'Two different Christmases, two different cultures': Expats reveal their Czech holiday traditions

Czechs partake in a wide variety of Christmas habits and traditions – readers reveal which habits they've adopted.

Expats.cz Staff

Written by Expats.cz Staff Published on 23.12.2022 17:18:00 (updated on 17.01.2023) Reading time: 4 minutes

Christmas is upon us, and we asked you how you plan to celebrate this special time of year. From carp to golden pigs, Czechia has a number of Christmas customs – some of which you said you'd take part in during this festive period while others you said you'd skip.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

A difference of taste at the table

Carp, which is almost always accompanied by potato salad and bread, became a popular Czech Christmas dish in the 19th century. The abundance of carp and freshwater fish production in Czechia is thought to be a reason, as is the Christian faith during a time when religion played a stronger role in the country (the Advent fast).

Not everyone sticks to the carp-eating custom, however. Many Czechs and foreigners both prefer veal or pork schnitzel rather than carp. A 2021 survey found that 40 percent of foreigners living in Czechia found carp 'disgusting'. Six in 10 thought also felt that carp soup did not taste nice.

Fried schnitzel with potato salad is a Czech classic
Fried schnitzel with potato salad is a Czech classic that many choose over carp.

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Our poll results reflect a similar attitude toward this fishy festive favorite. Reader Paul D. says that he eats “chicken and pork.” While another responder mentioned that he and his family enjoy turkey and smoked salmon for dinner, instead of carp.

However many of you told us that you've adopted this tradition. Reader Lee D. mentioned that he “eats fish soup” with “fried carp and potato salad,” as did Gabriella who mentioned that she spends time with her family eating carp.

Christmas cookies are universally beloved

Making Christmas cookies is very popular in the Czech Republic and is deeply rooted in the culture. Known as cukroví, multiple types are made to be served as a dessert for Christmas dinner. One type – podvodnice – is unique, as they rise in water rather than in an oven.

Christmas cookies
Christmas cookies

Other popular and delicious types are crispy, hollow cookies (křehulky), gingerbread cookies (perníčky), and intricately shaped beehive Christmas cookies (vosí hnízda). 

Reader Lee shared his unique Christmas cookie tradition with us which speaks to the Czech love of baking during the holiday season:

"During the first weekend of December [my Czech partner's] friends come to our place to make cookies. Everybody is so busy during the year that this period of time is reserved for catching up with all the news that happened since the last time they met. I am sent to the movies but when I return, I am the official taste tester. Between the five ladies, 15 different styles of cookies are produced."

Sitting down with the good book

Surprisingly, one respondent mentioned reading the Bible – despite being a largely atheist country, some Czechs use the festive season as a period of reflection and prayer. Midnight and daytime masses will run on Dec. 24 in Prague, which people tend to visit as a matter of custom rather than religion. The Czech Christmas mass is a pastoral mass written by the Czech composer Jakub Jan Ryba in 1796.

Double the holiday fun

Christmas Eve is seen as the “main” day of Christmas, featuring not only a hearty dinner but a gift exchange. These tend to be opened on the evening of Dec. 24, with Czech tradition dictating that Ježíšek (“Baby Jesus”) delivers the presents on Christmas Eve every year. Some of our readers said that they are lucky enough to be able to enjoy twice the Christmas cheer.

Christmas presents for the Krabice od bot drive. Photo: Facebook / Město Hustopeče

Kristen D. said: "My Czech boyfriend and I (I'm American) plan to have a traditional Czech Christmas dinner (carp, potato salad, cookies, and all the traditions that come with Christmas here) a few days before Christmas with his family and then we are flying to the U.S. to have Christmas with my family. We get to have two different Christmases from two different cultures."

Lee D.'s experience paralleled that of Kristen D., mentioning that his tradition involves gifts, food, and festive film-watching across the three days of Christmas.

Just getting away

Some expats, understandably, will want to return to their homeland during Christmas. Like Kristen D., another responder said that they'd be heading to North America for one very simple reason: "Returning to USA/Canada for SNOW!!"

Hungarian Instagram user rebali94 detailed her Christmas in Hungary as quite similar to Czech Christmas:

"I leave the country for Christmas since my family lives in Hungary, so I am not forcing my traditions on anyone. Yet, our traditions are pretty much similar, except for the carp. We used to eat fish soup made of carp before but nowadays we prefer eating turkey and salmon. We have a special cookie called bejgli but we also bake gingerbread and other cakes.

And what about gifts? "[In Hungary] presents are brought by Jézuska."

Czech Christmas traditions for beginners

  • Legend says that people who fast all day on Christmas Eve will see a golden pig in the evening.
  • Tiny candles are placed in walnut shells and left to float in a small basin. Each family member makes their own small boat; those that float away from the pack indicate, depressingly, familial separation or bad luck.
  • Keeping the scale of an eaten carp in one’s wallet assures good financial health for the next year.
  • An apple is sometimes cut lengthwise: if a star-shaped figure appears in the middle, it predicts good health and happiness. However, a cross-like shape signals bad luck for the coming year.
  • Some Czechs also hang up the mistletoe and kiss under it on Christmas Eve, which is meant to bring luck, happiness, and love for the coming year.
  • Czech women can throw a shoe over their shoulder near a doorway: if the shoe lands pointing toward the door, marriage is on the cards in the next 12 months. She is set to stay single if the shoe points away from the door.

No matter how you celebrate, Expats.cz wishes you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy New Year!

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