It is all about Carp! Czech Christmas in Charming San Diego
What to expect if you are invited for a Czech Christmas, your personal guide written just for you!
Let the celebration begin! So much to do, so much to expect, so much to enjoy!
It is December 24th, The Day of Abundance (Štědrý den), and our family is sleeping in as the day will go to wee hours! Sweet dreams are interrupted by whoever wakes up first and bursts into singing at the top of their lungs an old carol: Christmas tree wake up and get ready for this big day!
And the household is roused up quickly and here we are all smiley at the breakfast table. And it is not a fancy breakfast! The tradition calls for the last day of fasting allowing only cream of wheat (I never learned to like it!!!) or thick mushroom soup. We do not practice all of 40 prescribed days of modest and meatless diet, we are disciplined only on this special day... If you succeed not to steal a bite of any delicacy, you may see a golden piglet in the sky. We used to reward our children for fasting by having them see "the piglet" by a skillfully hidden mirror that casted reflection. 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. And with children's imagination and a little help from parents, they always clearly saw one and see till today! :)
Then the day continues with prepping the food while Czech carols are playing loud from the stereo, and then, dressed in Christmassy outfits with obligatory Christmas hats, we drive around our neighborhood giving away plates of our traditional cookies to our friends. This year we gave away twenty two of them!
At two in the afternoon, we venture on our solely American tradition of the last twelve years: We board a small commercial boat to sightsee in our bay! The captain with his attractive baritone voice (we seem to get the same captain all of these years!!!!) narrates stories about the history of San Diego and about various sites we are passing on the way. We absolutely love it! Many photos are taken to capture the charm of sunshine bathed surroundings, wind in our hair, and smile on everyone's face: Christmas is already merry!
Back home, our living room has all the candles lit, carols are still playing, the table is festively decorated and dinner is almost ready! The delicacy that is being prepared, the core of the Christmas Czech feast, is quite unlikely, especially for Americans: it is a carp! What, the bottom-feeder fish? Yes, and boy, isn't it delish!!! Czechs have been eating and breeding carps since 13. century, with giant carp fisheries established in 1500's in charming Southern Bohemia. These very same historical fisheries are producing about 30,000 tons carp a year! And this is how you get it in my old country: about 20th of December you find in the streets of your town or village large vats filled with greatly looking and breeded carps. Jolly vendors in heavy boots, gloves and large rubber aprons entice you by chanting — "The best carp from Southern Bohemia for your Christmas table, buy it right here!"
You look into the vat, point at one, the vendor fishes it in a net, you pull out a netted bag and that carp is yours! At home you fill the tub and in goes the carp. It will be swimming there for three days in hopes that the muddiness will clear up in the clean water, everyone goes unbathed, the carp becomes a part of the family.
And for animal loving Americans this must be such a strange and horrifying custom as the 24th of December in the morning the carp is taken from the tub and prepared for dinner...
We did manage to find a carp here at times, but I have to say, it is a far cry from those delicious ones back home! But we do not complain and find a suitable fish and prepare it in one of three typical Czech 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 (that recipe came from Austria to Bohemia) accompanied with potato salad.
And why carp you may ask? There are several reasons: Fish was allowed on the table during the religious Advent fasting (to exercise discipline and to refocus on spiritual matters) as it is not considered "meat". That is why many fisheries were established by monasteries, and eating fish became a part of religious lifestyle . Another reason is the word "fish" as a symbolism: fish in Greek is ICHTYS, BUT it is also an acronym of Greek sentence Jesus Christ, the Savior, Son of God.
Thus fish became a symbol for Christians when Christianity was not legalized yet, prior AD 313 when Emperor Constantin made Christianity legal. The Christian symbol of fish , that you can see today at the back of some people's cars, is preserved till the 21st century. Another symbolism of fish for Christians comes from the Matthew's writings — Jesus fed with five loaves of bread and two fish five thousands hungry people; also, Jesus is dubbed a "fisherman of men"...All of these reasons make fish a perfect meal prior the nativity as it abounds with many meanings.
But back to our dinner and carp preparation!
The fish is used to the potential! Its head serves as a base for delicious soup, its rainbow scales are dried out and one is put on the table under each of our plates to bring prosperity, and one scale is carried in each of our valet so you have always as much money as a carp has scales!
Finally!! The feast may start! We toast first to the blessings of life, then we read a story of Jesus' birth from Lukas' Evangelium. We are not a religious family, but we love to read Bible stories, just like our parents read it to us. We try to live as much as we can by all the wonderful advice Jesus, the man, offered!
Finally, food!! We are famished! Here they are those delish deviled eggs and the ham rolls with fresh horseradish bathed in whipped cream with a dash of salt, drops of vinegar, and agave, yum and yum! And that hearty Czech bread goes so well with it! The tasty steaming fish soup is next followed by the main course consisting of the mentioned carp with famous Czech ala Mělník (my husband's hometown) potato salad. Oh so very delicious! I love LOVE carp and if I miss one food from my country, it is a nice chunk of a Souther Bohemian carp!!
After dinner an apple is cut in half by the head of the family. If the cut apple shows star in the middle, things will go well, if there
is a cross instead of a star, there may be some dark moments next year in the family. Then a walnut is cracked. If it is a healthy one, all will be wonderful, but if it is dried out, it is a promise of hard times. Last comes a loaf of bread, a slice 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. And now the cookies!! Yum, which to choose first from the traditional 12 kinds for 12 days of Christmas? A small cute beehive or a "nut" with caramel filling or vanilla mini-rolls or Linz cookie with raspberry preserve...? We begin baking on the first weekend in December! Each cookie goes through our hands many times: Dough to make, shapes to cut or molds to fill (I have about 100 cutters and molds!), then baking, filling, covering with chocolate, decorating...I love to give them away, but I would never sell it! It would have to be a million per pound! :)
And what now? Caroling! A piano, saxes, recorder, and guitars are ready, sheet music on the first page and here we go, one Czech carol after the other, we play away.... and finally the time is here! Baby Jesus is coming!!!! Who is Baby Jesus, anyway? Hurry to get a glimpse of him!
It is a Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) who brings gifts to the Czechs. Several other nations as Slovakians. Hungarians, Austrians, Venezuelans, Colombians have also Baby Jesus a center character for Christmas. He also brings the tree! Imagine the hustle for parents!! What to do, where to hide a decorated tree? When our children were small, we decorated the tree at night from 23. to 24. and the room was locked the entire day. We told our children that Baby Jesus cannot be disturbed as his angels may come earlier to help him set up the room. How many times our children pressed their ears to the locked door and they came with widened eyes to tell us that they heard the angels getting the room ready!
And this is what happens next: during the caroling someone inconspicuously rings the bell —my husband devised various plans on how to ring our bell without going anywhere, like a fine rope leading from his pocket to the bell through a crack of open window, etc. The bell is a signal that Baby Jesus came....The locked doors are opened and...wow and wow and WOW! A lit Christmas tree with a pile of gifts under it!!
Screams and wows have not changed with age of my children, only the joy of accepting the gifts is now coupled with the joy of our children also giving them. How precious each stage of children's age is!
Our gift exchange is quite grand. We do not shower our children with gifts during the year, but we shower each other with gifts for Christmas. From tiny tiny one to one major gift, each of us gets about twenty five packages! We have the music on, goodies and wine close by, each person opens while others observe and we take turns, trying new things on right there and then making fashion shows, assembling gifts and just going on and on till wee hours...this year till 4 AM! The large gift is usually cleverly hidden somewhere, like a bike under the covers in a bed :)
And so without doubt, Christmas Eve is the most precious day of the year, full of warmth, love, happiness, dancing, singing and so much fun! And for a Czech tradition, December 24th and 25th is strictly family. You do not have anyone over and you do not visit anyone. That is saved for St. Stephen's Day, on December 26th, a day of visits and joyful gatherings!
And so Czechs, who are the least religious nation in Europe, have well preserved Christmas in Christian traditions. Many of us believe in Jesus' existence and take him for an inspiring philosopher with extraordinary charisma, kindness, goodwill and vision. 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 that he preached.
My family lives far from the Czech Republic yet as my parents preserved the Czech Christmas tradition the way their parents carried it out, so we do for our children here on the west coast of America, in the beautiful seaside town 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 take the tradition as much theirs as it is ours. And it is the most precious Christmas gift for my husband and I.
And what do we do to honor American tradition? When Adelka, our daughter, was six, she told us that Baby Jesus and Santa are brothers. We loved this cute philosophy and decided to have both brothers visit our house. We hang a stocking for each of the children by our doorway and Santa puts a small gift in it starting 25th late at night and he does every night till the 1st of January. The screams of joy at finding a tiny gift in the stocking every morning is as loud as it was years ago even though our children are grown. It may be just a game now, but done in a great kind pretense to set our house into fun festive mood. Sometimes, a well meant pretense into believing unbelievable is simply full of joyful wonders for all involved. And that is how I like it..
Merry, happy, magical New Year, may kindness, goodwill, peace, love and the beauty of this "the most wonderful time of the year" lasts!