Written by David Creighton
Yes folks, it´s that time of year again. On the evening of 5 December you´re likely to witness the spectacle of adults or teenagers dressed up as a trio of St Nicholas (dressed as a bishop), an angel and a devil wandering through the streets. They quiz children about whether they´ve behaved themselves over the last twelve months and then reward or punish them for good or bad behaviour respectively.
If this is your first December in the Czech Republic you may be rather puzzled by this spectacle; if you´ve been here any length of time you´ll be familiar with this annual routine. It signals that Christmas really is round the corner, even if you´ve had the impression that it started much earlier judging by the decorations, flashing lights, and stomach-churningly schmaltzy Christmas music which, rather depressingly, seem to make an appearance earlier and earlier with each passing year.
Even with the increasing omnipresence of that other Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of consumerism known as Santa Claus, the long Czech tradition of “Mikuláš, Anděl a Čert” (St Nicholas, the angel and the Devil) somehow manage to carry on.
You´ll see the threesome in towns and villages all over the Czech Republic, and the tradition is still quite important, whether it´s a family affair in a village or an organised event, with activities for parents too, in one of the bigger towns.
The Czech Republic effectively has two Christmas holidays, with the main event on 24 December, and prior to that the festivities on 5 December which celebrates the eve of the Mikuláš name day (svátek). This day is not a public holiday, and the celebrations commemorating St Nicholas are primarily for children.
Throughout Europe, Christmas is connected with St Nicholas, who is thought to have been born around 250 or 260 A.D. and is associated with generosity and helping the poor. Holidays commemorating him are observed in Central Europe in particular, and Austria, Germany and Switzerland have some form of celebration of St Nicholas.
In the Czech Republic all the action takes place early on the evening of 5 December. Traditionally, children received the visits at home, with the threesome played by family members or friends. This is still the case, although now groups of people offer to dress up as St Nicholas, the angel and Devil and visit families, for a fee. This may be worth considering if you are stuck for people to play the three roles. In other cases, the event is held outdoors, such as on Old Town Square in Prague, and there are other activities accompanying the trio´s wanderings, such as competitions and musical performances.
But whether the occasion is big or small it will always involve groups dressed as St Nicholas and co. They look for children, who are often rather scared by the sight of the trio, and ask them about if they´ve been good or bad over the last year. Good behaviour is rewarded with sweets or small toys; bad behaviour is punished with coal or potatoes, although I´ve yet to witness a child being subjected to this humiliation. If a child´s misdemeanours are judged to be particularly serious then he or she may be dragged off to hell in a sack has by the devil. Once the child has been rewarded (or chastised) the trio sets off for more victims to interrogate.
The attire of the threesome itself is a tribute to homespun dressing up, and sartorial ingenuity is the name of the game. More and more it seems to be made up entirely of teenagers, so you may see a gawky thirteen year-old trying, unsuccessfully, to look like the old, wise St Nicholas, who is always dressed as a bishop – St Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra in Greece. The cleric is therefore decked out in lots of white, an amount of cotton, a bishop´s mitre and a crook. Angels, often played by teenage girls, are similarly attired out in white, and tin foil proves useful material for wings. Devils often seem to be played mainly by teenage girls, with faces painted black and wearing red flashing devil horns. You´ll notice that sometimes two devils accompany St Nicholas rather than an angel and a devil – maybe playing the latter is more fun.
The next day the papers always show pictures of the event, with children either excited by the proceedings, or terrified by the dressed-up figures. Then the build up to the main Christmas event begins – when families get together for a meal of carp and potato salad on 24 December.
Old Town Square in Prague holds its annual St Nicholas events on 5 December. Competitions are held and there´s music and a disco. Events start around 4.30 p.m. and wind up after 7.30 p.m.
Events are also held in towns and cities throughout the Czech Republic. Check local listings guides or tourist information for more details.
St Nicholas, the angel and the Devil also visit homes, with threesomes doing the rounds in exchange for payment. Ask a neighbour or Czech friend for recommendations.