised if at one point the gift exchange portion of the Christmas celebration resembles a game of strip poker. No matter how hideous that turtleneck sweater is, it’s considered rude not to try it on right then and there for everyone to admire or, alternatively, tut over how tight and ill-fitting it looks.
Your cookies will never (ever) compete
Where I am from we make one, maybe two, varieties of Christmas cookie and in lazier times have even been known to slice dough from a store-bought tube. Czechs make at least 12 varieties of incredibly ornate handmade cookies (one kind for each month in a year) which they begin assembling in November. The one time I brought cookies (snickerdoodles, colored green) to Czech Christmas they were put on a plate and closely scrutinized before my father-in-law declared them “alien poop”.
When someone says Czechs are superstitious they aren’t joking. Take it from someone whose mother-in-law nearly didn’t come to my wedding because it fell on the 13th of the month. At Christmas the superstitions are out in full force and one of them is that the first person who gets up from the table will (gulp) die in the new year—unless of course someone’s forgotten the beer opener then all bets are off.
Note: One more superstition worth mentioning—no feeling sorry for the carp; it’s bad luck!
Count on coins
Since you’ll be stationed at the table for awhile, you may become distracted by the wobbly nature of your plate. Those are coins under there and it’s a part of a game that Czechs play in which the person who has the most money beneath his or her plate will claim the biggest fortune in the new year. Plates are typically removed and crowns counted after the gift exchange.
Try not to blush
Ladies, don’t be shocked or feel put out if your boyfriend’s mom gifts her own grown son, your significant other, a multi-pack of underwear. It’s a common Christmas present here. And, yeah, I know what you’re thinking, you’ve read number 6. The answer is, yep, they do.
Careful with the clean up
After dinner you might get a fishy whiff of carp remains and track it to a container that’s soaking the fish scales. You aren’t doing anyone any favors by throwing this offending detritus into the nearest bin. These scales are meant to be saved, dried, and distributed to family members who carry them in their wallet because carp scales, which resemble silver coins, are said to bring wealth in the coming year.
Fruit and nuts, socks and bubble bath, sweet and tiny gifts that take so much of the stress out of the Christmas experience, this is what I value most about spending the holidays in the Czech Republic.
What are your favorite Czech Christmas traditions?