A Carp Being a Core of a Festive Dinner? Czech&Slovak Christmas Traditions
December 24, 2018
What is the Christmas tradition for the Central Europens Czechs and Slovaks?
Our culture keeps "the most wonderful time of the year" traditional.
The celebration of Christmas takes place on the 24th of December, a day that is called The Day of Abundance. That day is a day of a festive feast, but prior to that you can eat only mushroom soup or a plate of cream of wheat in the morning, then you fast till the evening to practice your discipline. If you succeed, there is a promise to see on a sky agolden piglet, that will present itself as a shiny gold reflection on the sky.Parents often reward their children for fasting by having them see "the piglet" (meaning the patch of a bright light in the sky), as they skillfully hide mirror and cast reflection! Children's imagination and natural ability to believe "in things" make them easily see "it"....
The belief in the golden piglet stands for abundance to come, and its golden colors for the extension of the daylight starting 25th of December.
The dinner starts around 6 pm and the delicatessen that is the core of the Christmas feast is quite unlikely especially for Americans: it is a carp! And this is how you get it: about 20th of December you find in the streets of your town large vats filled with carps. Vendors in heavy boots, gloves and large rubber aprons joyfully entice you by screaming — "The best carp from Southern Bohemia for your Christmas table, buy it right here!"
You point at one, the vendor fishes it in a net, you pull out a netted bag and your carp is transferred there. At home you fill a tub and in goes the carp. It will be swimming there for three days in the hope that the muddinness will clear up in the clean water, everyone goes unbathed, the carp becomes a part of the family.
All that fun ends 24th of December in the morning when the father (or someone) kills the carp, cuts into portions and the carp will be typically prepared by one of three recipes: Carp a la Blue (with white wine and vinegar), or Carp a la Black (with gingerbread and chocolate) or, the most popular, fried carp accompannied with potato salad.
A carp is utilized fully: Its head serves as a base for delicious soup, its beautiful rainbow scales are dried out and one is put on the table under each plate to bring prosperity, and one is carried in your valet so you have always as much money as a carp has scales!
The table is beautifully arranged, green twig by each setting, fancy glasses, a basket with apples, oranges, walnuts and a plate with twelve different kinds of delicious elaborate Christmas cookies, each cookie represents one day of the
twelve days of Christmas. (From the birth of Jesus, 12/25 to the day before the Three Kings visit him, 1/5).
Finally the feast may start! Tradition has it that only the cook can get up during the dinner, everyone else must stay seated otherwise you will bring bad luck for the family. The dinner starts with a toast praising the life we have, those who cannot be at the table are mentioned, then a story of Jesus' birth is read, even though majority of the Czechs are non-religious.
Appetizers open the feast ranging from deviled eggs to the ham rolls with horseradish cream or coldcuts accompanied by hearty bread or rolls. The tasty steaming fish soup is next followed by the main course consisting of the carp with potato salad. Everyone is still seated and some traditions follow: An apple is cut in half by the head of the family. If there is a star in it, things will go well, if there is a cross instead of a star, there may be death in the family. Then a walnut is cracked. If it is healthy one, all will be wonderful, but if it is dried out, it is a promise of hard times. Finally a loaf of bread is cut and each person around the table has a tiny piece to show respect for the bread as God's gift and a sign of abundance. Cookies come now and gifts will be next!
It is Baby Jesus who brings gifts to the Czechs and Slovaks. (The same for Hungarians, Austrians, Venezuelans, Colombians and some others.) He brings not only the gifts, but also the tree! So you will not see a tree in a Czech or Slovak house prior to the 24th. It is quite tricky for the parents. How to hide a tree? If possible, one room is locked on the 23rd of December with a pretense that it must be ready for Baby Jesus. Parents decorate the tree at night from 23. to 24., put the presents under, and the room is closed the entire day. After the dinner the family sings carols, and as majority of Czechs and Slovaks play instruments (the gift of an excellent music education!) it is quite a concert!
When the children do not look, someone inconspicuosly rings the bell and it is a signal that Baby Jesus came....The locked doors are opened and here starts all of the beautiful joy of beholding the glorious tree and the presents under it. The joy of giving and accepting starts!
The very mention of a tree in the house comes from Germany from the 16th century, but firts it was only a branch, then a small tree hung above a table upside down and finally it came to our beautifully decorated trees. The very first publicly displayed Christmas tree in Czechoslovakia was done by a director of Estate Theatre, Stavovské divadlo, in 1812.
And the symbolism of a carp? Fish is in Greek ICHTYS but it is also an acronym of Greek sentence Jesus Christ, the Savior, Son of God.
A symbol of fish served for Christians at times when Christianity was not legalized yet, to identify each other as they were persecuted and had to hide their faith. Christianity was legalized in AD 313 by the emperor Constantine, but the symbol of fish, that you can see today at the back of some people's car, is preserved till 21st century. Another symbolism comes from the Matthew's writings — Jesus fed with five loaves of bread and two fish 5,000 hungry people. Jesus is also dubbed a "fisherman of men". Finally, fish was allowed at religious fasting as it is not considered meat, hence many fisheries were established by monasteries and eating fish became a part of religious life style and also, as you can see, is quite symbolic.
Czechs, who are the least religious nation in Europe, perhaps in the world, have one of the most preserved Christmas traditions. Many of us believe in Jesus existence and take him for a philosopher with extraordinary charisma. Perhaps we do not believe in his resurrection but it does not take anything away from our belief in love, peace, kindness, tolerance, loyalty and compassion.
My family lives far from the Czech Republic, and as my parents preserved the tradition the way their parents carried it out, so we do for our children here in faraway San Diego. I am glad we do as it keeps us within our roots that we share with our American born children. They seem to enjoy it tremendously!
Merry merry Christmas, may the beauty of this "wonderful time of the year" last!