The international service of Czech Radio 
28-1-2023, 22:10 UTC
Czech Christmas

Traditional Christmas Eve menu and customs

It was once the custom to fast for the whole day on Christmas Eve, for only the person who didn't eat until Christmas Eve dinner would be able to see the golden pig on the wall that evening. That morning the Christmas tree would have been decorated - mostly with red apples, walnuts, gingerbread, and other sweets, and on the tip of the tree the star of Bethlehem was set. It was also customary for the tree to be mostly decorated by the children, because the mother had too many other things to do. Also, candles had to be fastened to the tree branches, to be lit in the evening and give Christmas Eve an even greater sense of magic.

The whole family would be finishing up their final preparations before the Christmas feasts, which were just beginning on Christmas Eve at nightfall. The table was covered with a white tablecloth and the legs were wreathed in garlands, so there'd be no thieves stealing from the fields. Under the table was put a bowl of grain and on it a bowl of garlic. Garlic was believed by all Slavs from ancient times to have special powers of strengthening and protection. At that time garlic was always present at Christmas in the Czech Lands, and used to be as important a part of Christmas as the tree and sweets are today. Besides garlic, he cross and the candlestick with a candle stood for the sanctity of Candlemas. The mother then layed out on the table a loaf of bread and a pot of honey. The father then tied together some shocks of grain, dipped them in holy water, and sprinkled the whole house with them, not forgetting the fire in the oven, so it wouldn't be troublesome and burn down the house.

Even if it was getting dark early on Christmas Eve, nothing could be lit until the first star came out. As soon as it did, the family all sat down together to dinner. This dinner was always plentiful in every household, for even the poorer ones tried to fill the Christmas table with the greatest number of dishes.

Before dinner, the father recited the family prayer and then dinner was begunby the cutting up of a loaf of bread into many slices. Each was daubed with honey and passed out, starting with the oldest, to everyone present. If a slice or two was left, then that meant that someone would arrive in the family. If one was missing, then in the next year someone would die. Then all the other courses followed, which that evening were more than usual, for it was believed that the more courses there were, the more grain there would be in the field.

The traditional Czech Christmas Eve menu had different forms in different regions. In some places, the bread was followed by soup, most often mushroom, but a traditional Christmas Eve course eveywhere was kuba, which was prepared from grouts, wild mushrooms and garlic. Like garlic and honey, mushrooms also have a special position in Christmas. According to old myths, they are ascribed a heavenly origin. Another part of the feast were peas, which were prepared in the Old Czech style - sweetly, sprinkled with sugar and gingerbread.

Strudl At the end, desserts were passed around, combined with fruit, which unlike today were dried: apples, pears, plums and nuts. Traditional Christmas desserts were strudles and vanocka, a special Christmas bread. From the previous list, it's clear that the abstinence that ruled the period of Advent gave way on Christmas Eve to plenty.

After finishing dinner, no one got up from the table quite yet. The father first took a walnut and an apple from a bowl in the center of the table. If the nut was rotten when cracked open, it was an omen of sickness, or even death. But everything could still be saved by the apple; if a star was revealed when it was split in half, this foretold health and long life. Not so fortunate was if the cross discovered in the middle of the apple. As soon as the man of the house had read his fortune, the process was repeated by all present, from oldest to youngest.

After dinner was finished, everyone tried to stand up from the table at the same time, for it was believed that whoever stood up first would die within a year. The leftovers were then taken by the father out to the livestock. The poultry recieved a different treat - peas or poppy seeds so they'd lay plenty of eggs. The rooster, gander and dog got garlic in their food, so they would be as sharp as they should be in the next year.

With dinner over came the time that children then and now looked forward to most: opening the presents left under the tree by Baby Jesus. After this came time for another customary practice: A very common custom even to the present day, the floating of little boats made of nutshells on water. A bowl of water was set on the table and everyone put in their half-shell boat, in which was fixed a burning candle. The fortune of each boat-owner was read from the fate of their craft. If the boat made it across the bowl, then a long life lay ahead for the boat's owner. If it sank, then something less pleasant lay in wait for the unlucky captain.

There was another custom connected with walnuts. After dinner, three nuts were cracked open and their insides removed. The first walnut shell was refilled with dirt, the second with a little piece of bread, and the third with money. The shells were then stuck back together and placed back among the other ones. At midnight every took a walnut from the bowl on the table; if someone got the nut with the dirt inside, then poverty awaited them. Getting the nut with bread foretold a comfortable life, and the one with money inside naturally was a prophesy of great wealth.

Other customs were practiced in particular by girls eager to marry. One way of they could look into what the future had in store was throwing their shoes over their heads. If the toes pointed to the door, then the parents knew to get a wedding dress ready, for the girl would be married within the next year. If, on the other hand, the toes of her shoe pointed back into the room, then their daughter had another year to wait.

If a girl discovered by her shoes that she had to wait for her wedding and wanted to know for how long she had to wait, she had to give up a strand of her hair. On this hair she would tie a ring and hold it as close to a glass as she could. The number of times that the ring clinked against the glass before it settled was the number of years she had to wait.

A girl curious about the physical make-up of her future husband could find out by pulling wood - closing her eyes and taking a piece of wood out of a pile. The shape of this piece of wood would reveal to her how well-built, bent, slim or fat the partner future held for her would be. This fortune could also be read by younger girls, who wanted to know about their future husbands.

Single girls could attempt to get an even better idea of what their future betrothed would be like. All she had to do was to take three slips of paper with the names of her probable partners and tie them up in handkerchiefs so that not a bit stuck out. Then she tie up a fourth handkerchief and put them all under her pillow on Christmas Eve. On the morning of God's Feast (Christmas Day), she would choose one of the hankies and untie it. If it was empty, then she was never going to marry. This gloomy fate could still be averted, however, if she put the three slips of paper with the names into three dumplings, which were cooked for the Christmas Day feast. The husband fate held for her would then be revealed by the first of the dumplings cut open.

Christmas Eve ended with Midnight Mass, which was held in every church. In some regions, Christmas plays were also part of the Mass, which was followed in any case with carolling. On Christmas Eve and God's Feast - December 25 - people wouldn't play cards, go to the pub or visit relatives. This had to wait until St. Stephen's Day - December 26 - when the dancing parties and the period of merry-making and carolling began.

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