The winter holidays, which climax with Christmas Eve, begin
with the season of Advent,
which is actually a period of
preparation for the Christmas holidays. Advent is a latin
word which means coming or arrival. Advent
lasts for four Sundays, recalling the four thousand years
in which humanity awaited the arrival of the Redeemer. For
Christians, Advent is a time of pennance and religious
reflection, and believers would fast during this period in the past,
eating eggs, milk, cheese and fish in place of meat. This
fasting and atonement preceeded the abundance, plenty and merriment
of the Christmas holidays. After St. Lucille's Day, the last holiday of Advent,
began the preparations for the celebration of
Christmas - the biggest holiday of the year, when
the birth of Baby Jesus is celebrated.
Although it might seem as if these holidays would have always been
connected to Christianity and the Catholic Church, this wasn't necessarily so,
and in fact they weren't added to the Church calender until the year 336.
The history of the Christmas holidays dates back to the
times before Christianity, when, in the time of the most
beautiful winter days and the longest winter nights, demonic powers
were matched against the Sun and the Sun seemed beaten. For
this reason our predecessors who worshipped the Sun had
great reason to celebrate the arrival of the Winter Solstice,
when the nights began to shorten again and the dark powers
fell back before the might of the Sun. Even the ancient Romans
celebrated the Winter Solstice.
The basis for the Christian Christmas was the biblical
story of the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, and the
celebration of this occaision. These Christian celebrations
were joined to pagan myths - the Church connected the birth of
the Heavenly Child with the arrival of the Winter Solstice,
the expression of the triumph of Light over Darkness. It also
re-evaluated pre-Christian symbols, which were changed into Christian
symbols with different meanings. Under Church influence, the
Saint's Days acquired a religious content, issuing from the
For about the first 300 years of the Christian Era, the Christians
didn't celebrate Jesus' birth with a specific holiday, due to the cruel
persecution inflicted on them by the Romans.
Not until the Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious
freedom with the Milan Edict in 313 were the Christians able
to celebrate the holiday of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Until the 17th century, the celebration of the Christmas holidays
took place in church, where Nativity scenes
were displayed and Christmas Mass was held. Canonical
Christmas plays were also performed in the local churches. In the Baroque
period, these liturgical plays were increasingly performed by students,
who would occasionally insert scenes too secular for the Church, and
so the plays were removed from the churches. Without the churches
to perform in, the students began taking their plays from house to
house, and so began the custom of carolling.
In the 17th century, the celebration of Christmas moved from the
church to the home, where the observation of the birth of Christ was
imbued with the veneration of familial success and
togetherness. For Christmas also marked the return of the
Sun, which was connected with concern for the security
of future crops. For these reasons, Christmas Eve comes with
a large amount of Christmas Eve customs and
practices, and even the Old Czech Christmas Eve menu has its symbolism.
In the 19th century, a Christmas tree
appeared for the first time in the Czech Lands.
In the 19th century, Cristmas became more and more of a secular holiday.
After the Second World War, the holiday became even more secular in the Czech
Republic due to the Communists, who as atheists couldn't let a religious holiday stand. But they failed to replace Baby Jesus, who brings presents to the children, with Grandfather Frost or to move the celebration of Christmas Eve to New Year's Eve in the former Czechoslovakia, as it was in the Soviet Union.