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.