The Window Nook

Adventures in living abroad

Czech Christmas Traditions

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GarlandIt’s cold outside, and I’m bundled up in a winter coat, double-wrapped scarf, and red gloves as I stroll through the Christmas market at Namesti Miru. Rows of small booths are lit up with Christmas lights, and a tall Christmas tree stands in the center of the market. The bulk of the St. Ludmila church rises several hundred feet above the market, and the detailed facade is illuminated by the lights of the market. Groups of shoppers linger over grilled sausages, cinnamon pastries, and hot spiced wine, sharing the latest stories and enjoying a few moments of relaxation in the midst of this busy season. Andrew has decided to try a filled apple pastry and hot cider, and I decide on a crepe filled with Nutella. The delicious pastries warm our chilled fingers as we complete the full round of the market, then head back to buy gifts for my family. This gifts will be later wrapped, hauled to the post office, and sent on their way to my family in the States.
Christmas markets are a European tradition¬†that date back hundreds of years. Each city and many villages have their own markets and specialties, and many Christmas decorations are bought here, from the straw stars and angels to the Advent wreaths and even the greenery. Many smaller squares or street corners have stalls selling Christmas trees, smaller pine boughs, and also bunches of mistletoe (a Celtic tradition which survived through the centuries). I was surprised to learned that mistletoe is usually found growing on another tree, much like ivy or other vines. Here’s a further intro if you are interested. We have acquired a small bunch of mistletoe, and hung it carefully out of reach of both cats after one tried to eat it.
December 5 is known as St. Mikulas Day, and a friend of the family often dresses up as Jesus (the Christ Child) and visits the children, handing out gifts. Santa Claus is known here, but the tradition that Jesus brings the gifts, not Santa, is strongly held. Preschool, kindergarten, and primary school classes are often visited by Jesus when December 5 falls on a school day, and small gifts are given out to each child. Jesus is also accompanied by two helpers, an angel and a devil, and the tradition includes the usual idea of rewarding children (or not) according to their recent behavior.
Family time and closeness, as well as looking ahead to the next year, show up in several interesting traditions. During the Christmas Eve meal, family members gather at one house and eat dinner together. The hostess (more accurately from a Czech translation, lady of the house) has a special role in this, as she is the only one allowed to leave the table to bring each course. Gathering everyone together at one table symbolizes a close family, and leaving the table is seen as a prediction of one leaving the family. Similar concepts are found in the tradition of lighting small candles (one for each family member) made of wax poured into half a walnut shell and floated in a large bowl to see whose candle touches another. One student told me an older tradition of melting plumbum to a liquid form, then pouring it into water and using it to foretell the events of the next year.
From the end of November to the beginning of January, many churches host displays of antique and new nativity scenes (know here as betlemy, from Bethlehem). Andrew and I went this past Sunday to one display, and saw nativity scenes made from clay, wood, glass, porcelain, and many other materials. Some displayed the holy family and other characters dressed in traditional costumes, some as having darker skin, one showed a Roma family, and one showed a female Magi. The largest one by far, though, showed a stable near the center with Mary, Joseph, and Christ, surrounded by the panorama of a Czech village, including a church, monastery, farmhouse, windmill, and blacksmith.
I really miss baking banket with my mom and sister, dividing up the tasks of rolling out the dough and spreading the almond filling before rolling it up to bake until golden. I miss planning for Christmas Day together, and decorating the Christmas tree with the ornaments full of memory. Most of all, I wish I could sit on my parents couch and talk with them in person. But I’m glad to find here in Prague many of the traditions that I have grown up with, such as putting candles and straw ornaments on the tree, and marking the Sundays of Advent. Every time I walk past a flower stall on the street, I see a row of Advent wreaths for sale, and my homesickness dims as I am reminded of the many memories I have of celebrating the Sundays of Advent in years past.

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Author: annekemae

Enjoys writing, photography, reading mystery, historical fiction, and travelogues, chocolate in any form, and tulips.

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