Apart from the carp vendors and shop displays, one of the sure signs that Christmas is fast approaching is the appearance of Christmas tree sellers near the annual Christmas markets or outside of large shopping malls in Prague and other cities. Perhaps it is because I come from the Southern hemisphere, but I still get a real kick from going to the lot and picking out a fresh Christmas tree. While I’m no expert, I’ve also picked up a few tips along the way. I hope they’re as helpful for you as they were for me.
Test your Christmas-tree knowledge
The tradition of the tree in the Czech Republic is a relatively new one. The local custom is to bring out the tree with the presents on the evening of the 24th and keep it around until Three Kings Day, January 6. In a sense the tree is one of the gifts from Ježíšek. How does the little guy manage without a sleigh?
Generally, the five types of trees are the most common you will find on sale at lots around the city. The prices above have been provided by the Association of Christmas Tree Growers (Sdružení pěstitelů vánočních stromků) for trees from 150cm to 200cm, though size and thickness of the needles can alter the price.
Smrk ztepilý (Norway Spruce) is often the cheapest and drops the needles early. Price from 300 CZK.
Smrk pichlavý (Blue Spruce) its silvery bluish tinged needles add a unique touch and it lasts longer than its Norwegian cousin. Because of its color it is also known locally as stříbrňák from the Czech word for silver – stříbro. Price from 400 CZK.
Borovice lesní (Scots Pine) is a famous Christmas tree, which offers something a little more than the spruce. Price from 300 CZK.
Borovice černá (Austrian Pine) with its long dark green needles and sturdy trunk is a decorative place for the gifts. It also lasts a long time. Price from 400 CZK.
Jedle kavkazská (Nordmann Fir) has dark green needles which do not fall out like the spruces. No wonder it is the best-selling type of tree in the Czech Republic. It is also known as jedle nordmannská. Price from 550 CZK.
Other types of trees that are locally available include jedle bělokorá (European Silver Fir), jedle vznešená (Noble Fir) or Smrk omorika (Serbian Spruce), though these don’t appear to be as popular. Occasionally, the vendor will simply sell the trees as spruce (smrk), fir (jedle) and pine (borovice), so you might want to inquire further about the species.
Buying and storing tips
When picking out your tree, it’s a good idea to bring a stand (stojan na vánoční strom) with you so that the Christmas tree vendor can whittle the trunk to fit into the stand. Sometimes they charge extra for this depending on the size of the job.
What’s that? You don’t have a stand? A variety of stands are available from gardening centers (zahradnická centra). The old fashioned ones tend to be a short cylinder standing on three or four legs. These go for about 400 CZK. Newer stands resemble a covered circular tray which hold a small amount of water and cost about 1,200 CZK. See what they look like here.
Keeping the trunk damp is the key to the tree surviving longer. In place of a stand a bucket works as well. Fill it with moist sand to hold the tree as well as provide a drink. Another trick to keeping the tree fresh is to keep it out of direct sunlight. (And in case you were wondering, it is against the law to go into the forest and cut down your own.)
Should you prefer a live tree, again try the gardening centers where you should be able to find the more common varieties of Christmas trees in pots. The nursery Chládek in Prague 5 has some of the trees mentioned above as well as a couple of others. Delivery is available for 15 CZK/km and they’ll even hold yours til Dec 23 so it doesn’t take up space in your flat.
Artificial trees are available, though they do not seem anywhere near as popular as their natural counterparts. You will find artificial Christmas trees starting at under 100 CZK. Some such as these available from TESCO even come pre-decorated.
The ecologically inclined may wish to rent a tree in a bucket for around 390-490 CZK (1.5 high) from Christmas Tree Rental Prague. Trees are re-used again and again each year, giving new meaning to the word “evergreen”. Last year the company offered 100 trees for rent which sold out quickly. This year 200 trees are available for rent.
Decorative Christmas greens
Fresh cut mistletoe (jmelí) can be found wherever you buy Christmas trees and comes plain or painted gold. Holly (cesmína) can be found at nurseries or florists. Poinsettia’s popularity as a seasonal plant is evident in the name Vánoční hvězda or Christmas Star. Because it is a plant from Mexico and Central America, it is not well suited to winters here. A trick to ensuring the plant keeps those trademark iridescent red leaves is to not buy one from an outdoor market and don’t keep it out in the cold too long when taking it home. A well-lit space not in direct sunlight should ensure the plant flourish even past Christmas.
The Czech company Ozdoba has been producing traditional Czech hand-blown glass ornaments from balls to birds to bells since the 1930s. You can purchase these ornaments online or at one of these Prague stockists. One of these, Dana Bohemia has a large selection of Christmas ornaments as well.
If you’re looking for more interesting handmade wooden decorations, the wooden decorations from Karel Makovský might be worth checking out. His decorations made from either spruce or beech include all the classic designs such as stars, snowflakes, angels and bells as well as those with a regional touch such as carps and pigs. (After the light lunch on the 24th December, Czechs say they expect to see a golden pig.)
An alternative to electric lighting are these wooden candle holders also from Karel Makovský. Their flickering silhouettes can add to the seasonal atmosphere in the evenings leading up to Christmas.
Prague’s farmer’s markets are transformed into Advent markets in the days leading up to Christmas. One of them, Kulaťák, will be hosting a variety of top vendors from Fler.cz (itself a great resource for non-traditional ornaments) who will be selling their homespun, handmade goods including ornaments.
Christmas lights sold as either vánoční světla, vánoční osvětlení or vánoční světelné řetěz range in price from about 100 CZK to nearly 3000 CZK. These are also available from department stores or from electronics stores such as Alza or Datart. Or if you want to get everything at once and guarantee a few decorations which include Santa, Ikea may be your best bet. For tinsel, go to Tesco.
A popular part of many Czech Christmas decorations are the inclusion of a nativity scene known as betlém or jeslíčky. These decorations can vary in styles and materials and in some cases they can even be in the family for years.
Among my in-laws, the nativity scene was put together by my wife’s grandfather and assembling it every year is a family tradition. However, if you’re like me and not so handy with tools then you will find a nativity scene in one of Prague’s gift stores. The ones from Manufaktura have that natural rustic appeal
I hope this has been some help in preparing for Christmas. Happy holidays and all the best for the New Year.
To learn more about Christmas trees, ornaments, and decorations in the Czech Republic, visit the new exhibit How to Decorate Christmas at Strahov Monastery through Dec 31.
Have you adopted the local tree trimming customs?