A carp for Christmas

If it’s Christmas Eve and you’re sitting down to a big family dinner of carp and potato salad while you wait for the Christ child to place your gifts under the tree in the other room, you’re probably in the Czech Republic. That’s how Christmas is celebrated in the eastern European nation according to Czech foreign exchange student at Custer High School, Adela Marakova.
The senior, who pronounces her first name like the popular British recording artist, Adele, sat down with me recently to talk about Christmas traditions in her home country. Growing up in the Czech Republic’s capital and largest city of Prague, Marakova lives with her parents and two younger siblings near the city center.  
“It is a beautiful city,” said Marakova, also noting that it’s a place with a great deal of historical significance.
Long before the Christmas Eve observance, Marakova said the holiday actually starts exactly four weeks before Dec. 25.  
“We are celebrating kind of Advent Sundays,” she said.
Coinciding with the beginning of Advent is St. Nicholas Day which falls on Dec. 6.
There Santa is known as Svatý Mikuláš and he comes wearing his tall bishop’s miter hat to inquire if the children have been good or bad in the previous year. He is accompanied by an angel and a demon.
“Typically it’s the older kids at school doing it for the younger kids,” said Marakova. “It’s fun for both.”
She said sometimes the demon character can be frightening to little children but the angel is a comforting presence and then, of course, there are the little presents Father Christmas brings that make the whole thing exciting for the children.
“The gifts are typically some fruits or some candies,” said Marakova. “It’s nothing big.”
Marakova called St. Nicholas Day “a very separate holiday from Christmas.”
“It is kind of far away from Christmas for us,” she said, “because we are not that much excited as Americans are for Christmas. We do like Christmas but we are not that excited.”  
Early December is also when the local Christmas Markets begin setting up shop.
“Our biggest Christmas tradition is the Christmas Markets,” said Marakova. “Little stores around the square are selling their local products typically.”
Those products include hand-crafted gifts, ornaments, wines, foods and other holiday items.
About the same time as St. Nicholas Day, Marakova said her family begins the search for a live Christmas tree that is put up in the living room about a week before Christmas. She said a couple of years ago they decorated the tree entirely with wooden ornaments they had purchased at the Christmas Markets.
As the days tick off toward the 24th, trees are decorated and preparations are made for the big Christmas Eve dinner with extended family. When it comes to the celebration of Christmas, it’s actually Christmas Eve that gets the most attention, according to Marakova.
However, she said it’s not an all-day feast as in U.S. because Czechs are getting ready for the big meal in the evening.
Marakova says throughout the day her family essentially fasts, eating “just little things” and “basic food” but no meat or sweets as they save their appetites for the big Christmas Eve meal.
There’s also a bit of superstition tied up in the fasting as well.
“When you will not eat, you will see a golden pig,” said Marakova of the folk belief. She said Czech children are taught that seeing a golden pig will bring good luck over the next year, though she admits she has never seen one.
Another superstition has to do with making boats out of nutshells and fitting them with little candles. The candles are lit and the shells floated in a basin or bowl. What happens to the tiny boats is believed to be a prediction about the coming year.
“If two go off together those two will spend time together next year,” said Marakova. “The one that sinks first will die first.”
While this holiday activity may sound rather grim to Americans, Marakova said it’s “all in fun.”
When dinner hour finally does come around on Christmas Eve, most Czechs don’t sit down to a meal of turkey and dressing.
“The typical Czech Christmas meal is a carp and potato salad,” explained Marakova. “Before Christmas they are selling carps everywhere (live from the tank).”
If they don’t like carp, Marakova said some families will substitute schnitzel for the fish.
It sounds like her favorite part of the meal, however, is the traditional Czech potato salad which she thinks is the best in the world.
“I think when you want to have the best potato salad you need to go to Czech Republic,” she said.
It’s also obvious she’s partial to all the baked goods that appear around Christmastime.
“Czech Republic people are bakers before Christmas,” she said. “We are baking a lot. I think my grandma bakes 20 kinds of Christmas cookies.”
She said there are lots of different varieties of Christmas cookies and the best ones are boxed up and shared with friends.
After Christmas dinner, families may linger around the dinner table or children may go to their rooms to await the arrival of Ježíšek—the Czech version of Christkind or “Little Jesus” who will bring Christmas presents and place them under the tree.
“The fairy tale for the kids is the Baby Jesus is getting us presents,” said Marakova, adding that often children will peek out the window to try and catch a glimpse of him. A small bell rings to let them know he has made his delivery. Before opening their presents, Marakova said her family always sings Christmas carols together.
The final event of the evening for many Czech families is attending midnight church services and singing more carols. Marakova said she sometimes attends with her grandma who is a churchgoer.
Unlike the American celebration of Christmas, it sounds like Dec. 25 in the Czech Republic is kind of an anti-climax, but Marakova said often her family will travel to grandma’s house that day for a second Christmas celebration.
When asked what she thinks celebrating her first Christmas in America with her Custer host family will be like, Marakova said “I think it will be much more crazy!”
“You love Christmas and putting lights on your house and decorating your rooms,” she said, adding that, apart from placing large Christmas trees in the town squares, Czechs don’t decorate as much.
She also said she enjoyed celebrating her first American Thanksgiving with her host family a couple of weeks ago, as there’s no such thing in the Czech Republic.
“It is basically Christmas without presents,” she said. “I do like it because you don’t have stress about presents.”

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