Weird Czech Seasonal Traditions; or, Carp in the Bathtub

Unless you’re Czech, you’ll be surprised to find that we Czechs have one of the weirdest sets of Christmas traditions ever. They range from tampering with dangerous chemicals (lead pouring), through animal cruelty (carp in the bathtub), to becoming a Christian for one day (atheists attending the midnight mass).

Preparations for Day C aka Christmas Day start with attending a local fair. Here, one gets drunk on mulled wine and mead in plastic cups, eats lángos and crepes with frozen fingers (the fingers are not eaten, but eaten with) and, above all, gets oneself a carp. Now, carp is not slang for a hangover, but the kind of fish that is served with potato salad as the traditional Christmas Eve dish. The catch is that the carp should be obtained live and kept as a pet for a few days, usually in the bathtub (jokes aside, we seriously do this). On the Christmas Morn, the man slays the carp with a mallet for the woman to cook. Alternately, the children take the carp to release it in a river or pond, where it probably dies of thermal shock, while the family dines on fish fingers.

Below is a clip from a classic Czech film, Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, 1999), showing a drunken bet of two brothers competing who can hold his breath longer – and using a bathtub with a carp swimming around in it.

The Christmas Day itself is associated with a number of curious and often apparently pointless rituals. One should starve until the dinner in order to see a golden pig (again, serious). The tradition does not mention what the point of hallucinating a golden pig is. Provided that you observe another Christmas tradition, lead pouring, you could however incur lead poisoning and easily see all kinds of animals as a result. As I never practised lead pouring, I can only speculate that one procures lead on the dark net in order to melt it, pour it in cold water and then guess what shape it is when the lead solidifies. It is not known what this potentially Freudian ritual is intended for, besides revealing one’s dark desires and blaming it on the lead.

Numerous traditions are connected to young girls, whose chief wish for Christmas was supposed to be to secure a husband. An unmarried girl could throw shoes on the Christmas Day, which is different from throwing tantrums in that if the thrown shoe pointed to the door, the girl could hope to be married within a year. It is advisable to remove pets and family members from the door area before attempting the throw and, as a safety precaution, to throw slippers rather than stilettoes. Village girls could also go out in the fields, holler magic formulas and wait from which direction the first dog responds. The girl would be married in that direction (not to that dog, presumably).

A short clip from Cosy Dens again, showing the most popular seasonal tradition: booze.

Many rituals are designed to find out whether a person will live or die anytime soon. An apple would be sliced into halves for each family member, and when the apple seeds formed a star, the person would live, but when a cross showed, the person was as good as dead. This can be rather easily cheated by using good-looking, healthy apples for the slicing. Also, what a waste of a good apple, because who would eat apples where there’s fried fish and baked sweets.

The same slicing could be done to walnuts as well, and the shells would then be equipped with a lit candle for a sail and floated in the basin. For those who are not crafty, like me, floating candles do the same service. When the nut ship stays at the edge, its owner will stay at home; when the ship sails to the middle, the person will become an immigrant. Sadly, the tradition doesn’t specify what happens to the person whose ships sinks in the harbour, as is usually my case.

For the Christmas dinner, a scale or two from the carp are put under the plate to ensure that money will stick to the eater as scales stick to the carp and that there will be as much of it. The dinner itself is a quick business since after the dinner, there come the presents. The father rings a bell, which means that the present planting is done with, and everyone lays siege to the Christmas tree. Presents are distributed by Baby Jesus Schrödinger-style. The baby, just delivered, simultaneously lies in its crib in the nativity scene and tours Eastern Europe, of all places, to forward its own unwanted gifts (now I’m fabricating a little, but Baby Jesus does deliver presents here).

Below is a YouTube for the classic Czech version of Cinderella (Popelka, 1973) with English subtitles.

Once the presents are unwrapped, the telly goes on with the obligatory Cinderella shown on multiple channels. After that, the nice things are over and it’s time for serious business. All mobile family members gather to take a stroll at the cemetery, lighting candles for their deceased. Cemeteries on Christmas Eve are real fire hazard. Finally, the Czechs, statistically proven to be the least religious nation in Europe, attend the Catholic midnight mass. The phenomenon of church attendance at Christmas remains a mystery of faith. However, faithful to the stats ranking the Czech Republic as the topmost country in the world in the consumption of beer per capita, after all the freezing at the cemetery and the church, we go home, grab a bottle and go to bed.

40 thoughts on “Weird Czech Seasonal Traditions; or, Carp in the Bathtub

  1. You win! Yours is THE. MOST. UNUSUAL set of traditions I’ve read yet! From bathing carp to baby Jesus delivering presents, to late night visits to the cemetery to light candles. What a bonanza for story fodder!
    Mine are starting to feel rather dull and tame in comparison.

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    1. Ha 😀 I’m glad that we agree that my nation is the weirdest 😉 I think it was you who said that the Bah Humbug people had the best Christmas stories, so this inspired me to write something Christmas-y. It’s good to have “dull” traditions, I think, Christmas is supposed to be about peace, not about night trips to the candle-lit cemetery crowded with people who all look like zombies in the light…

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        1. Haha… Well, you introduce the cemetery trip at your home and claim it to be an ordinary European tradition (which it actually is), nothing weird about that 😀

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          1. It is an interesting idea … although we would have to ‘borrow’ some deceased to light candles for since neither my husband or I are from here
            IF we were going to do it, this would be the year since it is so mild outside 🙂

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  2. My goodness! I thought us Finns were weird. We, well not us here in Aussieland, do the candle thing at the cemetery too. Lead pouring is saved for New Year’s eve. The molten lead (bought at a hardware store in a solid state, lol) is poured into a bucket of cold water. It is then held against a light so the shadows it casts can be used as a way of divining the future year. The fortune telling of course lies in the skill of the person interpreting the shadows 🙂

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    1. Finnish traditions are ones that not much is known about either, and it’s a shame. I enjoyed your comment telling me more about your traditions! It’s interesting to see what’s the same. And thanks for pointing me to the hardware store for lead, I genuinely wouldn’t know where to get it! I thought the sale of lead is somehow regulated, since it’s poisonous…

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  3. Love this Mara. I’ve never heard of many of these traditions but I love that you have them, it makes for such an interesting (and yes, weird) season. LOL love it.

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    1. Thank you for reading, Desley! I believe some Australian traditions would strike me as odd too, except, of course, traditions of a small country like the Czech Republic are little known, so they come across as exotic, while no one wonders at Australian Christmas in summer because everyone already knows 😀

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      1. Yes it’s diabolically hot here. It’s 9pm here and 28 degrees Celsius with 72% humidity. We had prawns for lunch today but tomorrow is just as hot but with the traditional English roasts, plum puddings… Crazy but it’s what we do. Have a lovely Christmas Mara dear.

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        1. That’s one hot Christmas! I’d love to have a Christmas in bikini one time for a change. The Christmas Day here was quite windy and very foggy. Not Christmasy at all! Enjoy your holiday 🙂

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  4. Thanks for sharing your national traditions. It made for a fascinating read. They appear to be bonkers traditions but then I’m sure the traditions I consider humdrum and normal might strike others as odd too. But yours really are very odd. 😀

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    1. Thanks a lot for reading! I was thinking it might be an interesting post to share 😉 I even consider some of my own traditions weird – I don’t get it with the carp, for example, I certainly wouldn’t want to have a fish in my bathtub and there are no suggestions as to where you bathe while the carp is occupying your tub 😮 Now, British and American traditions are quite well-known, but it could be interesting to hear some more about details that are perhaps less well-known or regional. Post idea, perhaps? 😉

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      1. I would feel sorry for the carp having to share a bath tub with my kids.

        I think probably our Christmas traditions are too well known to be considered weird. Of course, Burns’ Night traditions are a whole other matter.

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  5. Haha,never knew about these traditions,and it’s always a pleasure to read about the Czech culture!!
    Did your family do this when you were a kid as well?

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    1. Hello, Kainzow, great to see you around! Hope you’re having a relaxing holiday. Yes, my family observed many of the traditions I described, except for the carp because my mother is irrationally afraid of fish. We would have just fillets or fish fingers instead of carp. Now, I’m intrigued about what your seasonal traditions might be, I’m sure they’re wildly different and interesting!

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      1. So sorry for the late reply!!
        I’ve started an internship last Monday,and it’ll go on until the next Friday, which is also my last day in Mauritius, haha. I also have to apply for industrial placements for my course, so I was ultra busy!!

        We don’t really have superstition linked to festivities.However some Mauritians are extremely superstitious in general, even though this is changing now with the youth. For instance, if you went to a funeral, you have to throw some water behind your back before getting in your house backwards (yes!). Or if you had to take a leak outside, before entering your house or car, you have to spit thrice. Or if you have two hair whorls, then you’re going to be married twice. And if somebody, while sweeping, let the broom go on your feet, then you’re supposedly going to live far from home after you get married.

        Haha…that’s crazy, I know!!

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        1. It’s so great to hear that you’re busy and productive 🙂 I wish you the best of luck with finding a suitable position.

          I haven’t heard of the superstitions that you describe, and they’re fascinating! We have crazy superstitions too, but a different kind, and most people know about them but don’t act on them. We have another version of the broom superstition: if a woman lets the broom go on her feet, she’ll remain a spinster…

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      1. I know! I love the thought that Europe is nearly the same size as the US but it’s just PACKED with so many different cultures and customs… I mean – we sit on the train for 4h and get out and it’s a wild loud messy place (Milan!), and it’s just 4h!!! Or even less than 2h over the northern boarder and people are so different… I absolutely love living in Europe ❤

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  6. Wow. That’s really informative.

    I never knew all of this and yes you are right, it does sound like Czech have the strangest traditions ever.

    BTW, what was all that about Baby Jesus? Somewhere in the middle paras

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